Last week I wrote an article called “The What If Game,” which explained how one victory by Pittsburgh over West Virginia altered the course of college football history as we knew it. Elite programs were changed for the better and worse, championships were swung, and coaches hired and fired. In particular, Ohio State, Michigan and West Virginia are still picking up the pieces from that one game, nearly four full years later.
Well, based on the success of that article, and based on how much fun I had doing it, I decided it was time for another “What If,” article, with this “what if” even bigger than the last. This one affected at least three Heisman Trophies (and as many as five) and altered four BCS National Championships. Yes, I’m serious.
So what force of nature could’ve had that effect on the sport we love? Well, Tim Tebow obviously.
To which I ask the question, What If Tim Tebow had decided to play his college football at the University of Alabama, instead of Florida? As crazy as it sounds, it almost happened.
Don’t believe me? I can’t blame you, since up until a week ago I never thought Tebow had truly considered playing college ball anywhere but Gainesville myself. After all, he grew up an hour from the campus and his parents met there. He had Florida stuff wall-papering his bedroom as a kid. Why would Tim Tebow ever go anywhere but Gaineville?
But after reading parts of his biography, “Through My Eyes,” Tebow makes it abundantly clear just how open he was in the recruiting process, and just how torn he was between his final two schools.
One story in particular stood out. On the day of the announcement, Tebow still hadn’t made a college decision, and after initially calling Mike Shula at Alabama to tell him he’d selected Florida, Tebow had a change of heart. He dialed Urban Meyer to tell him he’d be heading to Alabama, and started chatting with him, but before Tebow could get out the words, a funny thing happened…Meyer’s phone died. Unable to communicate, Tebow was forced to the podium, and at the last second decided to ride his gut. He chose Florida.
So what if Tebow had said “Alabama,” instead?
Well for starters, I don’t think Florida wins the 2006 National Championship.
Now obviously, Tebow’s role on that team was not significant. It was mitigated by the fact that Tebow wasn’t actually the starter (Chris Leak was) and wasn’t even really a quarterback (more like a battering ram fullback). Some could even make the case that with the defense that Florida had that year, and a steady Leak at quarterback, it was enough for the Gators to take home the title.
What those people forget though, is that Tebow had two of his best performances in two of Florida’s most crucial wins. He picked up a key fourth down to set up the game-winning touchdown against Tennessee, and found the end zone three times to beat LSU 23-10 a few weeks later. In that game, Tebow not only rushed for a touchdown, but threw for two more (on two total passes) and even unveiled his now famous “jump pass” that afternoon as well. Not a bad day’s work, huh?
Simply put, it’s hard to see Florida winning both of those games- if either- without Tebow. And if they don’t win those games, it means we have a different National Champion in 2006. Maybe it was Ohio State (who ended up losing to Florida in the actual title game) or maybe Michigan which finished third in the BCS regular season standings.
Just with that alone, think how different college football history would be. It would’ve either meant a second National Championship for Jim Tressel (that might have ended up potentially vacated down the road), or Lloyd Carr being crowned champion just nine months before his program’s meltdown against Appalachian State. Good, for the Big Ten, yet at the same time, not good at all. I can almost picture Jim Delany sitting glumly in a dark room and eating cold Spagetti-o’s out of a can just thinking about it.
Meanwhile, what about Alabama? In specific, could Tebow have done enough that year to save Mike Shula’s job?
Honestly, it doesn’t seem likely.
As we just mentioned, Tebow wasn’t so much a quarterback his freshman year as he was a real-life, human wrecking ball. His arm wasn’t his greatest weapon as much his legs and lowered shoulders were. Well, playing in Shula’s system for a team that went 6-7, would that kind of player have been the difference in even one win that year (of Alabama’s seven losses, only one regular season game and their bowl game were decided by less than a touchdown)? Even it was, was 7-6 enough to save Shula’s job? Probably not. Meaning that even if Tebow had committed to Alabama, by year two he’d have played for their new coach… Mr. Nick Saban. Tebow has done a lot of great things in his time on this Earth, but even his healing powers couldn’t save Shula that season.
