What Does It Even Mean For A College Quarterback To Be Clutch?

Clutch, as a concept, is a slippery and subjective ideal under the best of circumstances. College football is not the best of circumstances. But there are still some answers to find, here, if we look.
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In college football, maybe more than in any other sport, “clutch” is a slippery, dual-threat kind of word which ultimately jukes all those who try to define it. We think we know it when we see it, but thinking we see it is the bigger part of the problem—there are too many variables, too much bias, and, in college football, it is all balanced on college kids, some of the most profoundly irrational and volatile humans on earth. Of course, the same can be said of college football fans. We’re still going to look.

So let’s look. Probably the most obvious opposite of clutch is a subpar performance in the fourth quarter of a loss. Basing an assessment on this is usually unfair—again, any such hunt for clutch is likely to be—but a quarterback who fails to complete a few timely passes in crunch time or turns the ball over will inevitably wind up with the anti-clutch label. Through much of the first half of this college football season, Arkansas’ Brandon Allen has been a prime example.

By many metrics, the senior from Fayetteville is having a very solid season. Allen is completing 62% of his passes for 256 yards a game as Arkansas (2-4) enters a home game Saturday against Auburn (4-2) as a 5.5 point favorite. Allen ranks near the top of most SEC passing categories. Plus, he’s the fifth-best first-half Power 5 passer in the nation:


Name

School

Conference

 1st Half QB Rating

Treon Harris

Florida

SEC

237.22

Seth Russell

Baylor

Big 12

214.19

Trevone Boykin

TCU

Big 12

188.75

Cody Kessler

USC

Pac 12

182.31

Brandon Allen

Arkansas

SEC

179.84

But in close games, dating back more than two seasons now, Allen’s hot starts have tended to come with cold finishes. In 2013, his QB rating dropped about 50 points on average from the first half to the fourth quarter. Last year it was at that level again—the worst drop off in the nation:


Name

Team

Conf.

1st Half Rating

3rd Qter Rating

4th Qter Rating

OT Rating

Diff b/t 3rd & 4th qters

Diff b/t 1st Half & 4th qter

Brandon Allen

Arkansas

SEC

137.96

151.91

86.56

167.2

-65.35

-51.4

Brad Kaaya

Miami (Fl)

ACC

158.64

152.71

107.36

0

-45.35

-51.28

Chad Voytik

Pittsburgh

ACC

152.16

143.04

112.61

0

-30.43

-39.55

Travis Wilson

Utah

Pac 12

138.85

140.44

99.52

217.31

-40.92

-39.33

Kevin Hogan

Stanford

Pac 12

158.47

125.8

119.86

213.07

-5.94

-38.61

Allen’s inefficiency down the stretch has impacted his teammates, and visa versa. The offense on the whole was top 10 per the advanced statistics-driven first-half punch, but staggered in at 82nd in fourth-quarter production. You will likely not be surprised to learn Arkansas lost all four of its close games in 2014. Still, the team finished strong and the good vibes were supposed to carry over into this season. For the most part, they have not.

Arkansas recently lost three games in a row, and on October 10 was stifled by Alabama in a 27-14 loss. The reshuffled offensive line was slow to click, and injuries to the team’s all-SEC running back and top wide receivers haven’t helped. In losses against Toledo, Texas Tech and Texas A&M, the Hogs regularly stymied their own offensive momentum with ill-timed penalties in the second half. The defense has tightened in recent games but its backfield breakdowns led to back-breaking long touchdowns passes in the second half of Texas A&M and Alabama. The struggles have been a team effort.

Still, at the end of each of this year’s four losses, Allen missed important throws. In a win against Tennessee, his solid work as a game manager down the stretch seemed to owe more to the offensive line and running backs for pounding out the clock. “I’m shocked that Brandon's having a difficult year getting the ball to the people that are open when they're open,” Fox Sports’ Tim Brando told Sports Talk with Bo Mattingly a few weeks ago. “He's still late getting the passes to the receivers when they need to be there. I thought he would be ahead of schedule.”

