There are two quintessentially American success stories: the big guy who gets bigger, and the little guy who makes good. The former is embodied in the sport of college football over the last decade, in which the six major conferences and Notre Dame formed the cartel that controls the Bowl Championship Series. This group of 63 schools has produced the last 17 national champions and the last 11 Heisman Trophy winners, and it gets nearly all of the national television time. The BCS teams dominate every aspect of the sport—except one. They don't rule the most important position on the field: quarterback.
Which brings us to the little guys. When it comes to developing a great quarterback—a guy with a live arm and a Pentium chip between the earholes of his helmet—the mid-level teams of Division I are doing a better job than the rich and famous programs. Two years ago the first three quarterbacks drafted by the NFL came from non-BCS schools. In the most recent draft four of the first five quarterbacks taken played at non-BCS schools, including David Carr of Fresno State, who was chosen first overall, by the Houston Texans. And this fall the two best senior passers are Byron Leftwich of Marshall, in the Mid-American Conference, and Dave Ragone of Louisville, in Conference USA.
"It would be tough for one of us to win the Heisman Trophy," Leftwich says, "but it's been proven that quarterbacks from everywhere can play in the NFL. The NFL doesn't care where you're from. It cares how you play."
That's not just the opinion of an NFL hopeful. "There are really no lines drawn on the pedigree of a quarterback," says Bill Walsh, the elder statesman of the San Francisco 49ers. The top two quarterbacks on the 49ers, Jeff Garcia of San Jose State and Tim Rattay of Louisiana Tech, came from schools that have their face guards pressed against the BCS glass.
Leftwich is 6'6", 240 pounds, runs a sophisticated offense and has a heater that Brett Favre would covet. Thundering Herd wide receiver Denero Marriott holds up his hands to show both pinkies jutting out at odd angles, bent by the repeated battering of Leftwich's passes. "After a game I've got to put my hands in ice to cool them off," Marriott says. "They stop hurting on Monday afternoon."
More important, since Marshall went 2-4 in Leftwich's first six starts, during his sophomore year, the quarterback has led the Thundering Herd to victories in 17 of its last 20 games. Last season he completed 315 of 470 attempts (67%) for 4,132 yards and 38 touchdowns, with only seven interceptions. Those regular-season numbers don't include his 576-yard, four-touchdown performance in Marshall's 64-61 double-overtime victory over East Carolina in the GMAC Bowl, in which Leftwich led the Herd back from a 38-8 halftime deficit.
The 6'4", 250-pound Ragone, a lefthander, is 20-5 as a starter and is a two-time C-USA Offensive Player of the Year. He runs Louisville's West Coast offense with aplomb, having thrown for 5,677 yards and 50 touchdowns over the past two seasons, but it is his competitiveness that his teammates love most. The next time he slides to avoid contact will be the first. Louisville coach John L. Smith cringes when he sees Ragone initiate a hit but accepts it as his quarterback's way. "Hell, he won't slide," Smith says. "Maybe he has a greater chance of getting hurt if I force him to do something he doesn't want to do."
For Ragone it's a simple matter of physics. "I'm not [hitting] to prove a point," he says. "I'm bigger than most corners and safeties."
Leftwich and Ragone owe their success in part to their teams' offensive styles. Marshall coach Bob Pruett has fashioned an offense with West Coast tendencies (short passes into open space are a staple) that depends on the intelligence of the quarterback, who calls the blocking schemes and has the authority to change plays at the line of scrimmage. "When Byron checks us out of a play," Marriott says, "he's right 99.5 percent of the time." In Pruett's six seasons the Thundering Herd has averaged 35.3 points and 315.8 passing yards per game. His offense is so well respected that he has lost four offensive coordinators to bigger schools. The most recent departure was that of Ed Zaunbrecher, who has installed Marshall's offense at Florida under new coach Ron Zook.
At Louisville, Smith began running the West Coast offense he had used at Utah State and quickly turned around a team that had gone 1-10 in 1997, the year before he arrived. The Cardinals have won the last two C-USA championships.