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How BYU Became ‘QB U’

When college football fans think of quarterback factories, they probably go to the classics: USC. Notre Dame. Maybe Miami.

But one school has, for upwards of a half century, quietly been producing some of the most impressive college quarterback seasons: Brigham Young. Between Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer and Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks like Jim McMahon and Steve Young, there are many NCAA record holders and members of the College Football Hall of Fame among the Cougars’ passing ranks.

No less an authority than two-time Super Bowl MVP QB Eli Manning found that out firsthand when he took a trip to Provo, Utah, to explore BYU’s legacy as “Quarterback U” for his ESPN+ series, Eli’s Places. In conjunction with that episode (which debuts Wednesday), we wanted to dig into the numbers behind the remarkable rise of an unlikely passing dynasty in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains.

And a dynasty it truly has been over the past 50-plus years. Even as the school bounced between multiple conferences, its quarterbacks have consistently outperformed the major Division I average.1 For example, Cougar starting quarterbacks have compiled more yards per game than the average Division I starter in all but 11 of the past 50 seasons.2 They’ve also dominated in terms of statistical totals: In addition to BYU starting quarterbacks having collectively thrown for more completions, yards and touchdowns than any other major Division I program’s starters since 1970, they lapped the competition in our schedule-adjusted points above replacement (PAR) metric for college passers3 over the same span.

BYU’s starting quarterbacks are the best of the last half-century

Major Division I programs by aggregated starting quarterback statistics since 1970

School Seasons Comp Att Yards TDs Adj. PAR
Brigham Young 43 10,029 16,206 134,762 1,018 3,407.3
USC 45 9,216 14,964 117,279 883 2,724.6
Houston 37 8,393 13,880 104,162 792 2,521.2
Texas Tech 38 9,297 15,057 109,319 802 2,514.3
Oregon 43 7,820 13,629 100,762 783 2,504.4
Florida 44 8,199 13,761 108,270 866 2,482.5
Stanford 45 8,379 13,965 103,199 714 2,438.3
Florida State 44 7,905 13,434 105,701 806 2,429.0
Washington State 45 9,536 16,068 117,716 825 2,412.2
Fresno State 43 8,708 14,764 113,005 821 2,407.1

Starting quarterbacks attempted a minimum of 14 passes per game and appeared in at least 75 percent of school games played. Team seasons without a qualified starting quarterback were dropped.

Adjusted PAR regresses ESPN’s Total QBR points above replacement for college passers against box score passing and rushing stats, then uses Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating system to upgrade or downgrade a QB’s value in a given season based on the quality of his competition.

Sources: ESPN, sports-reference.com

We wouldn’t expect that kind of spectacular aerial success from a private, religious school outside the Power Five with little football success before the 1970s. So what changed half a century ago? How does such a school start producing such legendary quarterbacks?

It all starts with the scheme: BYU’s quarterback factory was an incubator for the creation and spread (pun intended) of the spread offense. When LaVell Edwards took over the program in 1972, he promptly instituted an aggressive, pass-first offense in an era when few (if any) other coaches were willing to risk throwing the ball. His aerial show relied on making quick passes, picking on man coverage and distributing the ball to any and all eligible receivers. Unconventional at the time, it was quickly picked up and transformed by other coaches, drawing from and influencing schemes like Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense and Hal Mumme’s air raid.

Starting from Edwards’s first season at the helm, BYU’s passing game went from so-so to consistently eye-catching. Gary Sheide, the first Cougars quarterback to qualify as a starter under Edwards, amassed the third-highest adjusted PAR among major Division I quarterbacks in 1973. After two seasons in Provo, he handed the offense over to Gifford Nielsen, a future College Football Hall of Famer who threw for a major Division I-leading 3,401 yards in 1976.

But BYU’s passing attack was just getting started. Three years later, Marc Wilson claimed the record for passing yards in a single season, tallying 3,720. It didn’t stand for long: The next year, McMahon became the first college quarterback to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season. He was followed by Young, a descendant of the university’s namesake, whose college career was improbably overshadowed by that of his successor. Robbie Bosco led the Cougars to their first and (so far) only national championship in 1984, becoming the second BYU quarterback to surpass 4,000 yards in a season the following year. One more BYU quarterback joined that club that decade, with Detmer hitting 4,000 yards in 1989 — then going on to become the first to throw for over 5,000 yards in his Heisman Trophy-winning 1990 campaign

By the time the dust settled, five quarterbacks in the 1980s had put together 4,000-yard seasons; three were from BYU.4

The school remained committed to its high-flying offense after Edwards’s retirement following the 2000 season. Even as the rest of college football slowly increased its reliance on the passing game, BYU’s quarterbacks kept up with the pace. Between solid-to-standout seasons quarterbacked by Steve Sarkisian (yes, that Steve Sarkisian), John Beck and Max Hall — each of whom landed in the top 10 in major Division I by adjusted PAR at least once — BYU appeared in a handful of smaller bowls as it moved from the Western Athletic Conference to the Mountain West Conference to its current status as an independent. 

