Like most Iowa fans, I expect a lot from James Vandenberg this season. I'm worried about the defensive line and a lack of depth in both the offensive and defensive backfield, but the more pre-season content I've digested the more I've come to accept what seems to be the conventional wisdom that Vandenberg is a quality starter and maybe even a potential All-Big Ten contender. He may not have the size and strength of Ricky Stanzi, but he does a lot of things well and may even be an upgrade in some phases of the passing game.
But where does this view come from? When we think about Vandenberg, we all think back to the moral victory that was #10 Iowa 24 - #11 Ohio State 27 (OT). It was November of Vandenberg's redshirt freshman year, and the stakes could not be higher on the road against the perennial class of the conference. I know I recall being surprised that the plucky redshirt freshman who looked so bad against Northwestern kept us in the game and gave us a chance to win had we gotten just a few more breaks. If you recall the game the same way, take a guess at Vanenberg's line right now.
Made your guess? If you're like me, it was probably a better line than 20/33 (60%) for 233 (7 YPA) with 2 TDs and 3 INTs, including the game-losing INT in OT.
Fine though--it's still a decent line, especially considering the circumstances, and those INTs were not all his fault. What if we include his other appearances, including the 9/27 for 82 yards and an INT debacle when forced into action against Northwestern, but also including his spot duty in blowouts as a sophomore against the Eastern Illinois and Ball States of the world? His career stat line to date:
47/95 (49%) for 525 yards (5.5 yards per attempt) with 3 TDs and 5 INTs.
That's a 95.8 college passer rating, and 54.9 using the NFL formula. For context, Jimmy Clausen had the NFL's worst rating last season at 58.4.
The good news? His career numbers still make up a very small sample, and a quarter of the passes included came in a Northwestern game where he was not part of the game plan and did not expect to play. But while Vandenberg's career stats represent a small sample, his performance against Ohio State represents an even smaller sample, especially when we only remember his successes and excuse his failures during that game.
I think the truth is that we all look at Vandenberg through rose-colored glasses because he is a native Iowan and because he comes across so well in interviews and on the public speaking circuit. He is a genuine student-athlete and by all accounts a good person. But that doesn't mean he's not a huge downgrade from last year at the most important position on the field.
Ricky Stanzi had a 141.6 career college efficiency rating (92.1 NFL equivalent) and had the physical tools to get drafted by the NFL. Stanzi also produced early, putting up a 134.8 college rating (87.4 NFL) his redshirt sophomore season and earning the job from Jake Christensen on the field. His failures were often spectacular and he was at times frustrating, but if we want to be fair to James Vandenberg we should expect even greater shortcomings this season.
If I am wrong--and I hope I am--and Vandenberg does beat out Denard Robinson, Dan Persa, Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson, Nathan Scheelahaasahshshasee and Taylor Martinez for All-Big Ten, then so much the better. But better to set expectations low and be pleasantly surprised than to set ourselves up for disappointment.
Next in my Debbie Downer preview series*: Why 219 Yards on 33 Carries Against Missouri Doesn't Mean As Much As You Would Think