Now that quarterback Tim Tebow has put a nice little bow on his legend with the best single-game performance of his career in the Florida Gators' demolishing of Cincinnati in Friday night's Sugar Bowl, the time has come to debate his place in the annals of college football history.
(For purposes of this discussion, I'm going to use my "history"–i.e., dating back to 1985.)
In my opinion, excellence in sports–particularly team sports–comes in two distinct flavors.
The "Best" athletes distinguish themselves through their talent and unmatched skill. These competitors stand out from the crowd because, to put it simply, they do what they do better than anyone else.
The "Greatest" athletes attain incomparable achievements. They're defined by their bodies of work. Their excellence stems from what they've done, not what they can do.
When it comes to defining The Best, victories really aren't that relevant. Wins are more the natural effect of The Best's unparalleled ability. For example, in Homerism's opinion, Barry Sanders holds the distinction of being the best NFL running back I've ever seen. Yet, he never even appeared in a Super Bowl, let alone won one.
Winning, however, defines The Greatest. Often, they're the vital cog in a dominant machine. Think Joe Montana leading the San Francisco 49ers to all those Super Bowl wins.
Is one form of excellence better than the other? I don't think so. Sure, you play to win the game. Yet, in a team sport like football, the ability of one outstanding player to take a program to the promised land is a clear exception to the rule.
(Of course, the two excellences aren't mutually exclusive. Michael Jordan, for instance, is both The Greatest and The Best when it comes to the NBA.)
Which brings us to Tebow.
Within the context of Urban Meyer's revolutionary offense, Saint Tim was a unique animal in today's world of college football. Yet, in a strange kind of reverse-reverse bias, pundits probably have attributed an outsized effect to his impact on games, simply because his style was so anomalous.
As an example, in his Heisman Trophy year in 2007, just six of Tebow's celebrated 23 rushing touchdowns covered more than five yards, and only two were longer than 10 yards. While the Florida signal caller earned high praise that season for making plays with his feet, his prodigious touchdown numbers masked the reality that he was Florida's most effective option in short-yardage situations.
Is Tebow the best college football player I've ever watched? Absolutely not. He wasn't even the best player in college football this year, a distinction that belongs to Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska's hulking defensive tackle.
Is Tebow the best college quarterback ever? Again, I don't think so. As good as Tebow was, I never saw him single-handedly dominate a game the way Vince Young did. Also, this may be Blatant Homerism, but I'm not sure Tebow is better than Sam Bradford. (Yeah, I said it.)
Tebow makes a stronger case for being the greatest college quarterback in history.
The marriage of Tebow and Florida represented the kind of perfect union that only comes along every so often in college football. Tebow's combination of bruising running and accurate passing made him the ideal triggerman to operate Meyer's funky single-wing spread offense. Along with a whole host of talented Gators, Tebow played an instrumental role in turning Florida into college football's premier team in the second half of the 2000s.
However, that's not to say Tebow's resumé doesn't have holes. He played a primarily supporting part on Florida's 2006 championship team, with Chris Leak serving as the Gators' primary quarterback. Additionally, Florida hasn't had an undefeated championship year.
Most importantly, UF never won back-to-back national championships during Tebow's four years in Gainesville. History has proven that to be college football's truest mark of greatness.
In my book, that puts Tebow behind Nebraska's Tommie Frazier, who led the Cornhuskers to back-to-back undefeated seasons in 1994 and 1995 and almost won a third national championship in 1993.
So Tebow may not be The Greatest, but that's still pretty damn great.