Future of the NFL on Display

Future of the NFL on Display

Note: The following appears in the Louisville gameday football program. To purchase a copy of the program while supplies last, send a check for $6 to Clemson Athletic Communications; P.O. Box 31; Clemson, SC 29633 with your return address.

The bright lights of ESPN College GameDay and ABC College Football Saturday night will be in town all day as the Tigers take on Louisville in one of the biggest games in the history of Memorial Stadium.

Both teams are ranked in the top five in the nation according to both polls. The Tigers have been there all season, but Louisville has made an incredible jump in the polls from a preseason No. 19 ranking. The current ranking is justified, as the Cardinals lead the nation in scoring and have a defense that is also highly regarded.

The accomplishments of the teams are significant, but a major reason for the national interest in this game surrounds the play of dynamic quarterbacks for both teams. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson have taken turns captivating the country at various times during the last year and a half.

Watson finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting last year and became the first quarterback in FBS history with 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a season. That included an impressive performance against Alabama in the national title game when he gained 478 yards of total offense.

Now, Jackson is threatening to become the second player in FBS history to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards. His statistical accomplishments in the first four games are historic. He was one yard short of becoming the first college player in history with at least 400 passing yards and 200 rushing yards in a game when he dazzled Syracuse. Two weeks ago, he led Louisville to a 63-20 win over No. 2 Florida State.

I have been asked this week by the media, “Is this the most celebrated quarterback matchup in the history of Death Valley?”

In terms of media attention at the time of the game, yes. But in terms of reflection on total careers, no. How about considering a matchup of quarterbacks who became Super Bowl champions?

In 1977, No. 5 Notre Dame came to Memorial Stadium and was quarterbacked by a guy named Joe Montana. No. 15 Clemson was quarterbacked by Steve Fuller. We are challenged to find a more legendary quarterback at each of these schools.

Montana led the Fighting Irish to the 1977 national championship, then took the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl victories.

Fuller led the Tigers to back-to-back top-20 seasons in 1977 and 1978, including a No. 6 finish in 1978. He was the backup quarterback on the Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl championship team of 1985, and he played 10 seasons in the NFL.

You can surprise a lot of people when you tell them that Fuller was an All-American in college (AP third team) and Montana was not. Fuller was a first-round NFL draft choice, and Montana was not.

Fuller was also a two-time first-team Academic All-American. You can see why Fuller’s #4 jersey was the first to be retired and why Watson’s #4 jersey today honors him with a commemorative patch.

It is interesting to note that the 1978 final poll saw Notre Dame and Clemson tie at No. 6, the only time the Tigers have been tied with another team in a final poll. Montana and Fuller were senior quarterbacks for those programs.

Getting back to that 1977 game in Death Valley…Fuller actually had the upper hand that day in many statistical categories. He completed 13-20 passes for 185 yards, while Montana was just 10-23 passing for 196 yards. But Montana scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to lead a classic Notre Dame comeback in its 21-17 victory.

In the short term, this is going to be a fascinating matchup of two of the top quarterbacks in the nation who are known for doing it all on the field. In the long term, it will be equally as fascinating to see if they can match the success of Montana and Fuller at the professional level.