Ranking the Top 16 Quarterbacks of the Modern Era
Defining "greatness" is a subjective exercise that can be sculpted by statistics, flair and fandom.
All of that matters, but what truly makes a great signal-caller? Championships should fall in the equation, without question. So should victories. Numbers are important, too, especially against the quality of competition.
But certain quarterbacks can transcend the position and the sport, becoming synonymous with the position and an irreplaceable leader. Quarterbacks are justly rewarded—six of the last seven Heisman Trophy winners were quarterbacks—but they also catch much of the flak when things go wrong.
For every championship that A.J. McCarron or Tommie Frazier led their teams to, there's a refrain of, "Peyton Manning couldn't beat Florida," or, "Marcus Mariota couldn't win the big one."
Despite that, all four of those guys made this list for various reasons.
Leading your team to the ultimate prize is the biggest thing, of course, but taking the position to a different level is another definition of greatness.
So, factoring in winning at a high level, championships, numbers and next-level performance, let's try to rank the top 16 quarterbacks since 1973, when the NCAA split into divisions.
Sure, all of this is subjective, but that's what makes it fun, right?
16. Doug Flutie, Boston College
By the numbers: 52.8 completion percentage, 10,759 passing yards, 70 touchdowns, 56 interceptions, 969 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.
Greatest strengths: Doug Flutie's numbers may not stack up to some of the gunslingers of today, but he rewrote the college history books in the early 1980s, leaving Boston College as the NCAA's all-time passing leader. Flutie was great at moving around in the pocket and making all the passes, despite his short stature.
Why he's here: No, it isn't just because of the famed Hail Mary to beat Miami, though that helps as a career-defining moment. But he was great for a team that wasn't. He also won a Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award and Davey O'Brien Quarterback Award. He put Boston College on the map.
15. AJ McCarron, Alabama
By the numbers: 66.9 completion percentage, 9,019 passing yards, 77 touchdowns, 15 interceptions. 36-4 as a starter.
Greatest strengths: Winning, winning and more winning. It doesn't take a gun-slinging Hall of Famer to turn around and hand off the ball to some of the great runners AJ McCarron had while at Alabama, but that isn't close to all he did. Few threw a better deep ball than him, and he seemingly always came up with crucial plays.
Why he's here: Much like another quarterback we'll soon see on this list from the "U," McCarron is simply a champion. He won three BCS National Championships, two SEC Championships and two SEC Western Division titles. If all he was is a game manager, as some like to say, nobody did it better.
14. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
By the numbers: 68.9 completion percentage, 7,820 passing yards, 63 touchdowns and 22 interceptions in just two years. He also had 2,169 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns on the ground.
Greatest strengths: The master of improvisation, nobody was better when plays broke down or in the open field than Johnny Football except Mike Vick. Though his attributes didn't translate in the NFL, the college game has seen few better dual-threat quarterbacks with a knack for the pizzazz.
Why he's here: He, at times, single-handedly led a one-trick Texas A&M team to sky heights because of his next-level play, and few had a greater immediate impact than Manziel, who won the Heisman Trophy during his redshirt freshman year. He didn't win any championships, but it wasn't because of anything he did wrong. Anybody who saw him play would have him on this list.
13. Michael Vick, Virginia Tech
By the numbers: 56 completion percentage, 3,299 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 1,299 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns in two seasons.
Greatest strengths: Michael Vick's worth and incredible collegiate career cannot be measured in mere statistics. He wowed everybody every time he dropped back. Not only was he always the fastest player on the field; he also had one of the strongest arms in the sport. He was the total package.
Why he's here: Only Manziel had a quicker impact on the game, but Vick revolutionized the position. How many times have you heard "The Next Michael Vick" when hearing the description of a prospect? He led Virginia Tech to its only BCS championship game appearance, and he paved the way for dual-threat quarterbacks to be the "in" thing in college football.
12. Ty Detmer, Brigham Young
By the numbers: 62.6 completion percentage, 15,031 passing yards, 121 touchdowns, 65 interceptions. He set 59 NCAA records during his time at BYU.
Greatest strengths: Nobody put up PlayStation numbers quite like Ty Detmer, who finished in the top 10 of the Heisman Trophy voting three times. He ran LaVell Edwards' offense to perfection and is recognized as the greatest of BYU quarterbacks ahead of the likes of Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Robbie Bosco. His skill set didn't translate to the pros, but he was a dead-accurate passer who thrived in the system.
