Leak has the numbers, but lacks the ring
Among the many provocative questions debated at a recent ESPN college football think tank was this:
Why did Notre Dame's 9-3 in 2005 play to much better reviews than Florida's 9-3?
Here's why, from my perspective:
• Deservedly or not, Florida began the season in almost every top 10. Notre Dame was outside almost every top 25. Given those starting points, one underachieved and one overachieved.
• Florida has had enough recent success that 9-3 doesn't dilate many pupils. Notre Dame had suffered three losing seasons in the previous six and was flat desperate for a return to glory.
• Florida committed the mortal sin of being upset by its former coach, Steve Spurrier. Notre Dame took care of business when playing its former coach, Tyrone Willingham.
• Florida had Urban Meyer and Chris Leak, the hottest coach in the country and a heralded quarterback who threw 29 touchdown passes as a sophomore and figured to blossom after escaping bumbling Ron Zook. Notre Dame had Charlie Weis and Brady Quinn, an unknown commodity as a college head coach and a quarterback whose promise was buried beneath excessive interceptions and a mediocre completion percentage.
• And then there was this: When Meyer left Utah in December 2004, he turned down Notre Dame in favor of Florida, leaving no doubt which he thought was the better program.
It will take years to know for sure whether Meyer chose the wrong job. But in the short term, it can be argued that he chose the wrong quarterback.
Leak had a good junior season and is on the Heisman radar, but saw his passer rating dip from 144.9 as a sophomore to 136.5. This season, he labors under the burden of unfulfilled expectations while some Florida fans are anxious for the Next Big Thing, true freshman Tim Tebow, to usurp the Last Big Thing, Leak. All fame is fleeting, even for five-star recruits.
The relative positioning of Leak and Quinn has reversed itself -- not only from their first two years of college but from high school.
Quinn and Leak were members of the Class of 2003. Quinn was the overall No. 95-rated prospect in the nation by Scout.com and the No. 14 quarterback. Leak was the No. 6 prospect overall and the No. 2 QB in the land, and his signing was supposed to put the Gators back in the business of winning titles.
That didn't come close to happening under Zook, of course. And it didn't happen immediately under Meyer, as so many people predicted it would.
With a record of 22-11 as a starter and no SEC Eastern Division championships, much less SEC overall or national titles, Leak lacks a defining college moment. The quarterback and his coach are well aware of that.
"I don't hear [Florida fans] talking about yardage and touchdowns when they talk about Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel and Rex Grossman," Meyer said. "I hear them talking about championships. I think that's deservedly so.
"When you're the quarterback, the question is: How many championships did you win at Florida? [Leak] has got one more chance to do it."
Said Leak: "My expectations were high when I came here. My main goal was to win a national title. Those are the expectations you have as a Gator."
The hype spiked in Leak's first start, at Kentucky, four games into his true freshman season. He led the Gators back from 18 points down in the fourth quarter (aided and abetted by the usual self-destructive tendencies of the Wildcats), and a star was born.
"When you're able to start for four years at the University of Florida, you have to grow up fast," Leak said.
The guy has been first-team All-Class for four years, always handling himself well in the spotlight. He might be willfully bland at times, but he's not going to embarrass the program.
The question is whether he's going to elevate the program.
It would be a grave mistake to say Leak isn't a very good quarterback. He's third among active college quarterbacks in career yards (8,271), trailing only Houston's Kevin Kolb and Quinn. He's easily the SEC's active leader in wins, touchdown passes and completions, as well. He trails only the holy trinity of Wuerffel, Matthews and Grossman in most categories on the Florida career charts, and should blow past them in several areas if he stays healthy this year. He played extremely well in Florida's 2005 season-ending triumphs over rival Florida State and over Iowa in the Outback Bowl.
"The public perception's an amazing thing, especially here at Florida," Meyer said. "Ron Powlus was the quarterback at Notre Dame when I got there [as an assistant coach in 1996]. I saw what was thrust upon him, with Beano Cook saying he'd win two or three Heismans. The expectations, it bordered on insanity."
The obvious parallel is to Leak, who is Powlus with better numbers and fewer critics.
"The reality is that Chris had his best year [in 2005]," Meyer said. "What decides that? Wins and losses and winning a bowl game."
Better still could be on the way this season. College athletics history is rife with athletes who played somewhere below full potential for three years, then blossomed as seniors.
We'll see whether Leak is that guy. So far, he has all the numbers and none of the glory -- and a lot of people envisioned a lot of glory with No. 12 under center.
Since that Kentucky game his freshman season, Leak hasn't often been heroic with a game on the line. Last year, he had his poorest statistical games in two of Florida's three losses, going a combined 27-of-67 with two interceptions and no touchdowns against Alabama and LSU. And he has been the quarterback of record in at least one galling upset defeat every year -- against Ole Miss as a freshman, Mississippi State as a sophomore and South Carolina last year.
That Nov. 11 game is also Florida's final SEC game of the regular season, which means it could have Eastern Division title implications. And Meyer is all about the titles this preseason.
The ring's the thing. That's the message Meyer is sending, with urgency and creativity.
Last week, he treated his team to Championship Night. Florida's video staff worked two months assembling a montage of championship moments and comments from champions -- the Patriots, the Steelers, the Jordan-era Bulls, Muhammad Ali, the Miami Heat. And they made sure to include plenty of highlights from Florida's 1996 national football champions and 2006 national basketball champions.
"It was one of the greatest videos I've ever seen," Meyer said. "It put a lump in my throat."
And when it was over, up popped Billy Donovan to raise the hair on the Gators' necks. The Florida hoops coach told his story of the brilliant team chemistry transformation that lifted his program from underachiever to national champion in a single year.
"[Defensive coordinator] Charlie Strong is the only person in the program who's won a championship at Florida [as an assistant to Spurrier in the 1990s]," Meyer said. "These players don't know what it's like to win a championship. If you've never experienced a championship, how do you know? If you've never been in that locker room, you don't understand that taste."
This was as close as Meyer could come to giving them a taste of that taste.
Championship Night was the culmination of a month of working on the psyches of the Gators. Meyer began the month by distributing business cards to his incoming freshman class, ranked No. 1 in the nation by several analysts. The card showed pictures of five championship rings: SEC title rings from 1993 to 1996, plus the '96 national championship hardware.
"There's really been one great recruiting class at Florida," Meyer said. "That was 1992-93, because they won a national championship. I wanted to beat [the freshmen] down to what they are: young guys trying to get better."
That includes Tebow, who is this fall what Leak was in 2003 -- a shimmering vision of future greatness. The kid could learn a few things tracing Leak's journey through the college football fame cycle, a journey that ends this fall with one more chance at a championship.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
2006 College Preview
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• Vote: State of the game
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