He’s not, and until two weeks ago the fifth-year senior was again worst in the nation among starting quarterbacks in terms of first half-to-fourth quarter rating dropoff. Since then, a subpar first half against Alabama helped narrow the gap so that Allen now ranks No. 7 in this category:


Name

School

Conference

1st Half QB Rating

3rd Qter Rating

4th qter Rating

Overtime Rating

Diff b/t 3rd & 4th qters

Diff b/t 1st Half and 4th quarter

Treon Harris

Florida

SEC

237.22

106.55

122.31

0

-15.76

-114.91

John Wolford

Wk Forest

ACC

146.45

152.98

64.02

0

88.96

-82.43

Jared Goff

California

Pac 12

165.55

207.38

85.52

0

121.86

-80.03

Jacoby Brissett

NC State

ACC

172.5

122.54

94.16

0

28.38

-78.34

Cody Kessler

USC

Pac 12

182.31

184.9

112.84

0

72.06

-69.47

Sam Richardson

Iowa State

Big 12

151.67

155.48

82.94

41.8

72.54

-68.73

Brandon Allen

Arkansas

SEC

179.84

129.58

111.32

47.33

18.26

-68.52

This is where narratives come from, but if the perception of Allen’s issues at the end of games isn’t totally unfair, it also lacks context.

Allen, for instance, hardly attempted a pass in the fourth quarter in a 28-21 overtime loss to Texas A&M as the coaches called mostly running plays. The pieces around Allen haven’t been consistent either. If TE Hunter Henry not been called a holding penalty at the one-yard line in the fourth quarter against Toledo, Arkansas would have likely scored a touchdown and won. Just like that, Arkansas would now be 3-3, with hopes of a prestige bowl still intact and far fewer fans would be questioning Allen’s clutch bona fides. If a team wins, a starting quarterback’s shaky end-game performances seem to matter that much less.

Context is also vital when looking at the college football quarterbacks who would be King of Clutch. On the surface, Arizona’s Anu Solomon appears God-like in the fourth quarter, where this season he’s led his team to five wins and has racked up an obscenely good 336.6 rating, a full 114 points better than runner-up Trevone Boykin of TCU. Yet a concussion also happened to knock Solomon out of the fourth quarter of Arizona’s two hardest games so far in blowout losses to UCLA and Stanford. Until Solomon’s stats incorporate performances against significantly more Power 5 defenses than Colorado’s and Oregon State’s, any coronation should be delayed.

“Clutch” may be largely undefinable, but that hasn’t stopped ESPN from trying to will it into their proprietary Total Quarterback Rating statistics secret sauce. That stat is predictably imperfect but better than the sclerotic QB Rating - which has its origins in the late 1960s - in gauging quarterback performance, and how that performance affects winning. Total QBR takes into account factors like rushing yards, fumbles, and whether a dropped pass is a wide receiver’s fault or not.

It also includes a “clutch” factor which takes into account field position and how close the game appears to be a specific point in time. “Down four points with three seconds to go and facing third-and-goal from the 3-yard line—that is a high-pressure and high-clutch index situation because the play can realistically raise the odds of winning to almost 100 percent or bring them down from about 40 percent to almost zero percent,” advanced stats sensei Dean Oliver wrote.

The NFL quarterbacks who consistently perform better in these kinds of circumstances are the ones we know as “winners.” Joe Montana and John Elway and Aaron Rodgers—whom Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya considers “the definition of clutch”—become perceived as crunch-time performers who elevate their play at the end of games, in part because they actually do this and in part because of all the other complicated and selective reasons that such players wind up with this sort of rep.

The QBR and its clutch metrics are less helpful in grading college quarterbacks than their pro counterparts. For one, data is drawn from a significantly larger sample size, as NFL seasons are longer and because most starting college quarterbacks don’t play heavy minutes for more than three seasons. More important, though, is the fact NFL teams play on a more level field in terms of talent. Every team in the NFL has a raft of talented players, and every NFL quarterback throws to NFL-grade receivers.

This is not so in college, where the talent levels of teams can wildly fluctuate along conference and divisional lines. This makes apple to apple comparisons of certain “clutch” attributes more difficult. Braxton Miller led the nation in game-winning touchdown drives heading into 2014, which is impressive. But he also had the benefit of playing alongside plenty of blue-chip teammates, and against defenses that were on balance weaker than SEC teams’ in that three-year period. Everything, for better or worse, is more variable in college football.

An individualized “strength of schedule”-type metric that adds fuller context to these quarterback ratings doesn’t exist yet. Creating it, and then adding it to an improved QB rating, would be a good starting point on the topic of how college quarterbacks finish. Until then, we’ll keep on having the same old arguments. Afterwards, too.


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