December 3, 2015
Dec. 02–Florida’s Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow, Tennessee’s Peyton Manning, Auburn’s Cam Newton and Alabama’s AJ McCarron are among the quarterbacks who have led their schools to victories in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Treon Harris would be a most unlikely candidate to join them. The sophomore starter for No. 18 Florida (10-2) spent the first half of the season backing up Will Grier, who guided the Gators to a 6-0 record. Harris has spent the past few weeks struggling in a spiraling offense that managed just 252 yards in a 20-14 overtime win over Florida Atlantic and 262 yards in last Saturday’s 27-2 loss to Florida State.
“He’s going to have a great week of practice, and I’m proud that he’s a Gator,” Florida first-year coach Jim McElwain said. “He’s going to lead us through that tunnel in the Dome there in Atlanta, and we’re going to put our best foot forward and give them everything we’ve got.”
Harris and his offensive mates will be challenging the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide, who yielded 260 yards in last Saturday’s 29-13 win at Auburn and allow an average of 264.6 yards per game.
The Gators are 17.5-point underdogs, making Harris the biggest long shot of any quarterback in an SEC title game since Barry Lunney and Arkansas fell 34-3 to Wuerffel’s Gators in 1995. The Gators enter this week’s championship contest after scoring only seven touchdowns in four November games.
“We’ve prepared well each week, but sometimes in the game we get muffled communication,” senior offensive lineman Trip Thurman said. “We just need to keep focused and stay on track.”
Staying on track was the goal in mid-October, when Grier was dealt a yearlong NCAA suspension after testing positive for a banned substance. Grier had completed 106 of 161 attempts (65.8 percent) with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions, and he was getting better by the week.
After rallying the Gators to a 28-27 win over Tennessee on a 63-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Callaway on fourth-and-14, Grier opened October by completing 24 of 29 passes for 271 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-10 lambasting of Ole Miss.
Florida improved to 6-0 the following week with a 21-3 win at Missouri, but Grier was out of the picture less than 48 hours later.
“When you lose your starting quarterback, it’s always a tough transition,” Thurman said. “Will is a great player, and it’s unfortunate we had to lose him, but we trust Treon back there.”
A 5-foot-11, 195-pounder from Miami, Harris has completed 102 of 190 attempts (53.7 percent) this season for 1,365 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions. Florida used Harris and Grier in the season-opening rout of New Mexico State, but Grier took the reins after a 31-24 escape of East Carolina in the second game.
The first foe the Gators had to face without Grier was LSU in Baton Rouge, but Harris was up to the challenge, completing 17 of 32 passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-28 loss. So what’s happened to Harris in the games since?
“There was a little bit of the unknown in the LSU game,” McElwain said, “and people have taken some things away from him that kind of made him successful there. It also has to do with the other 10 guys around him as well. When we took this job, we had some rebuilding to do on that side of the ball, but the great thing is how this team has hung together and, for the most part throughout the year, figured out a way to win ballgames. Treon is going to prepare this week and go in there and play a heck of a game.”