It’s tempting to suggest the 2015 Boise State football team can ride its talented, deep defense while introducing a new, inexperienced quarterback.
After all, defense is supposed to win championships.
But today’s college football defies the cliché.
Quarterback play trumps all, leaving the Broncos’ hopes for another storybook season hinging on the play of whoever wins the job after fall camp opens Thursday. Sophomore Ryan Finley, last year’s backup, is the front-runner.
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San Diego State coach Rocky Long, who has built his career as a defensive mastermind, says there’s “no doubt” quarterbacks play a larger role in deciding championship teams than defense.
“(Offenses) have been innovative,” Long said. “They’ve decided to spread you from sideline to sideline. They’re making defensive players make plays in open-field situations, one-on-one, that are much more difficult than swarm tackling. So offenses have done a great job of making it much more difficult on a defense, but it all depends on the quarterback being able to execute. The rules have made it real hard on the defense. All the rules that have been made over the last 10 or 12 years have been to help the offense — help the offense be more effective and score more points.
“Now we’re back to, ‘How do you score more points?’ You have a great quarterback who can execute the offense.”
Recent results suggest Long is right.
In the past five Football Bowl Subdivision seasons, the top 10 teams in pass efficiency have won 80.9 percent of their games. The top 10 teams in scoring defense have won 75.9.
More strikingly, 38 of the 50 elite passing teams (76 percent) won at least 10 games. Only 28 of the elite defensive teams (56 percent) hit that mark.
Last year, three of the four College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked in the top 10 in pass efficiency (No. 1 Oregon, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 10 Alabama). Only one ranked in the top 25 in defense (No. 6 Alabama). Ohio State won the title with one of the most remarkable seasons of quarterback play in college football history, losing two stars along the way.
In 2013, 11 of the top 12 passing teams won at least 10 games. National champion Florida State ranked first in pass efficiency and scoring defense but was carried by the nation’s best quarterback, Jameis Winston.
Even Alabama, known for its ferocious defense, ranked first in pass efficiency when it won the national title in 2012. The 2011 Crimson Tide were the last champions not to finish first or second in pass efficiency, landing at No. 35. They were first in defense.
In the Mountain West, the past two champions have ranked fifth (Boise State in 2014) and fourth (Fresno State) in the conference in scoring defense. But each benefited from fantastic quarterback play.
Coaches at Mountain West media days this week were hesitant to echo Long’s quarterback comments because of their long-held belief in defense.
Hawaii coach Norm Chow, for example, was asked what his program needs to turn the corner. The Warriors went 4-9 last year with a defense that allowed the same number of points per game as Boise State’s. The Broncos went 12-2.
“Get a quarterback in there, get him going and get him playing well,” said Chow, whose team was 119th in pass efficiency. “Football is quarterback-driven, we all know that — from Pop Warner to the National Football League.”
Still, he insisted defense wins. His No. 1 item on the game plan every week is “play great defense.”
“I don’t think that ever changes,” Chow said.
Boise State may test that theory this year.
The Broncos return eight starters on defense, including four preseason All-Mountain West picks. They add three senior defensive linemen and one senior defensive back who were out last year, and a safety who began his career at Texas A&M.
The quarterback position, though, hasn’t been this much of a mystery since Kellen Moore won the job in 2008. The Broncos went undefeated during the regular season that year with a defense that ranked No. 3 in scoring. But Moore was outstanding, too. The Broncos finished 11th in pass efficiency.
“I’m a defensive guy. I’m going to say great defense is most important,” Boise State senior safety Darian Thompson said. “If you have a great defense and you have a tackle playing quarterback, you probably won’t be doing so well either. They go hand in hand.
“I think we’re going to have both.”
They likely will need both.
Since 2000, Boise State has won eight outright conference championships. The lowest the Broncos have ranked in pass efficiency in those years is 13th last year, when Grant Hedrick started poorly but played impeccably during the nine-game win streak to end the year.
Only once during that time have the Broncos paired a dominant defense with an average passing attack — in 2012, when they ranked eighth in defense and 38th in passing. That team finished 11-2 and won a share of the Mountain West title.
Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said he still considers defense the top factor in winning, but it must be combined with strong quarterback play.
“He doesn’t have to be great or all-league necessarily,” Harsin said, “but he has to play well.”
Utah State is the Mountain West’s poster child for winning with defense. The Aggies have lost starting quarterback Chuckie Keeton to injury each of the past two years. They won the Mountain Division in 2013 and 10 games in 2014 with defenses that finished in the top 12 nationally and passing attacks ranked outside the top 40.
But neither of those teams were able to win the conference.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter, who won the Mountain West title in 2013 with Oakland Raiders starter Derek Carr, is another defensive coach who sees the pendulum swinging toward quarterback play as the deciding factor.
“It’s really hard to win if you don’t have a quarterback,” he said. “I just know for some reason we found it a lot easier to win with Derek than we did last year.”