Michael, would you mind?" asked a young woman, thrusting a program toward Marcus Vick for an autograph. He had just played the best game of his college career, keeping undefeated Virginia Tech in the national championship chase with a rousing win over No. 13 Boston College last Thursday, but as he exited Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va., with a cluster of Hokies fans following him, Marcus was reminded that he is still the second most famous Vick. "Sorry, I meant Marcus," the woman said. Vick scribbled his name for her, unfazed by the reference to his brother, the Atlanta Falcons' Pro Bowl quarterback. "It happens," Marcus said. Then he paused. "But not as much as it used to."
The occasional slip of the tongue by a fan isn't surprising, since Michael led Virginia Tech to the BCS championship game in January 2000 before becoming the first pick in the 2001 NFL draft. But Marcus, a junior in his first season as the Hokies' starting quarterback, has already convinced many observers that he will one day be better than his big brother. A few even believe that day is already here, a conviction that was bolstered when the younger Vick completed 22 of 28 passes for 280 yards and a touchdown in the 30--10 win over the Eagles. Marcus can really make a name for himself in the coming weeks if he takes No. 3 Virginia Tech one step further than Michael did and wins the national title.
To do that, Marcus will have to steer the Hokies through a daunting late-season schedule that began with BC and continues at home this Saturday against No. 5 Miami. A road game against Virginia follows two weeks later, and if the Hokies survive those challenges, they could face No. 9 Florida State in the ACC championship game on Dec. 3. Running the table against such formidable foes would seemingly prove the Hokies deserving of an invitation to play for the national title, but in the world of the BCS, undefeated teams don't always get what they deserve. If USC and Texas, the two teams that sit 1--2 in the BCS standings, also remain unblemished, it's unlikely that even a perfect season would vault Virginia Tech past either one. But the 8--0 Hokies don't plan to stop winning or believing. "If you got through all those [games]," said coach Frank Beamer on Oct. 25, "and the computer didn't go ring-a-ding-ding...."
Beamer didn't finish the sentence, maybe because he remembered that undefeated Auburn didn't ring the BCS bell last season--the Tigers were left out of the title game in favor of Oklahoma and USC. Such a fate could befall the Hokies this year, partly because, even though no one in Blacksburg likes to acknowledge it, USC and Texas have more glamorous, tradition-laden programs. If the Trojans and the Longhorns are the old-money aristocrats in the BCS penthouse, the Hokies are the nouveaux riches, the arrivistes with the clashing maroon-and-orange color scheme who struck it rich by hitting a mother lode of Vicks. In a system that combines human opinion with computer data, Virginia Tech's relative lack of prestige could be a factor.
On the field, however, the Hokies just might have all the components to battle USC or Texas on equal footing. They possess breathtaking team speed; a big-play defense with a havoc-causing end (Darryl Tapp) and a shutdown cornerback (Jimmy Williams); a committee of running backs (Mike Imoh, Cedric Humes and Branden Ore) who help them piece together time-consuming drives; and dangerous special-team units that are always a threat to score. That last attribute is a trademark of Beamer, a Virginia Tech alum who, after a rather ordinary first decade as coach, has become a beloved figure in Blacksburg. Now in his 19th season, Beamer recently signed a seven-year extension for a reported $2 million a year, and a popular T-shirt at Lane Stadium these days reads WHO NEEDS A BENZ WHEN YOU'VE GOT A BEAMER?
"That's a team with all the pieces," says Boston College coach Tom O'Brien. "They don't have an area where you would say USC or Texas or any other team would definitely exploit them. They can play with anybody in the country, and you just hope for their sake they get a chance to prove it."
If the Hokies feel as if they're playing in the shadow of the Trojans and the Longhorns, they don't let on. When the conversation turns to BCS issues, they shift into a well-rehearsed noncommittal mode. A question about the two vaunted programs had Imoh shaking his head before it was even finished. "Nope, don't think about 'em," he said after the BC win. "Don't know who they're playing or when. The only other team I'm thinking about besides us is Miami because that's our next game."
That tunnel vision undoubtedly comes from Beamer, who has already announced that his "ring-a-ding-ding" comment will be his last word on the BCS issue. He's more forthcoming when the topic is Vick, the elder or the younger. "They're both humble, intelligent, tough, physically talented, everything you'd want in a quarterback," he says. "I feel good when a Vick is behind center." As well he should: The Hokies are 28--1 with one of the brothers as the starter.
