Can new Ticats' quarterback Jeff Mathews move ahead of bigger NCAA stars? Will his Cornell connection to Kent Austin help?

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Jeff Mathews (9), seen with current Edmonton Eskimo Jordan Lynch at the 2014 East-West Shrine Classic, has signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/The Associated Press.)
Jeff Mathews (9), seen with current Edmonton Eskimo Jordan Lynch at the 2014 East-West Shrine Classic, has signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/The Associated Press.)

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats' latest quarterback signing may provide another interesting data point in the discussion of where CFL quarterbacks come from. The team signed Jeff Mathews Tuesday, which is a notable move; while the team already has an established starter in Zach Collaros, they have two promising backups (Dan LeFevour and Stephen McGee) who could become free agents in February, and two others (Jeremiah Masoli and Jacory Harris) who are still under contract. Mathews' past performances are impressive; he threw for 11,284 yards and 72 touchdowns at Cornell, the most in Ivy League history, and he had stints with three different NFL teams this year. However, every other quarterback the Ticats currently have played at a higher level in college, and had their own notable accomplishments there.

That doesn't necessarily mean much, as some other Football Championship Subdivision (the second tier of NCAA football, formerly called I-AA)  players have gone on to great success in the CFL, while plenty of big-name Football Bowl Subdivision (the top tier) quarterbacks have flamed out. Mathews is even more intriguing than your typical FCS player, though, as he played at Cornell when current Hamilton head coach and general manager Kent Austin and current Ticats' offensive coordinator Tommy Condell were in the HC and OC roles respectively for the Big Red. Will Mathews' familiarity with the Austin/Condell offensive system help elevate him above Hamilton's cast of guys who were big FBS stars?

It's worth discussing just how remarkable Hamilton's current crop of quarterbacks is for its bias towards big-name NCAA players. Most CFL teams' quarterback collections tend to have maybe one guy who played at a NCAA powerhouse, one guy from a non-Power Five (or mid-major) FBS team, and then a couple from smaller NCAA schools. Consider the Grey Cup champion Calgary Stampeders: their current quarterbacks are Drew Tate (P5 Iowa), Bryant Moniz (mid-major Hawaii) and Bo Levi Mitchell (mid-major Southern Methodist and FCS Eastern Washington). Mitchell's the starter and a newly-minted Grey Cup champion, so NCAA experience again isn't the determining factor, but the Stampeders have a reasonably typical distribution of it.Then there are teams like the Ticats' southern Ontario rivals in Toronto whose quarterbacks come from even less prominent schools; the Argos' current QBs are Ricky Ray (FCS Sacramento State), Mitchell Gale (FCS Abilene Christian), Logan Kilgore (FCS Middle Tennessee State) and Trevor Harris (Division II Edinboro).

By contrast, three of Hamilton's QBs come from NCAA powers: Oregon/Ole Miss (Masoli), Miami (Harris) and Texas A&M (McGee). Collaros comes from Cincinnati, which is a mid-major team now but was in the Power 5 equivalent (BCS automatic qualifying conference) during his tenure, and while LeFevour played at non-P5 Central Michigan, he set a NCAA total touchdown record there. Thus, although Mathews had his own impressive accomplishments in college, he played at a lower level than all of those other guys, and he received much less attention when he came out of the NCAA ranks. Does that mean anything for his chances in the CFL, though?

There are a couple of ways to look at this question. One is via the idea that NCAA scouting generally is effective. Yes, there are always some five-star recruits who flop, and some two- and three-star recruits who turn into elite college players. On balance, though, as Matt Hinton has explored over the years, the recruiting rankings tend to work out; top recruits do substantially better than others both in All-American nods and NFL draft selections. Recruiting rankings tie into these schools' success, too; Hinton's 2008-11 analysis of recruiting classes had the Ticats' QBs alma maters' classes ranked as four stars (Oregon, Miami), three stars (Texas A&M, Ole Miss) and one star (Cincinnati), and the schools that recruited better generally performed better.

Moreover, non-major conference FBS schools (like LeFevour's Central Michigan) and FCS schools (like Cornell) weren't even included in that analysis given how much further down their recruiting is. As Hinton wrote, "the rankings tend to be virtually indistinguishable in the mid-major conferences, where the vast majority of players are obscure two-star types who may not have appeared on the recruiting gurus' radars at all." That's a school-wide analysis across positions, but its logic holds true at the positional level too, with more prominent recruits typically going to the bigger schools. The Ticats' QBs show that: McGee and Harris were both four-star recruits out of high school and Collaros was a three-star recruit, while Masoli was highly regarded coming out of junior college. LeFevour was a two-star recruit, while Mathews didn't receive a single FBS offer. By the percentages, that would suggest that everyone else would have higher chances of success in the pros.

From a CFL perspective, though, there are a few other things to consider. The Canadian game is very different from the NCAA and the NFL, and lots of less-prominent American quarterbacks have been able to adapt to it well, while many bigger names have failed. Our summer 2012 analysis of the eight CFL starters had two with FCS backgrounds (like Mathews) and three with non-power conference FBS backgrounds. Plus, a sixth (Henry Burris) was at a school (Temple) that had power conference status then, but no longer does thanks to the demise of the Big East as a football conference. That meant only two of the eight starters (Darian Durant and Drew Tate, from North Carolina and Iowa respectively) had power conference backgrounds. If that same analysis of starters was performed with the CFL's nine teams today, there would be only two starters from a power conference background (Durant and Montreal's Jonathon Crompton, a Tennessee alum); Collaros and Burris come close, as their teams were in power conferences when they were there, but the remaining five come from the mid-major ranks (Drew Willy), the FCS ranks (Ricky Ray, Travis Lulay, Bo Levi Mitchell) and even Division II (Mike Reilly). Thus, if four of the nine current CFL starters finished their college career at the FCS level or lower (and lots of big-name P5 FBS guys are warming the benches behind them), there's nothing to say specifically that Mathews doesn't have what it takes for CFL success. It's also notable that he did pretty well over his NCAA career in important metrics like completion percentage (62.0 per cent), yards per attempt (7.7), yards per game (296.9, and that's been well over 300 in his last three seasons) and touchdowns versus interceptions (72 to 42).

Perhaps the biggest factor in Mathews' favour is his preexisting knowledge of the offensive system favoured by Austin and Condell. Adjusting to the CFL can be extremely difficult for quarterbacks, given the 12-a-side route/coverage combinations, the three-down game and the wider field; coming into an offensive system that at least resembles what he's used to (Austin and Condell have undoubtedly tweaked what they ran at Cornell a bit for the CFL) may help alleviate some of his growing pains. Will that be enough for him to beat out some higher-profile quarterbacks and stick around? We'll find out. It's notable that in the CFL, though, and especially at quarterback, a big-school background doesn't always matter all that much.