Zemek Blog: The "It" Factor

Staff Columnist
Posted Mar 4, 2008

One of the most difficult elements of college football analysis is the ability to look between and beyond statistics. One of the foremost cases in which this art (not a science) must be applied is the mysterious but real entity known as the "It" factor. You know how the old saying goes: "Whatever ‘It' is, that player has ‘It.'" How will this inexact measurement affect 2008? Read all about "It."

College football seasons—and the reputations of the coaches who preside over them—are often made and broken by the degree to which key players possess or lack the "It" factor. In NCAA competition, where the minds are more fragile and the emotional upheavals far more pronounced, the value of a cool head under pressure becomes that much more substantial. The NFL obviously requires more than a little poise and presence in the heat of battle, but the nature of the pro game usually allows superior athletic skills to separate winners from losers. It's in the college game where raw physical superiority doesn't always translate into supremacy on the scoreboard or in the standings. Hence, the value of the "It" factor.

In the modern era of college football—when media scrutiny is intense and public pressure weighs more heavily upon the minds of players—it's becoming even more important for teams to have players blessed with "It." LSU had Matt Flynn, a quarterback without spectacular skills or clean stat lines who, in spite of his deficiencies, rose up to make clutch play after clutch play when the outcome of a football fistfight hung in the balance. Flynn had "It," and as a result, the Bayou Bengals won their second national title in the BCS era.

Who else has had "It" in college football, particularly in the past few decades? Consider Josh Heupel, the not-that-overwhelming physical specimen who nevertheless piloted Oklahoma to its only BCS championship in the 2000 season. Consider Tee Martin of Tennessee, who did what the ballyhooed Peyton Manning couldn't: bring a national title to Knoxville with cagey, savvy swashbuckling in money moments.

Pac-10 historians would note the career of Marques Tuiasosopo, the Washington quarterback who has done nothing of note in the NFL, but did lead the Huskies to a long-ago Rose Bowl victory (in the 2000 season) with an uncanny knack for finding paydirt in the final minutes of a white-knuckle thriller.

ACC aficionados would cite the example of Shaun Hill, the signal caller who quietly yet boldly brought Ralph Friedgen and Maryland to the 2002 Orange Bowl. The Terps of 2001 weren't a juggernaut or a goliath, but they slithered around, over and through opponents on their way to a conference title. Hill's assemblage of skills wasn't eye-popping—if it had been, he wouldn't have had to wait six long years to see his first meaningful NFL snaps for the San Francisco 49ers last December—but when games were waiting to be won or lost in the Autumn of 2001, the Turtle climbed to new heights because of a Hill who moved mountains for a magical Maryland outfit.

Big East backers would point to Brian Leonard of Rutgers as the poster boy for the "It" factor in their league. Through sheer will and determination—plus a lot of leadership in the locker room and on the practice field—the 2006 Draddy Award winner enabled his teammates to believe in Greg Schiano's plan for the resurrection of Scarlet Knight football. While winning teams must have a certain amount of talent, the Rutgers renewal of 2006 began and ended with the charisma and character of Leonard, who gave soul to a previously sagging scene in Piscataway.

The Big Ten trophy for "It" factor fullness in the BCS era could only go to one man: Ohio State quarterback Craig Krenzel. In the Buckeyes' 2002 national title season and also in the 2003 campaign, No. 16 would stumble and bumble through much of three quarters but then don his superman cape in the fourth quarter… and any overtime periods that might have ensued thereafter. The brainy and down-to-earth competitor channeled his inner Harry Houdini whenever the chips were down, becoming the master of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. By being great only when he absolutely had to be, Krenzel crafted the kind of career that could become legendary only in a college football context. In the NFL, Krenzel wouldn't have lasted very long because of his inconsistencies and weaknesses. But in college ball, the Ohio State field general was able to gain the glory by unfailingly calling forth last-minute magnificence.

All these examples aside from the (post-1997) BCS era, the all-time "It" factor champion in college football has to be Jay Barker. A quarterback bereft of jawdropping physical attributes, Barker used his average body and modest skills to merely win an outright national championship for Alabama in the 1992 season. The beauty of Barker-–and, for that matter, any other memorable "It" factor legends in college football history--resided in the fact that he displayed what could be called the exact opposite of choking.

A choke—that unforgettable and gruesome mental train wreck sports fans know all too well—is defined by an athlete's undeniable excellence and physical prowess, which manifests itself in a game but then abruptly leaves the building precisely when the contest is up for grabs. "It" factor heroes, then, go in the opposite direction. In classic underdog fashion, they display all their weaknesses at the beginning of a game, letting everyone in the stadium (or watching on TV) know that they're not the biggest stud in the stable, the fastest horse on the track. But when crunch time comes calling, these physically inferior and athletically limited players find the moxie, mettle and manhood needed to claim victory against all odds and obstacles. Few (if any) players have displayed this ability any better than Barker, whose 1992 campaign established a template that others, like Krenzel, could only duplicate in later years.

Jay Barker was something of a throwback in college football at a time (the early 1990s) when the sport had become far more sophisticated in comparison with prior decades. The Alabama legend played in an era when the passing game was rapidly acquiring greater primacy and centrality in the sport. Therefore, his ability to regularly win--without being the most physically gifted specimen on the field—revealed an "It" factor quotient that flew off the charts. Other unlikely heroes (such as Tee Martin) would imitate him as time marched on, but Jay Barker—relative to the competition he faced and the complexity of the sport he played—set a benchmark for the mental toughness and untaught instincts that create "It," the intangible that can't be easily measured... but creates national champions.

So as you contemplate the 2008 season in these late-winter weeks, ask yourself: does your team have players blessed with "It"? That, more than anything else, will tell you if your school will meet expectations when Labor Day weekend rolls around.