NEW ORLEANS — When 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was playing for Nevada in college, his home field, Mackay Stadium, had a capacity of 29,993. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco never played in front of more than 22,495 at Delaware.
Sunday, Kaepernick and Flacco will be the focal points of a game witnessed by more than 73,000 at the Superdome, and beamed out to literally billions of people across the globe.
You'd think they might be nervous. We're not talking about Wolfpack vs. Blue Hens. But these quarterbacks are proving that small schools can be the source of big NFL accomplishments.
"I think there's a lot of players out there — no matter if they're from a Division I school, I-AA, II, III — there's a lot of players out there that can play this game, that for whatever reason get overlooked," Flacco said this week. "So to see a handful of 'em pop through and actually have success is definitely something that you'd take a little bit of pride in."
Certainly, he and Kaepernick are not the first Super Bowl quarterbacks who didn't graduate from the Big Ten or Southeast Conference.
Terry Bradshaw, who won four championships with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was from Louisiana Tech. Phil Simms, the Super Bowl MVP with the Giants in XXI, went to Morehead State. Doug Williams, the MVP of XXII, went to Grambling. Ben Roethlisberger (Miami of Ohio) and Kurt Warner (Northern Iowa) have played in three Super Bowls each. Brett Favre (Southern Mississippi) played in two.
Heck, Flacco isn't even the first Blue Hen product to start in the big game. Rich Gannon, whose Raiders lost to Tampa Bay in XXXVII, played at Delaware, too.
But with both starters coming from schools not counted among the traditional powers, and with both of them playing at a high level in the playoffs thus far, Super Bowl XLVII could be the triumph of the underdogs.
For explanations, you have to dig all the way down to high school, where more coaches than ever are trusting their quarterbacks to throw the ball. That has created a glut of promising QBs at the college level.
Trent Dilfer has seen it. The former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst has been coaching at Elite 11, the network's annual quarterback competition, for several years.
"I'm going around the country, and every state I go to, there's five Colin Kaepernicks," said Dilfer, who played at Fresno State and later helped the Ravens to victory in Super Bowl XXXV. "You know, they're 6-4, 6-5, 225 pounds, and they run 4.5 (in the 40-yard dash). Oh, and by the way, they can really pass. It's bigger than just &‘small schools have good quarterbacks.' There's a boatload of really good quarterbacks out there."
As Dilfer points out, most major college programs are able to recruit just one stud passer at a time, because elite players don't want to sit the bench. That shakes loose a lot of good quarterbacks for second-tier schools.
And when they get there, they frequently encounter excellent coaching these days. That was the case for Kaepernick, whose college coach, Chris Ault, is now being canonized for his invention of the Pistol offense. He designed it largely for Kaepernick, and not only was it unstoppable at Nevada, it has been a big reason for the 49ers' offensive success in 2012.