Quarterbacks Quash Gator Worries

There’s a lot of preseason consternation in and around Gainesville about the three-game swing involving Alabama, LSU and Auburn. It’s understandable to a point, but a larger examination of the realities of college football suggests these fears are somewhat exaggerated.

In the National Football League, not making mistakes is the mandate for most quarterbacks. If you’ve seen a 16-13 field-goal festival in the pro game anytime in the past few years, you don’t need to know why.

In the college game, however, the wider hashmarks, accordingly wide-open game, and variegated offensive styles all place a premium on playmaking from the QB position. The signal-caller is the nerve center for any offense at any level of football, but in the college brand of ball, the quarterback has the greatest burden to make plays. If you’re not getting considerable value out of this one position, you’re not likely to have a big-time season in college football.

Ask Texas how much the right quarterback (Vince Young) meant to the program. Ask the Longhorns’ rival, Oklahoma, how much the loss of the right quarterback (Jason White) hurt the program in a jarring 2005 season. Ask USC what two Heisman-winning quarterbacks will do to change a program’s fortunes.

Go to West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez, and ask him when the trajectory of the Mountaineers’ 2005 season changed. You’d learn that Rodriguez became a much better coach–and his program a newfound force in college football–only after starting quarterback Adam Bednarik got injured, giving way to an overlooked and underappreciated youngster named Pat White. In Atlanta’s Georgia Dome on January 2, White would run circles around Georgia’s defense on the way to 38 points and a Sugar Bowl victory.

Travel to Eugene and ask Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti how much the loss of Kellen Clemens killed the Quack Attack’s chances of beating Oklahoma in the Holiday Bowl last season. e Catch a Greyhound bus to Knoxville and ask Phil Fulmer if dysfunctional quarterback play severely undercut the Vols in their spectacular crash-and-burn 2005 season. While still in Tennessee, ask Bobby Johnson how much Jay Cutler meant to a sad-sack Vanderbilt program.

Leave home for Lubbock, Texas, and ask Mike Leach how one coach can get so much mileage out of an under-resourced program in a big-boy league by cultivating excellence at one position, the quarterback.

Go from a red state to a blue state and visit Berkeley. Then ask Jeff Tedford how much Aaron Rodgers so valuable to California’s success in 2004. Then ask Tedford how much Joe Ayoob’s quarterbacking problems held back the Bears in a disappointing 2005 season.

And to cap off your tour of the nation, go to living legend Joe Paterno and ask him about the significance of Michael Robinson’s emergence as a spiritual leader and clutch playmaker for Penn State in last year’s return to glory in Happy Valley.

The enormity of the importance of great quarterback play knows no regional limitations or conference-based constraints in college football. In all corners of the country, performance at this one position (not to mention leadership and other intangibles under center) carries a disproportionate effect on the outcomes of games, conference races, and whole seasons.

With all this having been said, then, Florida’s three-game gauntlet against the Tide and two Tigers–while certainly a tough stretch–is nevertheless a sequence of games in which two wins should not just be hoped for, but expected. Alabama, without Brodie Croyle, becomes a much more vulnerable team. The Gators–after seeing what transpired in Tuscaloosa last Autumn–should be overjoyed to stare down a fresh and inexperienced face in the cozy confines of the Swamp this season.

LSU and Auburn, while more loaded, have quarterbacks who–though experienced–have plenty of rough edges. JaMarcus Russell is notorious for the up-and-down nature of his performances, and a propensity to commit a lame-brained turnover. Auburn’s Brandon Cox developed an extraordinary rhythm and comfort level within the offensive system last November, but in a disastrous Capital One Bowl loss to a much slower Wisconsin team, Cox displayed the deer-in-the-headlights feel he exhibited in a season-o pening loss to Georgia Tech. Cox is likely to be an improved quarterback this season, but he’s hardly immune to pressure, especially against the kind of defense Florida will be able to put on the field against him.

Set against all these opponents is the senior version of Chris Leak, in year two under Urban Meyer’s system. Compared to Alabama, Florida enjoys a huge quarterback advantage. The fact that the Tide must come to Gainesville only increases the Gators’ edge in that contest… so much so that any talk about a three-game gauntlet in which the Gators need to take two of three should be reduced to discussion of a two-game Tiger trap in which the Gators must split. That one reality alone should re-shape the trajectory of the Gators’ season… and of any fears about getting too bloodied up by a schedule that’s imposing, but not quite as murderous as advertised.

The LSU and Auburn games will be incredibly difficult, but Leak’s leadership abilities–combined with his considerably improved comfort level within Meyer’s system–should enable the Gators to have more playmaking potency in tandem with excellent ball security. While Russell and Cox will give the two Tiger teams sligh tly more overall playmaking capability, LSU and Auburn will also be much more prone to turnovers and mistakes. Leak’s career reps under center–far greater than those of Cox, and notably greater than those of the erratic Russell–will enable the quarterback position to be a wash for the Gators in their games against LSU and Auburn, and perhaps even an advantage when the game gets into crunch time, when Leak’s presence as a senior leader could really pay dividends for Florida. And if the quarterback position is even, Florida’s strength on defense and special teams can carry the Gators to a win in at least one of those two games.

Serious analysis of the nature of college football demands that the quarterbacks are, in most cases, the focal point. With that being the case, the Gators don’t have to worry about a three-game deathmarch so much as a twin bill of Tiger tussles, one of which is at home against a team Florida almost upset in Baton Rouge last season.

Florida’s October slate is anything but easy, but worries about a two- or three-loss bloodbath this month are very much unfounded. (Georgia, the Gators’ last October opponent, also has a brand-new quarterback. Want to bet cash money that this young Pup will have the stones and the moxie to win a Cocktail Party against an opposing quarterback with senior experience? I don’t think so.) Don’t jettison your concerns if you look at the world through Orange and Blue lenses; just be a little less stressed in 2006.