After that though, is where things get interesting. Because I’ve got to ask, if Tim Tebow had signed with Alabama, what the hell would Saban have done with him when he arrived a year later?
As great as Tebow and Saban are individually, collectively I’m not sold on them making beautiful music together. After all, Saban is a guy who is, and always will be known for three things: his defense, his running game and…his defense. To Saban, quarterback’s are almost the equivalent of the ugly girl on any season of the Real World: Yes they’re there, but that doesn’t mean anyone is acknowledging them. Saban and Tebow would’ve gone together like oil and water. Fire and ice. Dana Holgorsen and Bill Stewart. In other words, not well.
And really, looking at what he inherited, John Parker Wilson’s skill-set actually was much more conducive to Saban’s offense than Tebow ever would’ve been. Wilson was veteran, poised and prone to avoiding mistakes. Tebow? He’s aggressive, erratic and risky, three words that are simply not in Saban’s vocabulary (Quite frankly, if you tried to use them in a Scrabble game against Saban, he might make you pull out the Dictionary).
With Wilson in Tuscaloosa, I’m not even sure if Tebow would’ve played much, if at all. And if he did, would he have been allowed to do the things that made Tim Tebow, well, Tim Tebow? Would he have been allowed to break from the pocket and improvise? Shovel pass? Jump pass? Put his head down on third and short? Knowing what we know about Saban, my short answer is, umm, no.
But with all that uncertainty a few other things are clear.
Had Tebow gone to Tuscaloosa, it would’ve undoubtedly altered the Heisman Trophy race his sophomore year. It’s just a hunch on my end, but something tells me that playing under Saban and offensive coordinator Major Applewhite (followed by Jim McElwain), Tebow wouldn’t have rushed for 23 touchdowns as a sophomore. Therefore, I guess that makes Darren McFadden the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner? Kind of weird to think about, huh?
Of course if Tebow had played his college ball in Tuscaloosa, it also would’ve impacted the following year’s SEC and National Championship races too.
Remember 2008 was the first of the epic two-part Florida-Alabama SEC title game grudge matches. Florida got the upper-hand that year, in a wild win that people in Alabama would probably still prefer not to talk about. With Percy Harvin injured, Tebow was a one-man band, throwing for three touchdowns and leading the Gators with 57 yards rushing. And as great as Nick Saban is, even he was helpless, as Florida went on to win 31-20. They’d win their second BCS title of the Tebow era a few weeks later against Oklahoma.
So now the most fun part of this What If: What Tim Tebow had been on the other sideline in Atlanta that day?
Obviously it would’ve helped Alabama. But quite frankly, I think it would’ve helped Alabama, if only by the transitive property of hurting Florida.
Looking at the talent on both sides of the ball for that Florida team (especially the defense), I still believe they would’ve made it to Atlanta that year. But once there- and without Harvin- is a sophomore quarterback by the name of Cam Newton enough to get the Gators over the top?
Oh, you forgot about that one, didn’t you?
That’s right, despite Tebow taking almost all Florida’s snaps as a junior, he was still backed up by a redshirt freshman named John Brantley and a sophomore in Newton. And while Brantley threw more passes that year (28 to 2), given what we know about the two now, my hunch is that if Tebow weren’t on that team, it would’ve been Newton who was the starter. If only because his skill-set matched up so much better with Harvin’s and Jeff Demps’.
But back to Atlanta for a second.
Because reflecting on how that game played out in real life, Tebow was the great equalizer, and the guy who swung the pendulum for Florida. So if Tebow were on Alabama, (even if Tebow had little or no actual on the field impact), just taking him off the Florida roster seems like it would’ve been enough to swing the game back the other way. Especially since on the other sideline, Cam Newton wasn’t quite “Cam Newton,” yet either.
Either way you’re looking at a new SEC Champion that year, and a new team to play Oklahoma for the title. Considering that even Saban said himself during 2008 that his team was a year ahead of schedule, maybe the Sooners would’ve ended up as the 2008 champions. Or maybe it was the first of a potential back-to-back run for Saban. What if.
