I was there at ESPN the Weekend when they announced he would be on the cover. I was very confused because they said the coverboy would be there. I was excited to see Chris Leak or Brady Quinn. Then I see Zabransky. I was confused, but he came across very well on ESPN Radio. I got his autograph, and then I went on my way. Here are some reasons why he deserves it.
1. He was the star in the biggest game of the year. College football fans remember last year for that game. He made the big plays (Hook & Ladder, Statue of Liberty), and David beat Goliath.
2. The features on the game were based off of him. The statue of liberty, hook and ladder, and the leadership feature were all based after him. He deserves to be on the cover for that reason.
3. Does it really matter? It is a cover of a video game that DOESN'T have a curse. He is a good player, and his play in that game made him deserve it. I don't care. Tom Zbikowski is on the cover of mine now.
Here is a problem I have with the players you listed.
Calvin Johnson didn't play in a big bowl. The casual fans who might buy this game would want to see someone who dominated in a big game because that is their lasting memory. He played in the Gator Bowl, which isn't very prestigious. He also was inconsistent statwise, another thing the casual fan doesn't want to see.
Troy Smith play in the National Championship game was indescribably bad. He threw for about 40 yards. The casual fan will remember him for that. Why would they want someone who couldn't even throw for fifty yards in the biggest game of their life?
You said it in your first sentence about Peterson. He was too oft-injured in college. He only played one full season. Wouldn't he create an NCAA curse? He's bound to be injured in the pros.
It would be hypocritical to say Zabransky shouldn't be on because of one game and put Russell on the cover. No one outside of the deep south knew Russell's name before the Sugar Bowl, and a good performance against a terrible pass defense somehow put him into the number one slot. I think you meant Ryan Leaf is closer to Russell.
Brady would be a good choice because of how often he was in the media at this point, but there are too many haters of Notre Dame and Quinn to put on the cover. They would boycott NCAA 08 which they would agree on at the Notre Dame-centric hate group where they normally plan to attack 5 year old Notre Dame fans and burn their house down. Okay. I sort of strayed there, but that is what ND haters probably do. Also, there is no way Brady Quinn is as big of bust of Leaf because he went number 22 overall. That would make him a medium-level bust if he doesn't turn out well, but he will be good so that doesn't matter.
Zabransky had everything the game wanted. He performed well in a big game, he was in the public eye, and he came across well in the media. Why shouldn't he be on the cover?