While the Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins hope to spend the next 10-plus seasons reveling in the relative stability associated with franchise quarterbacks, miles away in Palo Alto and Waco, the show must go on.
We’ll spend all season hearing about how Josh Nunes isn’t Andrew Luck, and Nick Florence isn’t Robert Griffin III. This is blatantly obvious to anyone in college football, and, for that reason, maybe the pressure on them isn’t all that great. No one expects much from the men replacing the irreplaceable, the first and second overall NFL draft picks, the players as closely woven into the fabric of their football programs as any in recent memory.
Instead, the pressure shifts to Stanford’s David Shaw and to Baylor’s Art Briles, the coaches charged with the brutal task of sustaining success in the wake of the departures of two of the best quarterbacks college football has ever seen. The pro careers of Luck and Griffin will forever be intertwined, as we’ll evaluate the two again and again, trying to discern whether the Colts made the right decision by taking Luck. Few will compare the fates of what they left behind.
There aren’t many parallels in recent history. The closest case is probably the 2004 draft, which had Eli Manning and Philip Rivers coming off the board in the first four picks after leading mediocre football programs to rare double-digit win seasons. Manning briefly elevated Ole Miss, which had struggled since the 1960s, back to some sort of national relevance, culminating in a 10-3 record in 2003. David Cutcliffe was fired a year later for going 4-7. Rivers led N.C. State to 11 wins in 2002, but after he left, the Wolfpack finished below .500 five out of six seasons and Chuck Amato was fired in the middle of it all. This is what Stanford and Baylor must work to avoid.
Right now, Shaw, building upon the work of Jim Harbaugh, has Stanford on the right course. The Cardinal offense wasn’t built solely around Luck; it was built to run, having helped Toby Gerhart to the Heisman ceremony in 2009 and current starter Stepfan Taylor to two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, with a third likely on tap. To add to the potential, Shaw hauled in the nation’s No. 5 recruiting class in 2012, according to Rivals.com, and despite the loss of Luck and others to the NFL, the Cardinal open the season ranked 18th in the USA TODAY Coaches’ poll.
Nunes, a junior who hasn’t played since 2010, was highly regarded quarterback recruit and won the job over sophomore Brett Nottingham in the preseason. The offense does a nice job managing quarterbacks and putting them in position to succeed, but Luck was on another level mentally. His play-action game was unmatched, and the Stanford passing game no longer has speedy All-America tight end Coby Fleener to stretch the field down the seams. Stanford’s coaches will try to effectively manage whoever starts and use play-action to their advantage, but Luck was like a college football version of Roger Federer, mentally staying one step ahead of defenses.
However, as SEC stalwarts LSU and Alabama have proven, college football games can still be won with elite, physical defense and a strong running game. Stanford is an outlier in the spread-happy Pac-12, and controlling the clock with Taylor, who should be among the nation’s best rushers, could allow it to nearly duplicate its success of the last few years.
Baylor’s trickier. The good news is that Florence has significant experience, as he started seven games in place of the injured Griffin as a freshman in 2009. He had mixed success, throwing for 427 yards and three touchdowns against Missouri but struggling much of the rest of the way in a 4-8 season.
This year, even without Kendall Wright, the receiving corps remains explosive and underrated, led by Terrance Williams and Tevin Reese. And an offensive mind like Briles in this kind of pass-happy spread system can act as an equalizer. But the defense is a liability, and the absence of Griffin’s mobility and phenomenal downfield passing will undoubtedly take the offense down a few notches.
In the long run, Baylor’s task may be even tougher. Despite its location in the talent-rich state of Texas, the Bears’ 2012 recruiting class was ranked 45th by Rivals, even after the national attention Griffin delivered to the program. Baylor is often left fighting for second-tier in-state talent, and that probably won’t change anytime soon.
Both schools are well aware of what a transcendent quarterback can do to help a program become a force on the national level. We then follow those quarterbacks to the pros, analyzing every move and watching as they try to repeat their success with downtrodden NFL franchises.
Back in college, there is no draft, no second chance allowing a team to back into potential future success. Instead, the curtain opens on fall camp, relatively unknown quarterbacks take the reins, and the real test of sustainability for Shaw and Briles begins.