For the first time since 2004, Tennessee will start a quarterback in the season opener who's never taken a snap at this university. If our thoughts at this time last year were focused on Jonathan Crompton - the devil we knew - now we're allowed to hope that the winner between Matt Simms and Tyler Bray isn't the devil at all. However, though neither of these two carry the baggage of fan cynicism that Crompton endured last year, they also have their work cut out for them if they want to match his numbers from the Georgia game on.
The 2010 quarterback job was not supposed to belong to Matt Simms. Nick Stephens was the known commodity, the steady hand of transition who, really, wasn't that terrible during his stint as a starter in 2008. Not that we want to settle for "not that terrible", but with struggle being the expectation for this offense, Stephens seemed like the right guy to lead the transition in Dooley's first year.
The other option would be Tyler Bray, a four-star prospect from California who was the 7th best QB in the Class of 2010 according to Rivals. Either Bray would be ready to go right away, or Stephens could manage while Tyler put on weight and learned the offense. Simms was somebody's son and, more famously around these parts, somebody's brother. To most of us, he was an insurance policy, and if he was good enough maybe Bray could even redshirt while Simms and Stephens kept it warm, before Tyler took the job in 2011.
Of course, things are always changing around here: Stephens was demoted during spring practice and subsequently left the team, and it would be Simms, not Bray, who left the spring with a slight edge in the QB race. That edge was questioned in his only public performance, as Simms fired three interceptions in the Orange & White Game. But Dooley has seen things we haven't...and over the last few months, the writing on the wall suggests this may not be much of a race at all.
The assumption about Simms moved from insurance policy to caretaker: maybe he could play the role we'd given Stephens in our heads. Bray would have to put on weight and come along at his own pace, but when he was ready, the job was really his; Simms would just be keeping it warm, guiding us through what would surely be troubled times, until Bray was ready.
And hey, that may still be what happens; maybe Tyler Bray is really that good, it would be nice if he was. Maybe Simms shoulders the burden of this offense for a month or two, but if/when things go south, Bray gets the call and gets some early experience, so he's prepared to take the job fully in 2011.
But a month ago, a report from Chris Mortensen out of the Manning Passing Academy created a spark within the Tennessee family: Simms was the "wow guy" of the event, which included guys like Christian Ponder, Case Keenum, Kellen Moore, Greg McElroy and others.
That story, for me, was the first indication that we may have the real deal here.
There have been other stories - and going into the first fall scrimmage today, stories and soundbites are all we have on our new quarterbacks - about Simms' leadership and the way the team has taken to him. About the way he faked his knowledge of the offense through much of spring practice in order to win over his teammates, while spending the summer learning more of it every day. About the way 7-on-7s became 11-on-11s under his command this summer. And as practice began, there was Simms again, standing next to Dooley watching the newcomers in the evening sessions the first week after participating with the ones in the morning.
I'm not close enough to the team or the story to fully validate it, but you can absolutely sell me on the idea that this is Matt Simms' team.
And of course, that would be great if it was...we just won't see exactly what kind of team Matt Simms can run for another month.
Despite the change in perception over the last month, the long term goal at this position remains the same: Simms and Bray can battle it out all they want in August and even throughout the season - though everyone would rather have a clear-cut starter than a year of back and forth, I'm okay with it taking that long to figure out who's the best option.
But it can't take any longer than that. The most important thing for Tennessee, long term, is to make sure that we're not having this same discussion this time next year.
Whether Tyler Bray comes into his own and eventually takes the job this year, or Matt Simms is a true leader who can guide this offense to something more than just survival, Tennessee needs to have the QB situation figured out for 2011. Though it'll be almost impossible to redshirt Bray now because of a lack of depth, either Simms needs to win the job and Bray can sit for two years, and then battle Justin Worley or whoever else in 2012...or Bray needs to show the talent and readiness to earn the starting job for the remainder of his time here. The worst case scenario would be for both to really, really struggle this fall. Tennessee as a team can struggle and still see their quarterbacks make strides. But if Simms and Bray are showing no signs of progress, much of the general unease we have about Tennessee right now will be right there waiting for us again in August 2011.
If this is Matt Simms' team and his job to lose, I hope he gets the job done for us for the next two years. He's a transfer on a team full of guys who feel like they've been given the runaround...maybe they're a good match. He clearly has some raw ability to have done as well as he did at the Manning Academy. He'll have a new running back and a brand new offensive line to struggle with, but a tremendous collection of talent at wide receiver and tight end to throw to. Simms and Bray may both struggle right away...but long term, I think the pieces are there for them to find success here ultimately.
Tennessee just needs enough of that success to come this year so we're not still trying to figure out who's the man next year. And the sooner we see signs of that this year, the better our chances, present and future.