December 02, 2009
Tebow gazing from the proprietor of Tim Teblog.
Why did Tim Tebow come back to Florida for his senior year? A leading theory: Google juice. A quick track of the trending searches on Google after Saturday's win over Florida State showed "Hebrews 12:1-2" -- Tebow's eye-black for his Swamp finale -- at the very top. Tebow, his mom and Urban Meyer have all affirmed that this kind of indirect missionary influence is important to him. Consider too the spontaneous fan tribute at The Swamp, where thousands donned eye-black and set off a Super Bowl-worthy array of camera flashes as Tebow took the Gators to the end zone on his final series. What college senior wouldn't want to come back to take one class and bask in such adulation?
Those theories have a lot of merit, but now that the regular season -- despite its ups and downs on offense, ultimately a veritable victory lap -- is behind us, it's time to put away the eye-black and tuck away the memories of the farewell pep rally, because we've arrived at the other leading reason Tebow returned: To win.
To win another SEC championship. To win another national championship. To lead Florida to its first perfect season, at the heart of Tebow's disappointment last season after the Ole Miss loss that inspired "The Promise." That's it: Winning. Tebow's superlative legacy in college football history is secure, but how he finishes -- starting with Saturday's game against Alabama -- will define him as either, in Stephen Colbert's framework: Great... or greatest ever?
Consider the clash of quarterbacks at the end of the 2005 season: Texas' Vince Young was already a widely respected star. But it was his transcendent performance in the national-title game that put him on the short list of the greatest players of all time. Then there's the flip-side: USC's Matt Leinart entered that game with his own shot at "greatest ever" -- Heisman, national titles, his celebrated Hollywood ifestyle. Losing that game not only cost Leinart a place in history, but for most, it dropped him below VY on the list of all-time great college quarterbacks.
If the game had gone the other way, who knows? We certainly would be talking about Leinart, not Young, as the gold standard against which Tebow is competing. (The same principle applies for the other player in that "greatest-ever" debate, Tommie Frazier, whose winning championship-game performances -- especially Nebraska's obliteration of Florida in the '96 Fiesta Bowl -- defined his staggeringly good career.) Such are the stakes for Tebow: As we have been saying since August -- perhaps since he announced his return in January -- anything less than a national title is a failed season. Losing to Alabama would be a double-shot: Not only would that mean no BCS Championship game, but he wouldn't even go out with another coveted SEC championship.
The return to Florida? This 12-0 regular season? The comeback from concussion in the win at LSU? The Heisman short-listing? The revival-level atmosphere at the Swamp for his finale? All that could be potentially lost Saturday under the ultimate loss to Alabama.
Sure, Tebow would still be considered one of the all-time greats. But there would always be that final memory: Lost the big one. I can't imagine someone with Tebow's competitive DNA not defining his own career as being tarnished if it ends in a loss in the Georgia Dome.
Then again, there is little evidence to suggest that will happen. Of all of Tebow's "greatest hits" on the field, his performance in the fourth quarter of last year's SEC title game was his finest moment, producing his first career fourth-quarter comeback and his first championship of any variety as a starting QB. Down 20-17, Tebow hit all five of his passes in the fourth quarter and led the Gators on an 11-play, 62-yard drive to go ahead before delivering the coup de grace on a late touchdown pass to Riley Cooper that punched Florida's ticket to the BCS Championship.
Tebow won't be judged by his stats on Saturday -- only on whether he leads Florida to its 23 consecutive win. How well he plays will almost certainly impact that result, but it is worth considering: Who remembers how well Matt Leinart played in USC's loss to Texas? (For the record: 29-of-40 for 365 yards with a TD and a pick.) The point is, you don't. You remember Matt Leinart not for USC's national title in '04, but USC's loss on the biggest stage in '05.
Tebow has gone further to transcend the notion of "college football star" than any player in the history of the sport. But that doesn't mean he won't be ultimately judged by fans and by history by what happens on the field Saturday. Short of a championship, the season is a failure.