College Football: 25 Greatest Quarterbacks of the 21st century

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(Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

From pocket passers to dynamic scramblers, from one-hit wonders to four or five-year veterans: who are the top college football quarterbacks of the past two decades?

It’s rare that a Romance language could capture something better on the college football gridiron than our own modern American English. When Spanish-language broadcasters on ESPN Deportes introduce the two American football teams, they start with that one position: the Mariscal de campo.

The “field marshal” normally signifies a high-ranking military officer who has won a major victory. Sure, he gets his position name in English because of his formational position of lining up behind the center (and then the halfback, the fullback, and the tailback, etc.), but doesn’t the Spanish version seem to capture his essence nowadays?

The quarterback on a football field is a unique position among team sports. Sure there’s pressure abound to perform like a starting pitcher on the baseball diamond, a goalkeeper on the soccer pitch, or the driver on a bobsled track, even.

But no one shares as much of the criticism or the praise after a team’s win as a football team’s quarterback. The ball touches his hands on almost every play, and his decisions (especially as more teams explore run-pass option plays) are sometimes split-second and are always crucially important to his team’s fortunes.

It’s difficult to identify the best quarterbacks in all of college football during the past 20 years. Offensive schemes and the rules of the game have shifted since the turn of the century. So has our method of choosing a national champion — far gone are the days of the Bowl Alliance, and fleeting are the memories nowadays of the endless debates on BCS formulas (though not on strength of schedules).

Should the distinction of a true, all-time great quarterback belong to a prolific passer who sets school, conference, and/or national records? Or should the leader of the nation’s best team earn an automatic pass?

The NFL’s Baltimore Ravens aside, it’s exceedingly difficult to win a title without a top-flight quarterback. We could endlessly debate the impact of a cerebral middle linebacker vs. a dynamic running back or a strong pass rusher vs. a sure-footed left tackle. But when it comes to a team’s heart and soul, everyone’s looking at the same guy in a huddle (assuming your favorite team still sometimes does that) to hear the play call: the quarterback.

Some of the honorable mentions include Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, Hawaii’s Colt Brennan, Oklahoma’s Landry Jones, and Iowa’s Brad Banks. Among the debate between career statistics, team performance, all-around skill, and performance in big games, these guys just barely missed the mark.

Here are the Top 25 college quarterbacks of the 21st century:

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