On the field the Vicks are uncannily similar in many ways--they are both listed at 6 feet, with Marcus a pound heavier at 216, and they both have sub-4.3 speed in the 40--but with just enough variation to mark them as individuals. Michael can turn a game into a magnificent mess, improvising on pass plays and jetting out of the pocket on broken-field runs, while Marcus employs a tidier style whose hallmark is highly accurate intermediate passing. Unlike his brother, he runs just enough to scare opponents that he'll do it more often. Beamer has actually urged Marcus to scramble more, encouragement that Michael never needed. "There have been times we've been yelling to Marcus to run, and he hangs in there and finds his third receiver," says offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring. "If you want him to run, you better call a draw."
An armchair psychologist might guess that Marcus is a reluctant scrambler partly because Michael is such a frequent one and Marcus wants to take a path different from his big brother's. There is, after all, not a day when Marcus can avoid being reminded of his bloodlines; he even studies film in Michael Vick Hall. But there seems to be little rivalry between the brothers--more like sibling support. Michael is on the Hokies' sideline whenever his schedule allows, but he declined an interview at the BC game, not wanting to steal the spotlight from his brother.
Even though Marcus, a righthander, is the more accurate passer, Michael, a lefty, has the superior mechanics. "Mike throws the ball better than anybody, strictly in terms of delivery," says Virginia Tech quarterbacks coach Kevin Rogers. "This guy [Marcus], he'll drive you crazy sometimes [with an inconsistent release point], but the ball goes where it's supposed to. Things don't have to be perfect for him to be accurate. He can throw it off his back foot or running sideways, and still put it on the numbers." It's that ability that has given rise to the theory that Marcus is the better all-around quarterback. He has the speed and the strength to run nearly as well as Michael when necessary, and he's more patient and consistent than his brother when he stays in the pocket.
Against BC, Marcus hit receivers in stride with nearly unerring accuracy. In his approach to the game he exhibited the kind of prudent decision-making that he hasn't always shown off the field. After a redshirt freshman season in which he showed spectacular flashes in a backup role, Vick sabotaged what would have been his sophomore season with a series of legal scrapes.
In February 2004 Vick, Imoh and defensive back Brenden Hill were arrested and charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor after a party with underage girls at Vick's apartment. Vick pleaded no contest to one misdemeanor count in September of that year and received a 30-day suspended jail term, was fined $100 and ordered to perform 24 hours of community service. (Imoh and Hill also avoided jail by pleading no contest to one count.) By that time Vick had also been arrested on charges of reckless driving and possession of marijuana. He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor possession of marijuana and guilty to reckless driving, was fined $300 and agreed to perform another 24 hours of community service. In August 2004, a month after the second arrest, the university suspended him for the fall semester, and Vick's sophomore season, in which he was expected to battle senior Bryan Randall for the starting job, was over before it began.
Vick spent part of his exile completing his community service at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Hampton Roads in his hometown of Newport News, Va. Although he played touch football and talked with the kids, he didn't get away with just an extended celebrity appearance. He swept floors, wiped tables and cleaned locker rooms. "He and I agreed that it wasn't going to be some vacation for him," says Pooh Johnson, the director of the club. "He did everything we asked of him, willingly."
When Vick wasn't working at the club, he split his time between the Suffolk, Va., home of his mother, Brenda Boddie, and Michael's place in Atlanta, trying to keep his mind off what he was missing. Michael offered his brother one piece of advice while they were housemates: Slow down. "He told me I don't have to be out in public all the time," Marcus says. "It's O.K. to stay home and chill out. That's what I've tried to do." Teammates attest that Vick has been much less visible on the social scene this season. "He's matured a lot from going through all of it," says Williams.
Vick can still be headstrong--he responded to taunting fans at West Virginia earlier this season with a middle-finger salute, for which he later apologized--but the Hokies don't expect perfection from him overnight, even if he expects it from himself. "I can play better," he said after his sterling performance against Boston College. "My goal is to play better against Miami than I did tonight." If that happens, the Hokies will ratchet up the pressure on USC, Texas and the BCS system, not to mention Virginia Tech fans. The next time Marcus and Michael are together and an autograph seeker wants the signature of the best quarterback to come out of Blacksburg, which Vick will he pick?
Look for The Hot Button from Phil Taylor every Wednesday at SI.com.
Compare the statistics of the Vicks through their first eight starts--all of them victories--and Marcus stands up well against Michael, though it's worth noting that big brother started as a redshirt freshman.