Let's finish beating this horse to death: One fan's take on the MSU quarterback situation

I'm a basketball expert.  Well, a basketball writer.  Well, a basketball analyst.  Well, a basketball blogger.

Anyway, I know a lot more about basketball than I know about football.  When I sit down to watch an MSU football game, I'm just a fan.

LVS and Pete, on the other hand, know what they're talking about when it comes to football.  Which is why they're both smart enough to leave the Kirk Cousins-Keith Nichol debate alone for the time being.  From any objective standpoint, there's simply nothing left to say.

All we really have at this point is a very small sample of data from intrasquad competition and pure conjecture.

To start with, here's the data--combined stats from the spring game and the two preseason scrimmages (after the jump):

Comp Att Yds TD INT Comp% Yds/Att
Cousins 48 86 603 7 2 55.8 7.0
Nichol 44 68 652 7 0 64.7 9.6

I'm actually a little surprised by these results.  As much as the conventional wisdom has been that the two quarterbacks have played to a draw--starting with the identical yardage/TD totals from the spring game--the overall numbers say Nichol has outplayed Cousins pretty dramatically.  He has yet to throw a pick, his completion percentage is almost 10 points higher, and he's thrown for 2 and a half more yards per attempt.  Cousins' numbers are good, but Nichol's numbers are downright stellar.

You don't want to assign too much weight to these numbers given that they came in largely artificial settings.  You don't know what the receiver/OL/defense match-ups the quarterbacks were working with were in the two preseason scrimmages, and it's not really 100% full-out football.  (That last point actually swings in Nichol's direction, though, given that his running ability doesn't help him as much in a scrimmage setting, since they blow the play dead when the QB gets in an open-field situation.)

And you also have to assign some weight to Cousins' very good numbers in limited regular season play last year--particularly the sparkling 74.4% completion percentage (which was consistent across all four of his game appearances, by the way).

Anyway, here's the conjecture part--again, written solely from the perspective of a guy who watches a little football from time to time and knows how to add numbers up in Excel.  (Read: The Only Colors, Incorporated is not responsible for any predictive errors contained in the text below.)

Short-Term:

  • Kirk Cousins will very likely be named the week 1 starter tomorrow.  He's a team captain and he has more time invested in the program.
  • If, instead, Nichol is named the starter for week 1, it will send a signal to the fan base (regardless of whether it's actually true) that Dantonio is leaning toward him as the pick for the long run.
  • But I don't see that happening.  Given that whoever wins the job if the de facto team leader for the next three years, Mark Dantonio will take as much time in making the pick as he can.  At minimum, that means using the Montana State game to gather more data (both quantitative and qualitative).
  • Playing time will be split evenly in week 1--and probably in week 2 unless (1) one quarterback emerges very quickly as being head and shoulders above the other and/or (2) there's a crisis versus Central Michigan and one guy has a better match-up vs. the CMU defense.  Beyond that, it's just a matter of how much more Mark Dantonio needs to see of both guys to make a final decision.  (Note: I don't buy Steve Grinczel's potential two-quarterbacks-until-the-PSU-game scenario; Dantonio's not going to want the uncertainty, even if it's not a full-fledged controversy, lingering that long.)

Long-Term:

  • There's a consensus that Nichol is the more talented player: stronger arm, faster legs.  Many have asserted that Cousins is also a fairly athletic player, but no one is arguing he's MORE athletic than Nichol.
  • Exhibit A on the first point: Keith Nichol, as a true freshman, battled a future Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback for the starting job at an elite Division 1 program until just two weeks before the start of the season.
  • Again, there's a three-year window Dantonio is working with.  Given the on-the-field success MSU has experienced in Dantonio's first two years and the off-the-field recruiting success that's accompanied it, things are set up for a run at the Big Ten title within that window.  It probably won't be this year, but it could happen in 2010 or 2011.
  • If Nichol continues to look like he's playing at roughly the same level as Cousins (or a notch above it, as indicated by the scrimmage numbers) right now, then it makes a whole lot of sense to give the job to the player who has the better shot at eventually playing at a truly elite level and pushing the team over the top.

Stating a preference for one quarterback over the other inevitably makes it sound like you're downplaying the other quarterback's abilities.  Don't get me wrong: Kirk Cousins is a Big Ten starting quarterback.  If he were the only option to be the starter, we'd all be more than satisfied.  But the program is now in a position where there's more than one legitimate option to start across the starting lineup.  That means hard decisions.

It's possible I'm falling into the trap most football fans tend to fall into: Pining for the guy with more "upside."  After all, the starting premise of this piece is that I'm just a football fan.  So take this all with a dose of IMHO.

Tomorrow, we'll finally get at least a small glimpse of what the man whose not-so-bumble opinion will eventually decide this matter is thinking.  And four and a half days from now, we'll get to see these two gentlemen play quarterback against a real, live (Football Championship Series!) opponent.

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