Zemek Blog: The "It" Factor: A 2008 Analysis

Staff Columnist
Posted Mar 12, 2008

Last week offered an historical view of the "It" factor. This week provides an examination of the "It" factor in relationship to the 2008 season. Who has "It"? Who needs "It"? Who might lose "It"? The answers to these questions will have a lot to do with the tone and trajectory of the upcoming Autumn.

An assessment of the "It" factor for 2008 will begin and end with USC... either one, that is. The University of Southern California and the University of South Carolina both have their "It" factor intrigues.

For the Trojans of Los Angeles, the challenge is to keep "It" from slipping into the hands of UCLA or any other Pac-10 rival. John David Booty was no Matt Leinart, but the lad from Louisiana had enough of "It" to produce two more conference crowns and two more Rose Bowl victories. All things considered, Booty maintained a winning tradition for the Men of Troy. In 2008, a new signal caller--be it Mark Sanchez or Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain--will have to start from scratch and establish a new "It" factor all his own. If Pete Carroll lacks leadership under center, however, the legacy begun by Carson Palmer and continued by Leinart and Booty could crumble, and a string of Pac-10 titles could abruptly end. The program that has had so much of "It" in this decade needs more of "It" to stay in the top echelon of the sport.

For the Gamecocks of Columbia, another "USC" has been starving for a fresh supply of "It," a relief package that hasn't arrived in the Palmetto State since Steve Spurrier came aboard as the new sheriff in town. Spurrier's Florida career acquired legendary proportions partly because of his play-calling wizardry, but the Head Ball Coach wouldn't have dominated the SEC over a 12-year span had he not been gifted with quarterbacks who oozed "It" from the moment they first took the field. Shane Matthews, Rex Grossman, and especially Danny Wuerffel were the kinds of leaders who proved that "It" men count for more than hit men in college football. The Gators' abundance of physical prowess, while undeniable, was eclipsed by their level of mental toughness, and that's the real reason why Spurrier racked up six official SEC titles (and one unofficial title, in 1990) in a dozen seasons.

Ever since the Visored One entered South Carolina, however, an "It" guy at quarterback has not emerged. Blake Mitchell, in fact, was a "switch It-ter," a player who did the exact opposite of what "It" factor forces manage to forge on a football field. Whereas "It" factor studs--despite profound limitations--rise to the moment to pull tough victories out of the fire, Mitchell was a talented quarterback who shrank at crunch time. While capable of reeling off sustained sequences of superb passing, Mitchell could rarely if ever deliver the goods when his team really needed them. Awesome at scoring touchdowns when trailing by 13 points but horrible at cracking the end zone when down by only four, Mitchell was the "anti-It" guy, a package of substantial skills but precious little resolve. In many ways, Mitchell had to remind Spurrier of Doug Johnson, the talented quarterback whose lack of poise and mental toughness put a halt to Florida's dominance in the late 1990s. Whereas Wuerffel won four SEC titles and Grossman--in his freshman season (with help from Jesse Palmer)--claimed a league crown himself, the three Johnson years, 1997 through 1999, witnessed an absence of SEC scalps in Gainesville. Now that he's piloting a different SEC program that's unfamiliar with the Georgia Dome on the first Saturday of December, Spurrier needs one of his quarterbacks--be it Chris Smelly or Stephen Garcia--to display the uncommon resolve and competitive (game)Cockiness that can enable the Roosters to rule the SEC.

Elsewhere across the country, there are plenty of other teams in search of either maintaining or freshly finding a big dose of "It." Teams that need to maintain that mysterious but meaningful mojo in 2008 include Connecticut, which--relative to its athletic ability and physical talent--was the "It" team of 2007. Kansas and Illinois were two other programs who, last year, discovered the joys of what "It" can bring to a previously floundering football family. This season, the Jayhawks and Illini will need to go to the well yet again... with opponents no longer underestimating them.

In terms of programs who have lost "It" and need to get "It" back, you have to focus on the state of Florida and its two fading former powers. Miami (Fla.) and Florida State lead the pack in terms of schools that need massive infusions of intangible advantages, particularly throughout their whole offensive units (not just the quarterback spot). Among other teams in need of "It," long-suffering Vanderbilt needs a running back who has enough of "It" to avoid a devastating late-game fumble inside an opponent's red zone. Penn State needs a lot of "It" at quarterback, after the unfulfilled Anthony Morelli era. Texas Tech needs to find "It" on defense from one or more leaders capable of making a small handful of plays that can turn 38-35 losses into 42-31 wins, enabling the Red Raiders to reach the proverbial "next level" in the Big 12 South. And you can't forget about Louisville, which lost "It" under Steve Kragthorpe as quickly as it gained "It" under Bobby Petrino.

What player(s) on your team will find or lose "It" in 2008? You might not be able to answer those questions right now, but they'll be answered on the gridiron when the final week of August arrives. You'll then know if your favorite ballclub is destined for a spectacular Kansas-like rise, or a precipitous Louisville-like fall, in the season to come.