At the conclusion of last season, I told myself that I’d try and figure out who the best quarterback in the American Conference is.
For most, if not all of last season, that question wasn’t too difficult. A lot of people, including myself, agreed that Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder was the “best” quarterback in the conference and he certainly staked his claim with a strong 2021 season, which of course included a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Ridder, of course, is no longer a Bearcat. He’s off to the NFL and could even hear his name called inside the first two days of the NFL Draft in April. His departure from college arguably warrants a fresh look at the “best quarterback in the conference” question.
The problem with answering such a question, though, is that there isn’t just one answer for who is the “best,” and there isn’t even one answer to what makes a quarterback worthy of such a title.
Ask different people and you’ll get different answers. Some will use film as the ultimate decider. Some will use team success and others will use a laundry list of stats in an attempt to prove who the leader of the pact is. As a result, the answer for which quarterback is most worthy of the praise is fluid.
Some will point to Houston’s success to give the edge to Clayton Tune. Others will point toward the all-conference teams, where SMU signal-caller Tanner Mordecai finished on the second team.
That brings up the important question - is there a way to separate the two?
Starting with stats, it’s hard to look past Mordecai’s impressive 2021 season. The former Oklahoma quarterback turned heads, to put it lightly.
Mordecai led the conference in passing with 3,628 passing yards and a touchdown-interception ratio of 39-to-11. That performance was enough to put Mordecai on the all-conference second-team.
His performance makes it no surprise that SMU’s offense was one of the best in the nation. According to data from CFB Graphs, SMU placed 10th in the nation in expected points averaged (EPA) per pass play. Taking all offensive plays into account, the Mustangs were 28th in EPA.
While Mordecai was capable of hitting any throw on the field, it was deep throws where the Waco native really shined. According to Pro Football Focus data, Mordecai completed 44.3% of his 61 passes over 20 yards for 823 yards, 12 touchdowns, and two interceptions. Overall, Mordecai was third in overall PFF grade among AAC quarterbacks with a grade of 87.8.
First on that list wasn’t Ridder, though. It was actually Houston’s Clayton Tune, who had a PFF offensive grade of 90.8.
Tune was the orchestrator of Houston’s offense, which helped lead the Cougars to a 12-2 record, a spot in the AAC Conference Championship Game, and a Birmingham Bowl victory over Auburn.
While Houston’s offense wasn’t the most explosive in the nation, it was among the nation’s most efficient. Houston saw 35.3% of their drives end in touchdowns, a figure that ranked No. 23 in the nation.
As it relates to SP+, Houston finished the season ranked 18th in the nation on the offensive side of the ball. Tune’s return to Houston is likely a reason why Houston, currently, is projected to be the No. 44 team by SP+’s preseason rankings despite the team losing key contributors across the field.
Which offenses scored touchdowns most often in 2021? pic.twitter.com/DjABMkV4xa— parker (@statsowar) February 4, 2022
Tune, himself, was close to Mordecai in most basic statistics. Tune finished second in the conference in passing, posting 3,544 yards, 30 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. Despite the strong showing, Tune was, shockingly, left off the all-conference list altogether.
Tune wasn’t as efficient as Mordecai on deep throws (defined as throws 20 yards or more) but make no mistake, he was still really good on these throws. According to PFF Data, Tune completed 36.7% of his big-time throws for 666 yards, 12 touchdowns, and just one interception. This includes 20 big-time throws - which PFF defines as a throw that ranks at the top end of their grading scale - on just 22 deep throw completions.
Throws between 10 and 19 yards are where Tune separates himself from other quarterbacks. Tune completed 65.4% of these passes for 1,219 yards and 13 touchdowns, earning himself a PFF grade of 91.6.
On the ground, neither separated themselves enough for this to be considered a positive, or a negative, either. Mordecai finished last season with 202 yards and two touchdowns. Tune finished with 154
So what have we learned?
Both Tune and Mordecai are among the nation’s top returning quarterbacks, especially at the Group of 5 level. They both feature strong arms and were the conductors of some of the best offenses in the nation.
Mordecai earned the all-conference honors last season and seemingly is getting slightly more NFL Draft hype at this moment but Tune probably shouldn’t be far behind in this case, especially when you watch the film from a season ago.
Tune was efficient, sound in his decision making and, when he completed a deep throw, it was wraps, a curtain call for any defense. Mordecai wasn’t any different in this case.
The good news for fans? Mordecai and SMU will host Tune and Houston on Nov. 5, in a matchup that could hold AAC Championship implications.