Why he's here: He set 42 records in a single season as a junior, cementing his greatness with a 28-21 victory over top-ranked Miami, in which he passed for 406 yards against the defending national champion. He won the Heisman Trophy once and finished third as a senior, and he turned a dormant Cougars program back into a WAC power, winning three consecutive division titles.
11. John Elway, Stanford
By the numbers: 62.1 completion percentage, 9,349 passing yards, 77 touchdowns, 39 interceptions.
Greatest strengths: There are few quarterbacks in the history of the sport who had a stronger arm than Elway, who became a household name during his Denver Broncos career. Though he was a fierce competitor, he played for a poor college football team, and Stanford never made a bowl while he was there. It didn't diminish his individual stardom.
Why he's here: Despite a 20-23 career record as a starter for the Cardinal, he was a pass-first quarterback during a running era. He graduated with numerous school and Pac-10 records, including the career record for passing and total offense. He was a two-time player of the year in the conference and finished second in the Heisman Trophy as a senior.
10. Ken Dorsey, Miami
By the numbers: 9,565 passing yards, 57.9 completion percentage, 86 touchdowns, 28 interceptions, 31 200-yard passing games (all school records). 38-2 as a starter. 2001 national championship winner. Two-time Heisman Trophy finalist.
Greatest strengths: The argument against Ken Dorsey always centers around one thing: He was the beneficiary of all that massive amount of talent around him. That may be true, but he was the battery that made it all tick. Dorsey conceivably could have finished with three championship rings.
Why he's here: He's one of the biggest winners the sport has ever seen, and he always came up big in the biggest games. He wasn't the most accurate passer, and nobody would ever mistake him for an overwhelming talent. But he was clutch, earning the co-MVP of the 2002 Rose Bowl that won the Hurricanes their fifth national championship. He also was conference Offensive Player of the Year twice, was named all-conference three times and won the '01 Maxwell Award.
9. Charlie Ward, Florida State
By the numbers: 62.3 completion percentage, 5,747 passing yards, 49 touchdowns, 22 interceptions. He also had 889 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
Greatest strengths: Only Charlie Ward can say he won a Heisman Trophy and had an illustrious NBA basketball career, but that gives you an idea of what kind of athlete he was. Ward was a game-changing, generational athlete who brought Florida State its first-ever national title. He could do everything on and off the field.
Why he's here: Everybody knew head coach Bobby Bowden was legendary, but Ward finally took him to the Promised Land, turning a niche program into a national power. A model student and athlete during his time at FSU, Ward was the perfect poster boy for a program and accomplished everything you could want as a college football player.
8. Peyton Manning, Tennessee
By the numbers: 62.5 percent, 11,201 passing yards, 89 touchdowns, 33 interceptions. He shattered school records and was 39-6 as a starter, breaking the SEC record for wins.
Greatest strengths: If you don't know Peyton Manning, you need to join the world and crawl out from underneath your rock. The attributes that made him one of the NFL's all-time greats were there in college, including his pinpoint precision and brilliant grasp of the playbook and opposing defenses.
Why he's here: The only thing keeping Manning from being near the top of the list was the fact that he never won the national championship and failed to beat Steve Spurrier's Florida Gators, keeping the Vols from the top of the polls. But few had better careers than him or were bigger ambassadors for their programs. He's a living legend.
7. Danny Wuerffel, Florida
By the numbers: 60.5 completion percentage, 10,875 passing yards, 114 touchdowns, 42 interceptions. At the time of his graduation, he held the NCAA record for passing efficiency and the single-season conference record for touchdown passes.
Greatest strengths: When it comes to former Florida coach Steve Spurrier's "Fun 'n' Gun" offense, Danny Wuerffel was the perfect orchestrator of one of the most effective units in college football history. He was adept at throwing fades, and his timing was impeccable. He was also a national champion.
Why he's here: Like a lot of signal-callers on this list, Wuerffel's prowess didn't translate to the NFL, but that doesn't diminish his greatness. He was the bane of Manning's collegiate existence, and he won the elusive national championship and Heisman Trophy that Manning didn't. That's why he's a notch ahead on this list.
6. Vince Young, Texas
By the numbers: 61.8 completion percentage, 6,040 yards, 44 touchdowns, 28 interceptions. 3,127 rushing yards, 37 touchdowns.