Since settling in as an independent school for the 2011 season, the team hasn’t yet put together a string of premier quarterbacks comparable to those of the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s. Hall’s 2009 season, 12th-best in the nation by adjusted PAR, was the school’s best showing for more than a decade. Though they were still making it in the NFL — New Orleans Saints jack-of-all-trades Taysom Hill had a few years at the helm in the 2010s, tallying the 30th-best season in adjusted PAR as a sophomore — Cougar quarterbacks spent a couple of uncharacteristic years in the middle of the pack. Before 2020, BYU hadn’t landed a starter in the top five by adjusted PAR since Beck’s 2006 season.

BYU quarterbacks’ top seasons also led the nation

Top BYU quarterback seasons by adjusted Points Above Replacement and how adjusted PAR ranked among major Division I starting quarterbacks that season

Quarterback Season Comp. Pct Yds TD Adj. PAR Adj. PAR Ranking
Steve Young 1983 71.3% 3,902 33 175.1 1
Jim McMahon 1980 63.8 4,571 47 168.3 1
Ty Detmer 1990 64.2 5,188 41 137.8 2
Zach Wilson 2020 73.5 3,692 33 126.6 2
Ty Detmer 1989 64.3 4,560 32 125.4 2
Jim McMahon 1981 64.3 3,555 30 124.7 1
Robbie Bosco 1984 61.8 3,875 33 124.0 2
Robbie Bosco 1985 66.1 4,273 30 120.5 1
John Beck 2006 69.3 3,885 32 119.5 4
Steve Sarkisian 1996 68.8 4,027 33 118.4 2

Starting quarterbacks attempted a minimum of 14 passes per game and appeared in at least 75 percent of team games played.

Adjusted PAR regresses ESPN’s Total QBR points above replacement for college passers against box score passing and rushing stats, then uses Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System to upgrade or downgrade a QB’s value in a given season based on the quality of his competition.

Sources: ESPN, sports-reference.com

But that changed when Zach Wilson put together the fourth-best PAR season in program history as a junior in 2020. Though Wilson didn’t ascend in the Heisman voting quite the way Detmer did (Wilson finished eighth), his performance echoed those of his predecessors, with a stat line that wouldn’t look out of place on Young, McMahon or Bosco’s BYU Sports-Reference pages.

Perhaps Wilson, an inner-circle BYU legend who isn’t quite yet the NFL legend that predecessors like McMahon and Young became, was an outlier in a recent streak of middle-of-the-road quarterbacking seasons in Provo. But maybe he represented a return to form. His successor under center, Jaren Hall, was also one of the nation’s most efficient passers last season. Hall’s first game of the season was a quiet — but still efficient — 25-of-32 showing for 261 yards and two scores in BYU’s 29-point drubbing of South Florida over the weekend, and he could be primed for a monster fall with both of his top receivers returning in 2022. If so, it would only surprise those who don’t know the rich history of hyper-productive passers at Brigham Young. After all, BYU has earned its moniker as “QB U” over the years.

Neil Paine contributed research.


Watch Eli’s Places on ESPN+, where two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback Eli Manning travels the country exploring what makes college football such a national sensation.

Footnotes

  1. Specifically, we’re looking at quarterbacks who played for schools considered “major” by Sports-Reference.com.

  2. Starting quarterbacks attempted a minimum of 14 passes per game and appeared in at least 75 percent of team games.

  3. Similar to the quarterback value metric we use for the QB adjustments in our NFL forecast model, we regressed ESPN’s Total QBR points above replacement for college passers against box score passing and rushing stats. Then we used Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System to upgrade or downgrade a QB’s value in a given season based on the quality of his competition.

  4. The other two were Scott Mitchell (Utah, 1988) and Andre Ware (Houston, 1989).

Maya Sweedler is a copy editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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