University of Kansas

Les Miles’ most likely path to success with Kansas football? Break this recent curse

The most frequent question I get asked this time of year when it comes to Kansas football is this: Over or under 3 1/2 wins?

Part of this is just folks looking to add to their bank accounts. But, at its base, the fundamental part of the question is asking if new coach Les Miles will be able to overachieve this season.

It’s tough to answer because there’s so much we don’t know at this point. KU will have roster changes in the next few months and also injuries, while much of the season’s success also will be determined by how good KU’s opponents turn out to be.

When thinking about this, though, I can’t help but look at one factor above all else when it comes to Miles:

Can he be the one who breaks KU’s quarterback curse?

A league of their own

Peyton Bender’s 2018 season perhaps can best be described as “fine.”

The KU quarterback, as a senior, threw for 1,894 yards with 13 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. His 5.9 yards per pass attempt was worst among Big 12 starting quarterbacks, while he also appeared indecisive at times, leading to some unnecessary sacks.

Bender was benched briefly for a lack of production but still played in 11 of 12 games, finishing the season with a 39.7 in ESPN’s all-encompassing Total QBR measure.

Though none of that necessarily stands out — 50 is considered average with QBR — the reality is Bender’s performance might be a big part of the reason KU was able to get to three wins in 2018 after combining for that many in the previous three years combined.

According to QBR, an advanced stat that breaks down quarterback quality on a play-by-play basis, Bender being below average was actually a big step up for the Jayhawks compared to what they normally get. In fact, Bender’s 2018 season was KU’s best from a quarterback (with at least 250 plays in a season) since 2014, while also ranking third best in the last 15 years among anyone not named Todd Reesing.

Total QBRBig 12 rank since 2004 (out of 175 QBs)
2008 Reesing71.355th
2007 Reesing63.689th
2009 Reesing61.099th
2014 Cummings55.1120th
2005 Swanson46.5142nd
2018 Bender39.7154th
2011 Webb36.8160th
2004 Barmann36.0161st
2017 Bender32.7164th
2010 Webb32.5165th
2015 Willis31.2166th
2006 Meier29.8169th
2017 Stanley28.1171st
2012 Crist25.3173rd
2013 Heaps23.9174th
2005 Luke15.4175th

It’s worth pointing out here that it’s unfair to heap all the blame on the quarterbacks with this measure, as they’re not only impacted by the talent around them but also by the instruction and schemes they’re given by coaches.

The QB struggles, then, likely can be viewed as a systemic problem that has continued even as KU has carouseled coaches in the past decade.

Still ... it’s difficult to overstate how much this lack of production has hampered KU.

What’s a QB worth?

The old cliché is that the quarterback impacts the game more than any other position in sports — and that saying is likely repeated often because it’s true. Pro Football Focus’ WAR statistic, for example, found that Drew Brees was about three times more valuable than any other non-QB position player last year, and though that’s not a perfect parallel to college football, it seems to be a good starting point.

Two other things to consider:

• When ESPN first created its QBR measure, it found that 85 percent of the teams winning the QBR battle won the game

• A 2014 FiveThirtyEight analysis on elite quarterbacks found that an elite college QB could potentially “add more than four wins” to a team’s record

It all goes to show just how much a hole KU has started in recently by not getting its quarterback play to a Big 12 level.

How bad it’s been

There isn’t a nice way to say this: Those fans that have stuck with the Jayhawks recently have been subjected to historically poor quarterback play. Perhaps the best way to show this is to look at the Big 12’s worst Total QBR seasons in the last 15 years, where the Jayhawks:

• Have the worst three seasons overall

• Have two-thirds (!) of the worst years over that time, with eight of 12

• Are the only Big 12 school to show up on the list more than once

Big 12 worst qualified QB seasons since 2004

Total QBR
2005 Luke (KU)15.4
2013 Heaps (KU)23.9
2012 Crist (KU)25.3
2005 Pena (OSU)26.6
2017 Stanley (KU)28.1
2009 Hawkins (CU)29.8
2006 Meier (KU)29.8
2017 Smith (BU)30.1
2011 Ash (UT)30.2
2015 Willis (KU)31.2
2010 Webb (KU)32.5
2017 Bender (KU)32.7

The special QB sauce — whatever it is — simply hasn’t made it way to Lawrence much lately. That also can be seen from a pair of Jayhawks who left the team, as both Montell Cozart (Boise State) and Ryan Willis (Virginia Tech) saw drastic improvements after going to other programs.

Montell Cozart Total QBR by year

Total QBR
2013 KU21.3
2014 KU19.0
2015 KU34.8
2016 KU33.3
2017 BSU67.4

Ryan Willis Total QBR by year

2015 KU31.2
2016 KU21.0
2018 VT71.1

KU’s current QB battle isn’t settled yet. At the end of spring practices, Miles stated that juco transfer quarterback Thomas MacVittie “might have a slight edge” over incumbent Carter Stanley, with the competition expected to extend into fall drills.

Whether it’s different personnel or better schemes, KU getting its quarterback play to a more acceptable level has to be considered among the biggest priorities for both this season and also the years ahead.

It’ll be tough to win — more than 3 1/2 games, or in general — without the Jayhawks improving their most important position.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle

Jesse Newell — he’s won an EPPY for best sports blog and previously has been named top beat writer in his circulation by AP’s Sports Editors — has covered KU sports since 2008. His interest in sports analytics comes from his math teacher father, who handed out rulers to Trick-or-Treaters each year.