He was buried under Peyton Manning's press clippings all season and overlooked by the Heisman voters and, well, pretty much misunderstood by everyone from the residents of his hometown in Great Falls, Mont., to the national media.
Here's why not: Leaf might be the best NFL quarterback prospect in college football. He has the size, ability and personality to be a top-flight pro, and tomorrow's game could be his ticket to the No. 1 selection in this year's NFL draft.
If he moves the ball the way he did during Washington State's surprising 10-1 season, Michigan's dream of a first national championship since 1948 could become one of those Rose Bowl nightmares that Pacific-10 teams have been dishing up throughout the storied history of college football's most venerated bowl game.
"It all starts with Mr. Leaf," said Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. "He might be the best quarterback we've faced in the 18 years I've been at Michigan. If we don't get pressure on Ryan Leaf, it's going to be a long day."
Leaf is just trying to make sure he doesn't put any pressure on himself. He has spent the last week foiling media attempts to portray the game as a one-on-one duel between him and the nation's best defensive player.
Woodson will be waiting in the defensive backfield for any opportunity to upstage Leaf and the Cougars, but Leaf said he will treat him no differently from anyone else on the other side of the line.
"This game isn't Ryan Leaf vs. Charles Woodson," he said. "It's Washington State vs. Michigan."
Don't be surprised, however, if that is what it comes down to when the Cougars take the field for their first Rose Bowl appearance in 67 years. Leaf has to move the ball through the air to upend the Wolverines, and no one is better at turning the passing game against the opposition than Woodson, who recently became the first defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy.
The numbers say it will be a high-scoring affair. Leaf completed ++ 210 of 375 passes this year for 3,637 yards and 33 touchdowns, or an average of three touchdown passes per game. He failed to pass for at least 300 yards only twice -- against Oregon and Stanford -- and finished with an impressive 161.18 NCAA quarterback rating.
"Ryan hasn't had one bad game," Cougars coach Mike Price said. "He's a tremendous leader with great confidence, a strong arm, great vision; he's super confident, understands the game, our game. He's the best."
The Cougars averaged more than 42 points per game. The Wolverines averaged 28 points, but played a far tougher overall schedule that featured five ranked teams and included defensive powerhouses Ohio State and Penn State.
This clearly will be the biggest test of Leaf's 2 1/2 -year college career, and probably the last. He is projected to be a top-three pick if he decides to come out for the NFL draft. Might even go higher than his friend and rival, Manning. Who knows? He might even be the guy to turn around the Ravens.
Ravens officials are known to be interested in Leaf, but would have to trade up in the draft to get a shot at him. He isn't saying what he's going to do, but the prospect of a huge NFL contract figures to persuade him to bypass his final year of college eligibility. For the moment, he is saying all of the politically correct things about tomorrow's game and leaving the future to take care of itself.
"This game is the biggest thing in my life," Leaf said. "I think it's great for not only this team, but for everybody who has been associated with this university and come before us. They paved the way for this. We are at a point where everybody can relish this."
Leaf refused to ponder the possibilities that await him afterward.
"I really haven't allowed myself to think about that," he said, "because I want to be focused on this game. When the time comes -- and that will be Jan. 2 -- I'll put in some deep thought about it."
In some interviews, he has said that the decision on whether to come out for the draft already has been made. This week, he hedged, but his entry into the draft appears to be a foregone conclusion.
He refused to speculate on where he might want to play and sidestepped questions about the possibility of playing for the Ravens -- except to say that he has never been to Baltimore and has "no impressions" of either the city or the team.
First things first.
Leaf, at 6 feet 6 and 238 pounds, clearly is the prototype NFL quarterback, but it remains to be seen how he will handle the pressure and media attention that never became a huge issue at Washington State. He is an intensely competitive, cocky player who still bears a grudge against the hometown folks in Great Falls for the way he was treated when he chose to go to school out of state instead of the University of Montana.
"These are the same people who didn't like me when I was growing up," Leaf said last week. "The same ones who thought I was overly competitive, overly confident. They never accepted me. They all said I'd fall on my face when I went to Washington State. I don't like Great Falls. I don't like to go back to Great Falls."
He just wants to be the guy who makes No. 1 Michigan take a great fall this week, then step into the bright future that apparently awaits him in the NFL.
"He wants to be the best," Price said. "He wants to be the No. 1 quarterback in the entire country and wants to be the best that's ever played the game. He has a passion for it, and he's willing to do anything it takes to win, within reason."
Pub Date: 12/31/97
No. 7 Washington State can become one of the lowest-ranked teams to beat a No. 1 team in a bowl game if it can defeat Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
No. Winner, Loser, Yr. Bowl
11 UCLA, Ohio St., '76 Rose
7 Ky., Okla., '51 Sugar
6 N. Dame, Texas, '71 Cotton
6 Wash., Minn., '61 Rose
5 Texas, Ala., '65 Orange
5 N. Dame, Texas, '78 Cotton
5 Miami, Neb., '84 Orange