The closer we get to football season, the easier it is to create irrational expectations for your team. And I can't remember a Tennessee player it's been easier to put those expectations on than Tyler Bray right now.
This isn't Bryce Brown (or even Maurice Couch), the newcomer that's so highly touted success is all but guaranteed. This isn't Jonathan Crompton in the Clawfense, a player we've seen only flashes of in a mystery offense that will redefine the game.
We've actually seen Bray. Seen him as the starter in five games. Seen him throw for more yards and touchdowns as a freshman than Peyton Manning, Casey Clausen, and Erik Ainge did. Seen him do so in fewer starts. Seen him do so behind the youngest offensive line in the history of football.
This makes Bray different than the other end of the spectrum as well. Even Peyton Manning, in the offseason between his freshman and sophomore seasons, had less reliable on-field data than Bray does right now. Though Manning started more games, the '94 Vols leaned heavily on seniors James Stewart and Aaron Hayden in the ground game, and Peyton still shared time with Brandon Stewart until the bowl practices.
If you believe in numbers, you believe in Bray. If you put the second half of the South Carolina game together with his five starts, Bray averaged 310 passing yards per game. Not only would that number have led all freshmen nationally, it would've led the SEC.
But if you believe in context, you have reason to be skeptical. How much can we really say about a guy whose starts came against Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky in the Vols' 4-0 November run?
Here's what we can say with absolute certainty: Tyler Bray knows how to light up bad defenses. Okay.
Now what else can he do?
You can use the numbers to make the case that Bray will be awesome. You can use the schedule to make the case that we should wait and see. And since he's only a sophomore, waiting and seeing is the healthier of two options.
If form holds, Bray should also light up Montana and Cincinnati. And if he does, that may help deflect some of the criticism that could come if he struggles against the Gators. Either way, just because Bray may not throw for 310 yards per game this fall doesn't mean he's not progressing the way he should be. Playing with sophomore teammates at wide receiver and on the offensive line, it will be important to remember, early and maybe even often, that this Vol offense has every reason to be better in 2012 than it will be in 2011.
So what should we expect from Bray in 2011?
Since the best answer is still probably "Not Enough Information", here are some numerical comparisons:
- Only two Vols have ever thrown for more than 3,000 yards in a season: Peyton Manning (3,819 as a senior & 3,287 as a junior) and Erik Ainge (3,522 in 14 games as a senior).
- The senior seasons of Manning and Ainge are also the only two times a Vol QB has thrown for more than 30 touchdowns (36 for Manning, 31 for Ainge). You might be surprised to know that Jonathan Crompton's 2009 season is tied with Casey Clausen's senior year for third on that list with 27 TDs.
Here are the best individual seasons for each starting Vol QB in the last two decades:
- Andy Kelly 1991 - 250.8 ypg, 15 TD, 15 INT
- Heath Shuler 1993 - 213.9 ypg, 25 TD, 9 INT
- Peyton Manning 1997 - 318.3 ypg, 36 TD, 11 INT
- Tee Martin 1999 - 210.6 ypg, 12 TD, 9 INT
- Casey Clausen 2001 - 247.4 ypg, 22 TD, 9 INT
- Erik Ainge 2007 - 251.6 ypg, 31 TD, 10 INT
- Jonathan Crompton 2009 - 215.4 ypg, 27 TD, 13 INT
I don't point out these numbers to say that we should expect Bray to join that group this fall. It's to show that the ridiculous numbers we saw from Bray last year are a historical anomaly at this university for guys not named Manning. And at this point, I'm more inclined to blame the competition than to praise the quarterback.
But even if the numbers aren't as good as they were last season, that doesn't mean Bray can't not only make progress, but be one of the best in this league.
Here are the same stats for the returning starting SEC QBs:
- Aaron Murray - 234.5 ypg, 24 TD, 8 INT
- Stephen Garcia - 218.5 ypg, 20 TD, 14 INT
- John Brantley - 158.5 ypg, 9 TD, 10 INT
- Chris Relf - 136.6 ypg, 12 TD, 6 INT
- Larry Smith - 114.7 ypg, 6 TD, 5 INT
- Jordan Jefferson - 108.5 ypg, 7 TD, 10 INT
(Sidenote: at a university that won National Championships with Matt Mauck and Matt Flynn and sent JaMarcus Russell to the top of the NFL Draft board, Jordan Jefferson fits right in.)
You can make a very solid argument that Tyler Bray could lead the SEC in passing this fall. Not listed is Arkansas' Tyler Wilson, who will certainly be in the mix. But with Garcia playing in an offense that features Marcus Lattimore and, on the other end of the spectrum, Murray playing in an offense that may not be able to make teams respect the run, as long as Jim Chaney is calling the plays, Bray has a real shot at the SEC passing crown. And if the numbers from last year hold, he doesn't have to be as spectacular as you might be picturing him in your head to do it.
But to me, here's the most important thing: yards are fun, but Bray's touchdown/interception ratio is the number to watch. Last year Bray set all the UT freshman passing records, and that includes interceptions. 18/10 is a decent ratio, better than any of the pass-heavy QBs that return except Aaron Murray. But again, context: Bray's most telling stat last season could be his 8/6 TD/INT ratio in games against bowl teams.
The kid made some huge throws. But the kid also threw some costly interceptions. And he is almost certainly going to do a lot more of both this fall.
To a degree, it's fine: Matt Simms threw just 5 INTs in 195 attempts, but we're all okay saying Bray is the better choice despite his 10 in 224 attempts. As long as there's some reward with our risk, we'll continue to ride with our gunslinger.
But again - we may be picturing a 3,000 yard, 30 TD season from Bray. But even if he throws for 2,750 and 25 TDs, he'd be among the best to ever play the position at this university, and could still be among the best in the SEC this fall.
Sometimes the hype is real. We expected the world from Heath Shuler and got it right away. We had seen flashes of greatness from Manning and Clausen in their freshman campaigns, and they showed true greatness on great teams in their sophomore years. And as we've seen recently with Eric Berry, it does happen sometimes that you expect greatness and you end up with something even better.
Obviously the more we throw the football the bigger the numbers, and we're still very unsure exactly how much Chaney will lean on the running game. We're also unsure if Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter can become a true one-two punch. I've made the point before that Bray's freshman year is even more impressive because he did it with less talent around him than Manning, Clausen, or Ainge...but is that really true at wide receiver? Manning had the sophomore version of Joey Kent. Clausen had Cedrick Wilson and Donte Stallworth, so he has an advantage. But Ainge had a bunch of guys who hadn't come into their own yet; the Meachem/Swain/Smith group were just freshmen, making Tony Brown the go-to guy. Bray may not have had a reliable offensive line or the great ground games that all three of those guys did, but Denarius Moore did make him look very good on a number of throws, and Luke Stocker and Gerald Jones were also huge positive factors.
Maybe Bray is everything we want him to be. But if we do get the 30 touchdowns from our quarterback, they need to come with, say, no more than 15 interceptions. Obviously the better the ratio the more success we'll have, but Bray's TD/INT ratio needs to be at least 2-to-1. Again, this is the stat to watch if you're looking for maturity. Between our youth, our defense, and our schedule, we could find ourselves in a number of shootouts that lead to a crazy statistical year for Bray with more of the same in yards, TDs, and INTs.
But I'd much rather see the Vols find real success in the ground game, and Bray have a measured year of growth. If this is the case, the numbers may not be as inflated as we saw last year or we expect to see this fall...but they don't have to be for Bray to not only mature, but be one of the best quarterbacks in this league...and they don't have to be for the Vols to compete now, and be in the best possible position to win in 2012.