The USFL is full of stories of players whose resilience has allowed them to keep their football dreams alive. That is the case for both starting quarterbacks who will play in Saturday night's USFL Championship Game in the Birmingham Stallions' Alex McGough and the Pittsburgh Maulers' Troy Williams.
A former seventh-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks, McGough has spent time with three NFL teams but never played in a regular-season game. Williams, who went undrafted despite successful college stints at Utah and Santa Monica College, tried out for the Seahawks and Chargers before spending several years as a backup in the Canadian Football League.
Neither quarterback gave up on their dream, however, and both players made the most of their opportunities to start for their respective USFL teams this past season. McGough, who replaced J'Mar Smith when Smith suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1, is widely expected to be named league MVP after leading the Stallions back to the championship game. Williams has led the Maulers on a three-game winning streak that included last weekend's thrilling win over the Michigan Panthers in the North Division Championship.
"It's meant a lot to me," Williams told CBS Sports ahead of Saturday night's USFL title game when asked about this season. "Just being in the locker room with the guys. Making the active roster. Throughout the journey, you learn to appreciate the small things that come with being on a football team. It's just a blessing to be here. The fact that I am able to take advantage of the opportunity that was given to me makes it even better. I've been preparing for this opportunity for a long time. … I'm excited to finish the season off the right way."
Williams embodies the Maulers' rise from a one-win outfit in 2022 to North Division champions in 2023. Pittsburgh was 2-6 through eight weeks and needed to win its final two games to have any shot at making the playoffs. The Maulers, on the strength of Williams' steady play and a dominant defense, got things going by edging Michigan in Week 9 before routing the New Jersey Generals in Week 10 to clinch a postseason berth.
In the North Division Championship, the Maulers had an early lead but found themselves trailing Michigan with 2:04 remaining. Channeling his inner Tom Brady, Williams responded by hitting receiver Ishmael Hyman for the go-ahead score on fourth-and-6 with 44 seconds left. And after the Panthers forced overtime, Williams accounted for both of Pittsburgh's overtime shootout scores while leading the Maulers to a 31-27 win.
"We've always had faith in ourselves," said Williams, who has thrown just three interceptions this season. "We've been in every single game this year with the exception being down in Memphis. Just beating Michigan (in Week 9) to help keep our hopes alive gave us even more confidence that we could really run the table and get to the point that we're at now."
Williams' performance last Saturday night was appreciated by McGough, who watched the game ahead of the Stallions' South Division Championship showdown with the New Orleans Breakers.
"He played a heck of a football game," McGough told CBS Sports this week when asked about Williams, who amassed 280 total yards in Pittsburgh's 24-20 loss to Birmingham back in Week 4. "Came up clutch when he needed to. That's what the position is about, shining when the lights are brightest. ... I think he's a great player. He's got a lot of speed. He doesn't put the ball in danger, and that's the biggest thing for a quarterback, to protect the ball."
Like Williams with the Maulers, McGough is a reflection on what type of year it's been for the Stallions. Birmingham overcame a slew of injuries to make it back to the championship game. They've received herculean efforts from former backups that include McGough, who led the USFL in touchdown passes during the regular season while leading Birmingham to an 8-2 record.
Williams and McGough have similarities and differences regarding their play. Along with being a dangerous runner, Williams -- who grew up a big Donovan McNabb fan -- is able to negate pass rushes with quick passes that often find their mark. McGough is a blend of the two quarterbacks he grew up cheering for -- Brady and Aaron Rodgers -- while also implementing some of the things he learned from Russell Wilson, his former Seahawks teammate.
"He taught me how to set up the D-line," McGough said of Wilson. "He manipulated them in ways I never did before. He knows how to look people off in ways where he's still seeing what he needs to see. Really grateful for the time I was able to spend with him."
McGough and the Stallions' dominance was on display last weekend. In front of their home crowd, the Stallions sliced through the talented Breakers like a hot knife through butter. McGough was especially sharp, completing 21 of 31 passes for 310 yards and four touchdowns and no interceptions. He pumped up the crowd numerous times during Birmingham's 47-22 win.
"That was really, really high on my list of greatest feelings in playing sports," McGough said of the win. "Just from the crowd cheering from what happened in the game to the hype of the rivalry (the Breakers) were hyping up. Just for us to go out and handle our business the way we did with the crowd support behind us was a top-two moment of my sports career."
With the win, the Stallions improved to 20-3 over the past two seasons. Along with having talented players and coaches, McGough identified one intangible quality that has contributed mightily to the Stallions' success over the past two years.
"Playing for each other and playing as a team and not as individuals is a key thing in this game, and I think we do that," McGough said. "Everybody plays for each other. … I truly think that's why teams win and win over the course of years. … We have that on this team."
While he didn't start, McGough did play in last year's USFL Championship Game. He replaced an injured Smith in the second half and threw a touchdown pass in Birmingham's victory over the Philadelphia Stars. McGough kept it simple when asked what he and his teammates will have to do on Saturday night to repeat as champions.
"If Birmingham scores one more point than the Pittsburgh Maulers," McGough said before sharing a quote to support that answer: "The one who has surrendered the outcome is the one who has the greatest chance of success.
"I'm just trying to a win. I try not to focus on the future or the past. I try to just focus on what I've got to do right now. Right now, it's eat cashews and talk to you, and in 30 minutes, it's going to change. It's a constant battle of not thinking about things that I cannot control. That's all I try to do. … There's no such thing as pressure in the past or future. The pressure comes from your expectation of what's going to happen. That's something that I can't control, so why worry about it?
"If every player on the Birmingham Stallions gives everything they have, then the outcome will be what it is."
While McGough wouldn't allow himself to discuss the possible feeling of winning another USFL title, Williams shared what it would mean to him to be the winning quarterback Saturday night at Tom Benson Stadium. Williams' answer was on brand with what the USFL largely stands for: an opportunity for talented football players to make their dreams a reality.
"That would be awesome. That would be everything I could ask for, not just for me, but for people who have been or are in my situation," Williams said. "Kids back home, players that are trying to find a way and haven't had the opportunity. For me to go out there and go through everything that I've been through and to be able to win the championship would go to show that if you just stick with it, continue to have your faith and be ready when the time comes, you'll be able to take advantage of the opportunity."