(By the way, here’s an ancillary “What If,” to the regular What If: If Tebow had gone to Alabama, is there any way in hell Meyer lets Newton leave Gainesville after the 2008 season? Remember, the official reason Newton claims to have left was over playing time, which obviously wouldn’t have been an issue if Tebow had never been there. Plus, even if his legal troubles were part of the issue, knowing what we know about Meyer’s, umm, disciplinary practices, don’t you think he would’ve looked the other way on most any incident involving his starting quarterback?
On top of all that, if Tebow went to Alabama, it would have affected college football even after he left. If Newton had stayed at Florida, we might have had a new 2010 Heisman Trophy winner, and most certainly a different BCS Champion this last year as well. Sorry Auburn fans, but if Newton stayed in Gainesville, I just can’t see you winning a title with Neil Caudle as your starting quarterback. I hate to break it to you, but it’s true.)
Now let’s wrap up by discussing Tebow’s senior year a bit. Because given that Wilson was gone and Tebow would’ve had the quarterback position to himself, and given what was returning on defense and in the running game, Alabama would have certainly won a title that year (which ended up happening anyway) as well, right?
I’m not so sure.
Look, if there’s one thing we know about football, it’s that there are a lot of moving parts that go into a team’s success. And as much as I love Tebow, his success at Florida was in large part because of him, but in even larger part because of others. He was successful because of Percy Harvin and Urban Meyer. Dan Mullen and the defense. Tebow was great, yes. I’m not denying that. But he was also the perfect quarterback, for the perfect system at the perfect time in Gainesville. It was a literal perfect storm.
Well just the same as Tebow was the perfect quarterback for Florida at the time, Greg McElroy was the perfect quarterback for Alabama in 2009. The Tide were so stacked that year running the ball and on defense, they didn’t need someone like Tebow at quarterback. They just needed someone to hand the ball off, not turn the ball over, and in general, just get the hell out of everyone’s way. And they got that in McElroy. It’s not a coincidence that Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain kept saying that season “Greg McElroy might not be the perfect quarterback. But he’s the perfect quarterback for us.”
And to take this thing one step further, as great as Tim Tebow was, would he have really brought anything to the table for Alabama that Greg McElroy didn’t? Again, by the admission of his own coach McElroy was the perfect quarterback, for that particular team. The Tide went 14-0 and won the National Championship. What could Tebow have done that McElroy didn’t? More importantly, given his particular skill-set, is it possible that Tebow might have actually taken something off the table that year?
It seems feasible, given that he would’ve taken away from that team’s strength, which of course was ball control with Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Could he have screwed up their chemistry to the point that they lost a game or two, and maybe a shot at the title? It makes sense. By definition Alabama literally couldn’t have been better with him (as a zero loss champion), so it at least opens the window that they’d have been worse.
And regardless of whether Alabama won that year or not, it does open the door for one final thing: Another new Heisman Trophy winner. With Tebow taking at least a chunk of Ingram’s carries, the 2009 Heisman Trophy award would’ve gone to someone else. Hello… Toby Gerhart? Eek.
(In an interesting historical side-note that could only be found in the annals of big-time college football, if Tebow had gone to Tuscaloosa, Greg McElroy would’ve ended up somewhere else. That’s not my opinion, but fact. McElroy wasn’t offered a scholarship to Alabama until December of his senior year, after their first target, Tebow, turned them down. Crazy, but true.)
So there you have it. What if Tim Tebow had chosen Alabama?
Well, it likely means we’re looking at new BCS National Champions in 2006, 2008 and 2010, with a very strong possibility of a different one in 2009 as well. The 2006, 2009 and 2010 Heisman Trophy winners would’ve been different too, with McFadden and –gasp- Gerhart becoming winners.
So what if Tim Tebow had gone to Alabama?
As crazy as his career was in Gainesville, it would’ve been even wilder in Tuscaloosa.
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