Photo courtesy of Cincinnati athletics

This might be controversial given that Desmond Ridder was the American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year, but he didn’t have the best season in the conference — even at his position.

Ridder is a great quarterback, and despite the title, this is not an anti-Ridder slam piece. SMU’s Shane Buechele and (especially) UCF’s Dillon Gabriel both had better seasons, and the numbers bear that out.

It’s not Ridder’s fault that Gabriel and Buechele are two of the best Group of 5 quarterbacks in recent history. Also, to make this easier to stomach for Cincinnati fans, I’ve had you ranked no worse than eighth since Week 7.

Ridder is clearly the leader of Cincinnati, and after all, the Bearcats are scheduled to play Georgia in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl while SMU was scheduled to play UTSA in the Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl. But being the leader of the best team does not automatically mean you had the best season.

So what makes Gabriel and Buechele’s seasons better than Ridder’s? Let’s examine four key factors for quarterbacks:

In this piece, some stats come from Sports Reference, others will come from Pro Football Focus’s premium database. Also, PFF passing stats and rankings will include the eight AAC quarterbacks that have thrown more than 200 passes as of Dec. 29.

What do the Stats Show?

Completion %

The main stat that Cincinnati fans like to point out for Ridder is that he has the highest completion percentage. And he does (Ridder: 66.4%, Buechele: 65.6%, Gabrel: 60%).

But what they don’t point out are the drop numbers. Per PFF, Gabriel had a drop on 9.4% of his passes, while Buechele had a drop on 8.4% of his passes. Ridder only had drops on 3.3% of his passes. With no drops, Gabriel closes that gap that Ridder and Buechele have on him (Buechele: 73.5%, Ridder: 70%, Gabriel: 69.5%). Also, completion percentage does not factor in difficulty of passes or pass depth.

Of the three, Buechele led the pack in terms of pass attempts where the intended receiver was closer than 10 yards of the line of scrimmage (Buechele: 63.8%, Ridder: 60.9%, Gabriel: 49.4%). With no drops, Gabriel is within 4% of Buechele and 0.5% of Ridder for completion percentage, but throws 14.4% and 11.5% more deep passes, respectively.

PFF’s adjusted completion percentage is a more holistic formula that incorporates drops, among other stats. It also accounts for “throw aways, spiked balls, batted passes, and passes where the quarterback was hit while they threw the ball”. Here, Buechele reigns supreme (Buechele: 75.8%, Gabriel: 74.2%, Ridder: 73.9%).

When you incorporate more than just completions and attempts, Gabriel more than closes the gap to Buechele and Ridder.

Overall, Buechele separates himself more than either Gabriel or Ridder in this section.

Throwing Downfield

PFF has a whole section dedicated to the deep pass (“attempts targeted 20 yards or more downfield”). There, Gabriel has the most touchdowns and fewest interceptions (Gabriel: 14 touchdowns and two interceptions, Buechele: seven touchdowns and three interceptions, Ridder: six touchdowns and three interceptions).

He also has the highest touchdown percentage and lowest interceptions on deep passes (Gabriel: 17.5%/2.5%, Buechele: 13.7%/5.9%, Ridder: 14.3%/7.1%). Going back to the adjusted completion percentage, Gabriel and Buechele really separate themselves from Ridder here (Gabriel: 50%, Buechele: 47.1%, Ridder: 35.7%).

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has watched the games, but Gabriel is the best downfield thrower of the bunch.

Ridder is not an incredible downfield passer like Gabriel and Buechele, but he hasn’t needed to be. Cincinnati has needed him to excel in two places: rushing and timely, efficient passing.

Passing Efficiency

The first step to being efficient passing, in one opinion, is by not taking sacks. Sacks are massive drive-killers, and Ridder has been sacked the least of AAC quarterbacks at just 13 times. However, sack rate paints a different picture. Between Ridder, Buechele, and Gabriel, they are almost identical in terms of sack rate (Ridder: 4.6%, Buechele: 4.6%, Gabriel: 4.7%).

The next indicator of efficiency is not turning the ball over. In considering fumbles, we decided to be more concerned about overall fumbles instead of fumbles lost, since who recovers the fumble is often variable and out of the hands — literally — of the fumbler. In looking at passing touchdowns and rushing touchdowns divided by interceptions and fumbles, Buechele has the highest score (Buechele: 3.6, Gabriel: 2.8, Ridder: 2.2).

Of course, when discussing efficiency, there is a passing efficiency rating already. There, Ridder has the slightest of margins over Gabriel (Ridder: 156.4, Gabriel: 156.3, Buechele: 153.4). The fourth-highest rated passer in the AAC, Memphis’ Brady White, is down at 147.7. No one else is above 140.

Another point in Ridder’s favor is that even though Gabriel has 1,480 more passing yards, they are both averaging 8.6 passing yards per attempt (Gabriel: 8.6, Ridder: 8.6, Buechele: 8.4).

Where Gabriel separates himself is in adjusting passing yards per attempt, which gives more weight to touchdowns and even more weight to not throwing picks (Gabriel: 9.8, Buechele: 8.9, Ridder: 8.9).

Once again, it appears that Gabriel ‘wins’ a section and shows himself to be the most efficient passer of the bunch.

Running

Without question, Ridder is the best running quarterback in the conference, and he’s one of the best in the country. First of all, Ridder was the only quarterback among the top 20 rushers of the conference (Including sacks: Ridder: 609, Gabriel: 169, Buechele: 105. Not including sacks: Ridder: 669, Gabriel: 289, Buechele: 246).

In terms of rushing touchdowns, Ridder tied Tulane tailback Cameron Carroll for first. As for rushing touchdowns per attempt, he had a distinct advantage over Buechele and Gabriel (Ridder: 12/15.4%, Gabriel: 2/5%, Buechele: 2/3.7%).

Perhaps Ridder’s most impressive rushing stat is that he led The American and all players in rushing yards per attempt (minimum of 15 rushes) by over a full yard (Ridder: 8.6, Buechele: 6.2, Gabriel: 5.4).

Perhaps the most obvious winner of any section, Ridder takes the rushing section.

Final Breakdown

So now that we’ve gone through four distinct sections of quarterbacking, Gabriel performed better in two, with Buechele and Ridder each performing better in one. All three had incredible seasons, but there can only be one ‘best’. The breakdown indicates that Gabriel had the best season.

He led one of the best offenses in the country, and was the only quarterback that put up more than 30 points on Cincinnati’s superb defense. In fact, Cincinnati is the only defense in the country to have not allowed a 20-yard touchdown pass this season. Cincinnati would be better off with Gabriel than UCF would be with Ridder.

As for second, the gap between Buechele and Ridder is razor-thin. I would have to put Buechele ahead of Ridder, however. Obviously, I’m biased as an SMU student, but Buechele is the better passer. Being the better passer has to matter more and Buechele is no slouch as a rusher.

Of those with a minimum of 15 rushes, he is sixth of all rushers when sack yards are removed. I’ll go back to the team swap as a method of comparing players. Cincinnati would be better off with Buechele than SMU would be with Ridder.

Again, for those that think this article is one big slight at Ridder, it’s not meant to be. Add in Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall and BYU’s Zach Wilson and there’s the five best Group of 5 signal callers for this season.

Ridder has developed well over the last two seasons, so expect him to give Gabriel a run for his money next season. For now however, Gabriel is still the best quarterback in the AAC.