One junior quarterback was a Heisman Trophy favorite coming into the season, fresh off a record-shattering season during which he led the nation in several passing categories.
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 miles north, another junior signal caller seemed to be everyone’s favorite punching bag. The much-maligned quarterback faced an endless barrage of criticism from fans and media – and had to survive an “open competition” before he was officially named starter less than a month before the season.
On Jan.1, these two juniors – Florida’s Rex Grossman and Michigan’s John Navarre – will find their paths intersecting at the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla.
And not many would have guessed that it would be the overachieving Navarre coming in with better numbers and a more successful season thus far.
“It just goes to show you that anything can happen,” Michigan captain Bennie Joppru said. “That’s the great thing about college football.”
As odd as it may seem, Navarre’s steady and improved play, along with his statistics – 55-percent completion percentage, 2,586 yards, 20 touchdowns and just seven interceptions – overshadow Grossman’s so-called aberration of a season.
Grossman had to adjust to a completely new coach and a more conservative offensive system when Ron Zook took over for Steve Spurrier this offseason. As a result, he has watched his record-breaking numbers dwindle, and his Gators have fallen from national title contenders to an inconsistent 8-4 team. His fans even booed him off the field on his home turf, “The Swamp,” after the Gators’ 36-7 loss to Louisiana State.
Not many of his critics consider the fact he lost his two favorite receiving targets, Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell, who both left Florida early for the NFL after combining for 132 receptions and 23 touchdowns. This was more than the eight returnees at the receiver position had totaled in their college careers. The fact that the Gators lost three starting offensive lineman could have been a factor as well.
But the critics just notice the cold, hard facts: Grossman’s 58 percent completion percentage, 20 touchdowns, 17 interceptions. Not to mention that the once flashy, “Fun n’ Gun” offense that averaged 43 points and 405 yards passing last year is down to a conservative 25 points and 266 yards.
“If people label me as a product of his system, then, yeah, I want to break that mold,” Grossman said. “But it’s my opinion that there’s no good quarterback in a bad system. So it takes both.”
Those who’ve coached Grossman say he’s more than good.
Just two years in college were enough for Spurrier to label him “the best pure passer of the quarterbacks I have coached” and “one of the most courageous players.”
Grossman often draws comparisons to former Florida great Danny Wuerffel in terms of his quick release, strong arm, athleticism and agility.
“As a passer he has a rare combination: Kurt Warner-like ability to see things before they happen with a little bit better arm strength,” Gary Danielson, ABC college football analyst, wrote on ESPN.com.
No matter how tough this season has been on him, or how many disagreements he had with Zook, Grossman will definitely catch the eyes of the Michigan secondary, which was victimized by Tennessee’s offense last season for 45 points in the Citrus Bowl.
“Rex Grossman may be one of the toughest guys I’ve ever been around,” Zook said. “Does Rex make me mad sometimes? Absolutely. But that’s one tough guy, and I’ll go to war with him anytime, anywhere.”
Navarre said he understood partly what Grossman went through this year, as the Wolverines also changed their offense. He said despite Grossman’s issues this year, he’s still an “explosive passer” and one of the nation’s best.
“He’s got a strong arm, he’s very talented and has a real good cast around him,” Navarre said. “He is a very dangerous quarterback.”
But Joppru said that with an overwhelming performance by Navarre on Jan. 1, there may be some “Heisman hype” in Ann Arbor.
“It’d be great for him,” Joppru said. “You never know.”