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College competition and NFL success

One argument that seems to get thrown around a lot during draft season is based on the idea that success against better college competition leads to a better NFL career. Is this really the case, or is it just an easy but flawed argument to make?

Joe Robbins

Every year around draft time I hear the same arguments either for or against drafting a player based on what conference they played for in college. "So-and-so played against a tougher conference/opponents/defenses, so he must be better!" It's an easy conclusion to make- if a prospect played well against tougher opponents, they must have something that makes them a better pick. Is this conclusion a good one though? Does the college strength of schedule really translate to NFL success, or is it just another argument that seems true just because it's easy? Let's take a look.

The Process

The most straightforward position to test this with is Quarterback, because it's where the argument is made most and it's easiest to determine their success in the NFL. A QB determines a team's fate and if anyone would benefit from level of competition, it would be them. To begin with I picked out the QBs drafted in the first round from 2004-2008. This sample gives both successful and unsuccessful QBs, and the time allows us to account for progression rather than just a few seasons of play. Only first round QBs were chosen as this indicates similarities in draft stock.

I then took a look at the strength-of-schedule for these quarterbacks over their last 2 seasons as a starter to get a representation of the opponents they played. I also found their conference's rank during their final year. This helps give us a reasonable reference for the types of opponents they played in college that we can compare to their NFL success.

Player Draft Position S.O.S (Final/Prev.) Average Conference Conference rank
Eli Manning 1 52/38 45 SEC 2
Philip Rivers 4 24/59 41.5 ACC 1
Ben Roethlisberger 11 72/71 71.5 MAC 10
J.P. Losman 22 96/110 103 Conf USA 9
Alex Smith 1 67/62 64.5 Mountain West 7
Aaron Rodgers 24 12/22 17 PAC 10 2
Jason Campbell 25 60/13 36.5 SEC 6
Vince Young 3 13/28 20.5 Big 12 3
Matt Leinart 10 8/7 7.5 PAC 10 4
Jay Cutler 11 62/62 62 SEC 5
JaMarcus Russell 1 20/50 35 SEC 1
Brady Quinn 22 18/14 16 Independent 8
Matt Ryan 3 45/44 44.5 ACC 5
Joe Flacco 18 121/148 164.5 Colonial


*Strength of schedules and conference ranks taken from USA today ratings

Now knowing this information, we can put them through a range of "tests" to determine if they have been a successful quarterback or not.

The Tests

To determine what success is a a little subjective, so I tried to find traits that I would want in a first round quarterback. While ideally you would want an elite player in the first round, I felt that success would be determined if the quarterback was only proven to be a good starter.

  • Starting 5+ years: A first round QB should show longevity in the NFL
  • Positive winning Percentage: All that matters in the end is winning games
  • Pro Bowl Appearance: Shows that a QB is well regarded in the league
  • TD/Int Ratio>1.5: Ability to score points without turning the ball over
  • Conference Champions: Again, winning is all that matters
From these benchmarks I felt that fulfilling 5 categories points toward great success, 3-4 shows moderate success, and 0-2 shows little to no success in the NFL. A first round QB should be in one of the first two categories, ideally the first one, and any QB in the last category can effectively be deemed a failure. Knowing these criteria, lets take a look at how our sample stacks up.

Player Years Starting Win-Loss Record Pro Bowls TD/Int Ratio Conference Champ? Benchmarks Met
Eli Manning 9 85-66 3 229/171=1.33 Yes 4
Philip Rivers 8 79-49 5 221/104=2.12 No 4
Ben Roethlisberger 10 95-47 2 219/122=1.80 Yes 5
J.P. Losman 2 10-23 0 33/34=.97 No 0
Alex Smith 6 49-40-1 1 104/70=1.48 No 3
Aaron Rodgers 6 58-29 3 188/52=3.61 Yes 5
Jason Campbell 5 32-47 0 87/60=1.45 No 1
Vince Young 4 31-19 2 46/51=.90 No 2
Matt Leinart 1 8-10 0 15/21=.71 No 0
Jay Cutler 7 56-48 1 155/112=1.38 No 3
JaMarcus Russell 2 7-18 0 18/23=.78 No 0
Brady Quinn 2 4-16 0 12/17=.71 No 0
Matt Ryan 6 60-34 2 153/77=1.98 No 4
Joe Flacco 6 62-34 0 121/78=1.55 Yes 4

These benchmarks give us 2 highly successful, 6 successful, and 6 unsuccessful first round quarterbacks. The final step of the process is to compare these numbers against strength of schedule and conference ranks to determine if it really is a factor.

The Results

Player Strength of Schedule Rank Benchmarks Met
Matt Leinart 7.5 0
Brady Quinn 16 0
Aaron Rodgers 17 5
Vince Young 20.5 2
JaMarcus Russell 35 0
Jason Campbell 36.5 1
Philip Rivers 41.5 4
Matt Ryan 44.5 4
Eli Manning 45 4
Jay Cutler 62 3
Alex Smith 64.5 3
Ben Roethlisberger 71.5 5
J.P. Losman 103 0
Joe Flacco 134.5 4
Player Conference Rank Benchmarks Met
Philip Rivers 1 4
JaMarcus Russel 1 0
Aaron Rodgers 2 5
Eli Manning 2 4
Vince Young 3 2
Matt Leinart 4 0
Matt Ryan 5 4
Jay Cutler 5 3
Jason Campbell 6 1
Alex Smith 7 3
Brady Quinn 8* 0
J.P. Losman 9 0
Ben Roethlisberger 10 5
Joe Flacco 12 4

*Brady Quinn played for an independent school and conference rank may not indicate level of competition


Looking at the above graphs we can see that college competition level seems to have little effect on the future success of a QB prospect. Interestingly, it worked out where the majority of successful QBs played weaker strength of schedules as opposed to stronger ones. I don't believe that this points to any major factor but instead it is just an interesting note about these specific draft classes. In terms of conference rankings the successful QBs are spread out pretty evenly, which again points towards competition level as a minor factor in the evaluation of a QB prospect.

I do believe that level of competition can play a role in the development of a prospect, but it is not the most important aspect to consider. What matters most are the physical abilities of a player and the ability to dominate against whatever competition that played. Yes, a division 1 player carries more weight than a division 2, but what conference a player played in should carry a minuscule impact when evaluating a player's potential.