Super Bowl LV will feature the quarterback who many regard as the G.O.A.T. — Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady— and the young quarterback who's arguably best positioned to some day wrestle that distinction from Brady, and that's Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes II.
I've written about their individual college careers before (Brady here and Mahomes here) but never directly compared them. The truth is, you really can't — at least without proper context. Brady didn't start until his junior year and he was a steady hand for run-first Michigan teams that were content to throw the ball less than 30 times a game. Mahomes was a starter by the the fourth game of his college career and, at times, he threw as many passes in one game as Brady did in three. A direct comparison is out due to the different eras and offensive philosophies. But, looking at their college careers side by side is one way to see some of the ways college football has changed since a skinny Tom Brady took up residence in Ann Arbor in 1996.
Brady entered college in 1996 at a school, Michigan, that at the time had claims to 10 national championships and his Wolverines won another title in 1997. Mahomes was a freshman in college nearly 20 years later, in 2014, at a school (Texas Tech) that has never finished a season ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll. The Red Raiders qualified for one bowl game in Mahomes' three seasons in Lubbock and they won a total of 16 games in his three seasons in college.
But despite their generational age divide and despite playing for programs that fall in two different parts of the spectrum — Michigan's all-time winning percentage (.727) ranks third among Power 5 schools and Texas Tech's winning percentage (.553) ranks 38th — the two quarterbacks will meet in Tampa, Fla., each looking to add another Super Bowl ring to another finger.
SUPER BOWL LV ROSTERS: Where the Chiefs and Buccaneers went to college
When Brady and Mahomes started their first games
Brady didn't start until his junior season in 1998. He was the backup when the Wolverines won the national title in the 1997 season and he started 23 games as an upperclassman after appearing in just six games in his first two seasons, when he attempted a total of 20 passes, completing 15 of them for 129 yards and an interception. Meanwhile, Mahomes started the fourth game of his college career as a true freshman, but that only came after starter Davis Webb was injured.
Mahomes finished his freshman season as Texas Tech's starting quarterback, a role he maintained as a sophomore and junior, before he left for the NFL.
In the two seasons prior to Mahomes entering college, redshirt freshmen quarterbacks won the Heisman Trophy — Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Florida State's Jameis Winston — so not only were young players, especially young quarterbacks, capable of earning significant playing time, they could also perform at the highest level of the sport.
How often Michigan and Texas Tech threw the ball
As a junior, Brady attempted a career-high 323 passes in 12 games, which is an average of 26.9 per game. When Mahomes was a junior, he completed 388 passes — 65 more than Brady attempted during his junior season. Mahomes had 591 attempts in 2016, or 49.3 per game, a year after he threw the ball 573 times.
While Mahomes, who played for current Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury in the pass-happy Big 12, was arguably even an outlier for his own era in terms of pass attempts, he was representative of modern offenses at any level. When Brady was a freshman, the national leader in pass attempts was UNLV's Jon Denton with 506 and in Brady's final season in 1999, Hawaii's Dan Robinson led the country with 556. When Brady was a high school senior, 453 was the high-water mark in college football for pass attempts.
In Brady's first season as a starter, Michigan ran the ball 480 times compared to Brady's 323 pass attempts (backup quarterback Drew Henson had 45). In Mahomes' final season in college, Texas Tech averaged 22 more pass attempts than rush attempts per game.
On the extreme end, Mahomes threw the ball 88 times against Oklahoma as a junior and he had 62 attempts against Kansas State earlier in the season. Eighty-eight attempts is roughly three games' worth of attempts for Brady at Michigan.
The efficiency of passing offenses
In Brady's freshman season, the national leader in yards per pass attempt was Florida's Danny Wuerffel, who averaged 10.1 yards per attempt, and in Mahomes' junior season, the national leader was Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, who averaged 11.1 yards per attempt. That comparison of national leaders is reflective of the times and that 1-yard average difference in pass attempts is also instructive when comparing Brady and Mahomes. Brady averaged 7.5 yards per attempt as both a junior and senior, while Mahomes averaged 8.5 yards per attempt as a junior.
Before Mayfield, there had only been two college football seasons in which the national leader averaged more than 11 yards per attempt: BYU's Ty Detmer in 1989 at 11.1 yards per attempt and Virginia Tech's Michael Vick in 1999 at 11.3. Since then the last four national leaders have also averaged more than 11 yards per attempt.
While Brady's passing efficiency rating was between 133 and 138 as a sophomore, junior and senior, Mahomes's rating in his three seasons of college was 151.2, 147.2 and 157.0, respectively. At his peak, Mahomes posted single-game passing efficiency ratings of 227.7 (against Louisiana Tech in 2016), 215.3 (Baylor in 2016) and 194.8 (Stephen F. Austin in 2016). The Texas Tech gunslinger played in an era where the national leader in passing efficiency rating (Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield) during Mahomes' junior year in 2016 averaged a higher rating (196.4) than all but two of Mahomes' single-game ratings during his career.
Patrick Mahomes' college records
Entering the 2020 college football season, Mahomes held the following FBS records:
- Most total yards in a game: 819 yards against Oklahoma (2016)
- Most passing yards gained against one opponent (min. three games): 553 against Baylor (2014-16)
- Tied for the most passing yards in a game: 734 against Oklahoma (2016)
Mahomes' name appears in the FBS record book 15 other times for other notable performances and stat lines in his career, while Brady's name is nowhere to be found in the FBS record book. While national statistical leaders don't always play for national championship contenders, it speaks to the current era of college football that Mahomes was able to put up the single-game, single-season and career numbers that he did without Texas Tech ever contending for anything more significant than a bowl game. In Brady's final season, the national leader in passing yards per attempt was Michael Vick who played for 11-1 Virginia Tech, which finished No. 2 in the AP poll, and the leader in completion percentage and passing yards, Marshall's Chad Pennington, played for a team that went 13-0 and finished No. 10.