The SB Nation network of college blogs has been doing great, interesting work on Heisman hypotheticals this week. The posts snagging Florida's Heisman winners alone have been excellent: Barking Carnival and Big East Coast Bias both appropriated Steve Spurrier for different reasons, The Smoking Musket enlisted Danny Wuerffel at West Virginia, and The 7th Floor grabbed Tim Tebow.
But Florida's best Heisman what-if is one that nearly happened, and just off For Whom The Cowbell Tolls' obvious investigation of a similar plot: What if Cam Newton had stayed?
Newton was recruited by Urban Meyer in 2007 and was neck-and-neck with John Brantley from the start in Gainesville for the role as Tebow's backup. He was always big, strong, and fast (there used to be a better version of this highlight), but Brantley was well ahead of Newton as a passer. Newton the Florida freshman/sophomore was blessed with the same arm strength he has now, but he tried to fire passes through receivers in the few stretches of action in mop-up duty and spring games that I watched.
As such, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Cam was officially behind Brantley on the depth chart when he decided to transfer after the 2008 season, despite beating him out before it, whether to get away from the place where he allegedly stole a laptop and cheated on a test (and was disliked enough to either have someone break federal law or lie about him to leak the last bit), or to start new after an ankle injury led to a medical redshirt. I have also heard from a reliable source that Newton was told he would be able to compete with Tebow for the starting job; the combination of that not happening and injury, off-the-field transgressions, and legacy conspiring to help Brantley wrangle the backup role back from Newton was probably more than enough to get Cam to transfer.
Instead, let's imagine that he had stayed and rededicated himself at Florida like he did at Blinn College and Auburn. There are two paths he could have followed.
The first one requires faith from Urban Meyer that Cam didn't have by the end of his Florida career and Tebow to jump early for the NFL. If Newton had waited long enough to stick around and see Tebow go pro — a decision that might well have gotten Tebow a better draft spot and a few more millions, considering that his senior season likely didn't help him much — I think Newton would have eventually beaten out Brantley to be Florida's 2009 starter.
The physical reasons for that are obvious, but I also think Meyer wouldn't have settled for converted offensive line coach Steve Addazio as his offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales as his play-caller without Tebow around, instead looking to replace Dan Mullen (who was out the door for Starkville regardless of who stayed in Gainesville) with a true spread offense expert for Newton — like eventual Cam steward Gus Malzahn, perhaps? — or a pro-style wiz for Brantley. Additionally, Florida probably wouldn't have reached for Scot Loeffler, whose influence on the Gators is still unknown, as a quarterback tutor if Tebow had left, and the Gators would not have entered the 2009 season as the overwhelming favorites for the national title, stepping into a pressure-cooker for a year-long stay that wore the team to a nub and stressed Meyer to the point of medical emergency.
Most of these things were probably good things that would have resulted from losing Tebow in 2009 that aren't just keeping Cam, but having him in town in 2009 might well have made Florida's offense better, or at least more watchable, than the lurching mess it sometimes was. Newton's numbers in his one season at Blinn were absurd, and came without the benefit of top-level talent around him or a great coach molding him, which I think outweigh the significant advantage he enjoyed as a hippo with a howitzer for an arm playing against inferior JUCO competition. Cam was really good in 2009; there's no reason to think he wouldn't have been decent at least at Florida.
Newton likely wouldn't have gotten concussed at Kentucky like Tebow did, because, on that play, he would have seen the pressure from his right side as a right-handed quarterback and moved to avoid it, changing Taylor Wyndham's angle of attack. (Cam is also bigger than Tebow, which might have helped.) Cam could have worked behind a strong offensive line and with Aaron Hernandez and Riley Cooper in the passing game, and with Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps in a ridiculous spread option attack that would have truly been thunder and lightning, and he might actually have made Florida better on offense in 2009.
But Cam might have lost the LSU game, given that his defense would not have been so hellbent on saving the game and Florida would not have played as conservatively as the kids in Bomont danced before Kevin Bacon came to town, and would definitely not have gotten the benefit of the doubt Tebow did that saved those Gators against Arkansas, and Florida would have finished 10-2, only looked like a spoiler in its showdown with Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, and probably kept Newton for the 2010 season. I can't imagine John Brantley wouldn't have transferred somewhere for 2010 in that case.
However: Cam at Florida in the 2010 Heisman season, with more than one year under a spread coordinator, a Meyer who might not have been directed by doctors to take it easier, speed like Andre Debose's on the outside, and the full rein over the offensive side of the ball that he eventually earned at Auburn? Whew.
And this is where the two paths converge: Tebow wouldn't have even had to leave early to make Newton starting for Florida in 2010 happen; Newton could simply have beaten out Brantley and bided his time.
It wouldn't have made Newton's pro prospects any better, nor could he likely have duplicated his insane 2010 stats, but staying at Florida might have made Newton an even better pro prospect, hastening his already staggeringly swift development as a passer, and I think it's a pretty good bet that he would have been the Heisman front-runner as the most talented college football player at a prominent school and delivered on that promise by leading Florida to a national championship or something near it.
And his narrative would never have been shadowed by the specter of the $180,000 his father sought for his son's services; instead, Cam would have been the guy who smiled his way to being Florida's rightful heir to Tebow, should have been the Gators' second Heisman winner in four years, and could have won the third national title in five years for Florida under Urban Meyer, which would have cemented Florida as the best program of the BCS era and Meyer as the period's finest coach. In this fever dream, Cam Newton isn't the one that got away; he's the one that took Florida from powerhouse to peerless dynasty.
It's a bit of a shame that Florida fans can't do this with Newton in No. 13 in orange and blue in the Heisman Challenge mode of NCAA Football 13, but I'm sure hoping that's more like "can't do this yet."
This post was sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 13. Check out the video for the game below.
EA SPORTS NCAA Football 13 TV: "Son" (via EA SPORTS)