Greatest strengths: The strong-armed Vince Young led Texas to a national championship in his final season, and though he'll always be known as a run-first quarterback, the fact of the matter is he was the kind of talent who often elevated the play of his entire team, as he did in the 2006 national championship game.
Why he's here: Though he never won a Heisman Trophy, losing out to Reggie Bush, he beat Bush when it mattered in the national championship game, scoring the game-winning touchdown late to unseat the mighty Trojans. Though his unorthodox, side-armed throwing motion was much-debated, it served him well in college, leading the Longhorns to a 30-2 record as a starter.
5. Cam Newton, Auburn
By the numbers: 65.4 completion percentage, 2,908 passing yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Also rushed for 1,586 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Greatest strengths: When it comes to transcendent athletes, Cam Newton is at the top of the list. After transferring from Florida to JUCO to Auburn, he single-handedly elevated an entire team to a national championship in a magical season. He has a laser for an arm, is built like a chunk of granite and can absolutely fly.
Why he's here: Newton enjoyed arguably the greatest college football season in history in 2010, turning what had been a poor Auburn team the year before into a national champion. He was an unstoppable force in key moments during that season and is a generational talent.
4. Matt Leinart, USC
By the numbers: 64.8 completion percentage, 10,693 passing yards, 99 touchdowns, 23 interceptions. Averaged one interception in every 54 attempts and was 37-2 as a starter.
Greatest strengths: Pinpoint precision and big-play acumen. It didn't hurt that Matt Leinart had athletes all around him such as Reggie Bush, LenDale White and others, but he was the one who ran Pete Carroll's offense to perfection, helping young assistants such as Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian look good. Plus, he was a champion, winning two titles.
Why he's here: He's the best quarterback ever for a school known for its signal-callers. During an era where USC dominated, he was one of the main reasons why the Trojans were so good. Much like McCarron and Dorsey, Leinart was surrounded by loads of talent, but he played with the confidence and swagger that made him the perfect QB for the perfect time.
3. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
By the numbers: 66.8 completion percentage, 10,796 passing yards, 105 touchdowns, 14 interceptions. 2,237 rushing yards, 29 touchdowns on the ground.
Greatest strengths: Marcus Mariota is the ideal picture of the modern quarterback. With the emergence of the spread-option, there have been few who've done it as well as Mariota did for the Oregon Ducks with fewer mistakes. He ran the timing to perfection, knew when to keep the ball and maximized yardage on the ground and through the air, getting the ball to athletes in space.
Why he's here: Mariota is the dual-threat quarterback whose skill set is elite no matter where he plays. He set conference records for career touchdowns, single-season total offense, single-season touchdowns and passes attempted without an interception. He also holds six school records. By the word "dynamic" in the dictionary, there should be a picture of the former Oregon signal-caller.
2. Tommie Frazier, Nebraska
By the numbers: 49.5 completion percentage, 3,521 passing yards, 43 touchdowns, 11 interceptions. 1,955 rushing yards and 36 touchdowns on the ground. 45-4 as a starter.
Greatest strengths: Back when there weren't a lot of dual-threat quarterbacks, Tommie Frazier ran Nebraska's triple-option to perfection. He's the best signal-caller ever for that scheme, and nobody ran it more effectively than the Cornhuskers in coach Tom Osborne's day. Plus, nobody was a gamer quite like Frazier, and he did it while battling myriad injuries.
Why he's here: Stats don't tell the whole picture here. Did we mention he was a gamer? Not only did he win two national championships, he was the MVP of three national championship games. Even when the 'Huskers didn't win, he was still recognized. Yes, Frazier was a system quarterback, but few systems were ever more dominant than Nebraska's offense, and he was amazing doing it.
1. Tim Tebow, Florida
By the numbers: 66.4 completion percentage, 9,285 passing yards, 88 touchdowns, 16 interceptions. Also had 2,947 rushing yards and 57 touchdowns. Florida was 48-7 during his career.
Greatest strengths: The two-time national champion became the first college sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy. He willed his team to wins and, though he wasn't the greatest passer, he was arguably the fiercest competitor during his time and put up remarkable numbers on the ground and through the air.
Why he's here: The man was a touchdown-scoring machine, and he backed up his burning desire to win by posting big numbers in the most important games. He wound up first in SEC history in passing efficiency, rushing touchdowns, completion percentage, rushing yards by a quarterback, rushing scores by a QB, total touchdowns and touchdown-to-interception ratio. Tebow was the perfect quarterback for Urban Meyer's system, and he was one of the best athletes to ever play the position.