Believe it or not, Peyton Manning’s stats as a true freshman are worse than Casey Clausen’s, Erik Ainge’s and even Tyler Bray’s. But his degree of difficulty was way higher, and that’s why we have him so high on the list.
Manning committed to Tennessee football expecting to redshirt. However, he was thrust into the starting lineup with the Vols standing at 1-3 due to season-ending injuries to Jerry Colquitt and Todd Helton.
And Manning’s first start with that record was against the Washington State Cougars, who had the No. 1 defense in the country. Oh, two games later he’d face the Alabama Crimson Tide, who were simply the No. 1 team in the country. Under Manning, UT beat WSU and lost to Alabama while beating the Arkansas Razorbacks in between.
But at 3-4, Manning rallied the team as a freshman and helped the Vols win out, beating the South Carolina Gamecocks, Memphis Tigers, Kentucky Wildcats and Vanderbilt Commodores. After a rocky year on Rocky Top, Manning showed just what he could be by leading UT to a dominating 45-23 win over the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Gator Bowl.
That degree of difficulty to get to 8-4 outweighs his mere 11 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. He still completed 61 percent of his passes for 1,141 yards. And Manning’s play set the stage for the 45-5 run that would come the next four years with two SEC Championships and a national championship.