An NFL draft light on great quarterbacks is good news for college football fans: The 2013 season is loaded with talented and accomplished players at the most important position in sports. So throughout the rest of the summer, we're counting down the top 10 quarterbacks in college football, one per week until the season kicks off. These rankings are based on college ability, not necessarily NFL potential. In the final installment, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M checks in at No. 1.

The countdown:

10. Brett Hundley, UCLA
9. David Fales, San Jose State
8. Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois
7. Aaron Murray, Georgia
6. Braxton Miller, Ohio State
5. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
4. Tajh Boyd, Clemson
3. AJ McCarron, Alabama
2. Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M

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It was all so much simpler then. On a Friday night in early January, 87,025 people packed into Cowboys Stadium to witness history, to see Johnny Manziel, first freshman Heisman winner, cap off a memorable season by dazzling fans and confusing Oklahoma, racking up a Cotton Bowl record 516 total yards. Only recently had he been even granted the freedom to speak to the media, and up until that point he had, mostly, been known to us only as a surprisingly great football player.

Now, we know better. We've spent months talking about Johnny Football, the persona rather than the player. We've talked about autographs, and about bogus NCAA investigations and rules, and about magazine profiles that expose his apparent flaws, and about alleged hangovers and missed meetings with Mannings, and about casinos, and about parking tickets and tweets, and about questionable academic practices, and about whether he can play in the NFL, and about so many other things that spring up when a mostly unprecedentedly famous college athlete tries to live a life as a rich college kid, making mistakes along the way.

Mercifully, the offseason of Johnny Manziel is ending, but not after he has become the embodiment of everything we both love and hate about college football, wrapped into one 6-foot-1, 200-pound 20-year-old.

And through these seven long months since the Cotton Bowl, it's as if one detail has gotten somewhat lost in the controversy and attention: On the eve of the 2013 season, have we forgotten just how good Johnny Football is at actually, you know, playing college football?

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There is a certain class of superior athletes who possess the ability to look larger than life on the field in college football, more so than when they get to the NFL, where every opponent is bigger, faster, smarter and more mature. That's not to say the Adrian Petersons and Calvin Johnsons of the world don't look like superheroes against the rest of the NFL, but the college game presents a more unbalanced playing field full of less disciplined athletes, one that creates more opportunities for absurd stats and breathtaking plays. The gap between best and worst is undeniably greater.

That class of superior athletes is LaVar Arrington jumping over the Illinois offensive line and landing on the running back. It's Jadeveon Clowney crashing through Vincent Smith in the blink of an eye. It's Devin Hester running in circles until he can break through the Duke defense. It's Peter Warrick dancing his way through Louisiana Tech. It's Tommie Frazier breaking away from a pile of Florida Gators and sprinting to the end zone. It's Tyrann Mathieu flying around the ball and making plays everywhere on the field.

It's most certainly Johnny Manziel making the heads of Bob Stoops and Nick Saban spin.

"It's hard if you've got an angle on him, he stops, goes the other way," Stoops said, in one of many befuddled moments after Manziel embarrassed Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl in January. "If you don't, he out-runs you. Our guys, I don't know if we had a track meet who would win. I know all the changes of direction, what he does, is tough to deal with in the open field."

Manziel is what would have happened had Michael Vick come along in college football a decade later in an era of up-tempo and spread offenses. Vick may be faster, with a stronger arm, but the way Manziel effortlessly glides past and between defenders with an explosive burst brings to mind Vick's ability to make similar plays in the open field.

Vick was brilliant as a freshman in 1999, but he was handcuffed by the era he played in, as illustrated by a comparison between Vick's freshman season, when he finished third in the Heisman voting and Virginia Tech lost to Florida State in the national title game, and Manziel's season last year, when he became the first freshman Heisman winner ever:


Pass Yds

Comp Pct




Rush Yds

Rush TDs




















The difference is staggering, and if you wonder what Vick could have looked like as a college quarterback playing somewhere like Texas A&M in 2013 (or as a 20-year-old under Chip Kelly at Oregon instead of a 33-year-old under Kelly with the Philadelphia Eagles), Manziel has to be about the closest thing. He's a world-class improviser, the quarterback who goes off script in such unpredictable and unusual manners -- running in circles, for instance -- that defenses rarely have a chance to catch up or anticipate what will happen. All they're left to do is attempt to stay home, play with disciplined movements and contain him in a confined area, while combatting not only Manziel, but a great Aggies offensive line (one that loses All-American Luke Joeckel but will still be a strength of the team behind Jake Matthews).

But only the best, most athletic defenses stand a chance of accomplishing that. Only maybe LSU and Florida, which did contain him, or Alabama, which saw its mechanistic defenders shockingly thrown off guard anyway, falling behind 20-0 before pulling itself together.

Facing a schedule in which the next best opponents, behind Alabama and LSU, are Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, it's hard to identify anyone who can duplicate what the Crimson Tide and Tigers are capable of doing to Manziel and the Aggies. And while the pressure is mounting in a way that almost no athlete can handle, and while expectations are nearly impossible in the follow-up to a Heisman campaign, we've yet to see if that crush will affect him on a football field.

Maybe it will, and maybe this season will be a disaster, or maybe it will be merely mediocre by the impossible standards he has set. But until any of that happens, all available evidence has illustrated that, while Teddy Bridgewater is the most refined quarterback and the best NFL prospect, Manziel is the best quarterback playing the college game today, capable of being one of the best to ever play at this level.

Bridgewater's precision and scientific mastering of the position are fun to watch in their own right, but nothing is as watchable as the unpredictable artistry of that rare class of players like Manziel.

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So maybe we haven't necessarily forgotten how good Manziel is, of course, but through a long offseason filled with distractions, it's easy for our memories and our perceptions to become distorted. Which is part of the reason why it would be a shame if Manziel was kept from playing in Texas A&M's opener against Rice, in anticipation of a potential NCAA ruling, or even worse, long-term because of an NCAA-mandated punishment.*

*UPDATE: On Wednesday afternoon, and reported that Manziel will be suspended for one half of the Rice game, and that's it.

In four-hour windows on Saturdays, Manziel plays football in a uniquely great way. Thousands of athletes shuffle through the sport, many not good enough to play much, others confined within the system they're a part of. But a player like Manziel transcends a system. With him at quarterback, there are no constraints -- just a good arm, blazing speed and unparalleled playmaking instincts that allow him to toy with defenses and make the types of plays that make football captivating.

The context surrounding Manziel, off the field, includes every distraction we have grown to hate about the game. But entering the 2013 season, he's the best offensive player in college football, and every Saturday we'll be reminded that he's the exact type of player who keeps us watching. The end of the offseason is a beginning, one in which, hopefully, the guy who was the most entertaining football player in America will have a chance to remind us that he is still, in fact, the most entertaining football player in America.

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