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Can statistics decide who is best among history's great college QBs? Well, yes. And no

You could hardly blame the statisticians at the NCAA if they decided to print the "Passing" section of the NCAA record book in disappearing ink. Lately, most of the names and numbers seem to change with every season. The new name that has invaded this year's edition is that of David Klingler, the senior quarterback at the University of Houston.

In terms of raw numbers, Klingler, with only-one full season as a starter under his belt, is the most prolific passer in the history of the college game. In 1990, he set or tied 33 single-season and single-game records. And the records Klingler broke were not exactly dusty relics; indeed, many had been set by his immediate predecessor at Houston, Andre Ware. In all, Klingler and Ware appear 48 times in the NCAA record book. So, then, do we call them the best quarterbacks in college history? Not so fast.

It's a stubborn debate: Who's better, the old college quarterbacks with their gritty toughness and gun-fighter eyes, or the new hotshots with their run-and-shoot offenses and starry stats?

Not a fair question, says the reasonable fan. It's a totally different game today. The quarterback of old was a field general with a popgun arsenal at his disposal; today's quarterback is the pilot of an F-15. Put the oblong spheroid in the throwing hand of most any strapping 1990s youngster with good eyes and—boom!—it's a 400-yard game. Moreover, give the old-time greats—Sammy Baugh, Davey O'Brien, Bobby Layne, Johnny Lujack—today's receivers in today's offenses and 500 yards would be an off-day. Maybe.

How to settle this? Well, with more stats, of course. Assisted by the NCAA's own statistical gurus, SI has devised a formula that seeks to equalize, to the greatest degree possible, the variables—the numerical ones, anyway—that have distinguished the various eras of play.

We began with a list, provided by the NCAA stat men, of the 50 college quarterbacks deemed the best of all time. Yes, this was an unscientific beginning to an otherwise mathematical exercise—but we had to start somewhere.

The SI system considered each of the 50 quarterbacks in the six statistical categories that are most important to a quarterback's rèsumè. Each category was given the same weight. Furthermore, averages were used rather than totals, thus negating the fact that a player might have competed for three years instead of four. The categories:

•Yards per passing attempt. Many statisticians consider this a quarterback's most significant number.

•Completion percentage.

•The difference between the number of touchdown passes and the number of interceptions (TDs minus INTS.).

•Rushing average. Having a quarterback who can run is an inarguable advantage.

•Total individual offense generated, on a yards-per-play average.

•Team record. After all, the idea is to win games.

After the numbers were compiled, each quarterback was accordingly ranked—from 1 to 50—in each category. Finally, each quarterback's six categorical rankings were totaled and, as in golf, low score wins.

So who's No. 1? Steve Young! Steve Young? Yes, the former BYU quarterback from the early '80s, the same Steve Young who spent much of his pro career as a backup and began the '91 season subbing for the injured immortal Joe Montana. Montana? The Notre Dame hero finished No. 31. (Sorry, these stats can't be expected to anticipate great pro careers; Johnny Unitas, Y.A. Tittle and Fran Tarkenton don't even make our college honor roll.)

Number 2 on the chart is Danny White, who played for Arizona State from 1971 to '73. Is he impressed by his ranking? "All the statistics are completely objective," says White, the ex-Dallas Cowboy, "but the position [of quarterback] is completely subjective. The old guys were better leaders. They are the ones who are the real, real giants." BYU's Jim McMahon ranks No. 3 on the list, while TCU's legendary Baugh—who was sabotaged by his 39 touchdowns to 54 interceptions—is No. 49. But Dave Nelson, secretary-editor of the NCAA rules committee, doesn't hesitate in choosing between the two: "I'd take Baugh. Wouldn't everybody?"

The numbers cannot account for certain factors. Says Baugh, "When I was playing, you couldn't find a rule that favored the passing game. Now they all do." Indeed. At one point in the game's evolution, incompletions in the end zone gave the ball to the other team, which tended to have a chilling effect on a quarterback.

Comparisons are further clouded by the fact that many teams played in a single-wing formation, in which the tailback got the snap, ran and passed. He was the quarterback in everything but name. Dick Kazmaier was a Princeton tailback from 1949 to '51 who completed 59.5% of his passes (including 35 for touchdowns), rushed for 5.3 yards per try and led his team to a three-year record of 24-3-0. He was on the cover of TIME and won the Heisman. In the single wing, the quarterback blocked. At Princeton during Kazmaier's era, the quarterbacks were George Chandler and George Stevens. You remember them.

Jimmy Harris, the Oklahoma quarterback from 1954 to '56, led the Sooners to a 30-0-0 mark in his three seasons. With up-front numbers like that, how important are his other stats? Admits Harris, now a Shreveport, La., oilman "Something like that sure does spoil the rest of your life. If I hit on one in 20 oil wells these days, I'm real successful."

According to the SI rankings, the best oldie-but-goodie (pre-1960) is No. 8, Mississippi's Jake Gibbs, who is better remembered as a New York Yankee backup catcher to Yogi Berra and Elston Howard. Gibbs, now an assistant athletic director at his alma mater, understandably favors his peers: "We had more dedication, desire and toughness. We just liked the game more."

Even Steve Young admits, "The thing about the old time great players is they were great players." Which make: it not inappropriate that Young ended up at the top of our chart He's a throwback, a gutsy, do-whatever-it-takes type, a guy who would look great in a leather helmet. BYU coach LaVell Edwards says that if Young had been around earlier, "He would have been one of the great single-wing tailbacks."

So, then, that settles it. If Young were old.... Oh, never mind.




KLINGLER, 1990: His record-book blitz raises questions.



O'BRIEN, 1936: At No. 46, do his stats do him justice?



YOUNG, 1983: Thumbs up for a surprise No. 1.



GIBBS, 1959: Ole Miss great comes in at No. 8.



PEETE, 1988: Nifty numbers from the Trojan workhorse.



PLUNKETT, 1970: He outranks another Stanford man, Elway.



BAUGH, 1936: The rules of old favored a runner.



MONTANA, 1978: His numbers as a pro don't count here.