Cam Newton has made history each of the last two seasons. His Heisman Trophy-winning 2010 campaign is among the greatest individual seasons ever, and his NFL debut has been equally impressive. Equally fascinating is the alteration in football’s history Newton may have made by not playing.
The humidity isn’t the only oppressiveness in SEC Country’s atmosphere. In the most competitive conference in sports, success is measured less on a big picture scale than it is via annual assessment. In other words, “What have you done for me lately?”
The SEC pressure cooker has claimed its share of victims. Speculators will never truly know if Urban Meyer was one of them, but the two-time BCS championship winner at Florida left under suspicious circumstances. Meyer retired abruptly before the 2010 Sugar Bowl, which was coincidentally (or not?) the final collegiate game of Tim Tebow.
Tebow ended his career at UF one of the greatest individual performers in college football history, and would leave a Grand Canyon-sized void on the Gator roster. Had it not be for Newton’s Nov. 21, 2008 arrest for theft though, Meyer would have had the one player able to replace Tebow.
Meyer returned for the 2010 season, but after an underwhelming 8-5 finish made good on his previous decision to step down. The equally abrupt end to his abrupt retirement suggests Meyer’s retirement was less about coaching than it was Florida.
There’s certainly no shame in stepping down a two-time national champion. Most coaches never win one title, much less two. It’s equally rare for a coach to have a player the caliber of Tebow. What was originally to be Meyer’s final UF game would have been the perfect note on which to exit. Tebow went on the most Tebow-like note imaginable, thrashing previously unbeaten Cincinnati with nearly 500 yards passing and three touchdowns, and a fourth score via the rush.
Re-reaching that pinnacle can become a Quixotic pursuit, as Florida’s lack of offensive identity in 2010 proved. But in Newton, Meyer had on one roster two of the absolute best quarterbacks to step on a college gridiron.
Newton’s 2010 campaign at Auburn resulted in a Heisman Trophy and BCS Championship, both won with a supporting cast that could be argued was less talented than the 2010 Florida Gators. To wit, AU’s defense allowed over 24 points per game. UF gave up three fewer. AU running backs Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb averaged more yards per game than Florida’s Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, but the latter averaged more per attempt. With the offensive identity Newton gave AU translated to UF, Rainey and Demps would most certainly have had more carries as a result of longer drives.
Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio struggled to develop an identity for Florida’s 2010 offense, using the more traditional, Pro style quarterback John Brantley. The Tebow-to-Newton transition would have been seamless with each boasting a similar skill set. Improving on perfection isn’t technically possible, and with Newton as its quarterback AU achieved perfection. Yet, Newton in Florida’s blue-and-orange instead of Auburn’s just might have been an improvement.
Two national championships puts a coach in the undisputed elite. Three is almost unfathomable. Had a Newton-led Florida won the 2010 title to give Meyer No. 3, all within the span of five seasons, even the most zealous of Gator fans and boosters would have had to ease up the pressure.
Meyer’s new home, Ohio State, has its share of pressure. The Buckeyes have been one of the most consistent programs in the past 15 years, but their success is measured in championships. His first season will be under an NCAA-imposed bowl ban, but the immediate future is filled with promise. Braxton Miller may not be Tim Tebow or Cam Newton — very few are. But Miller has the skills to become an all-time great OSU quarterback, and Meyer has a proven ability to unlock the best from his playcallers.
Florida’s loss will prove to be OSU’s game, but