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Miami has better QB than UF, FSU for the first time in a decade

Every morning on his way in to work, Jim McElwain has to pass three statues that remind him what his No. 1 priority is as Florida coach.

Must. Develop. A. Quarterback.

Stone-faced Steve Spurrier, Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow will lord over him until he accomplishes the mission. But inside the state of Florida, McElwain is not alone. Florida State, Florida and Miami have grown so accustomed to producing elite quarterbacks, they must live up to their own lofty standards every year.

When they don't, there is near hysteria from their respective fan bases. And coaches end up losing their jobs. See: Muschamp, Will.

After all, Florida, Florida State and Miami have combined to produce eight Heisman Trophy winners -- all quarterbacks. That is more than any other state. Only Notre Dame (four) has produced more Heisman-winning quarterbacks than Florida State (three) and Florida (three).

Though it is Miami that has been known as Quarterback U, this upcoming season will be the first time in more than a decade the Hurricanes have the best quarterback in the state. That helps explain why Miami has fallen so precipitously. Over the same span, Florida and Florida State have produced a combined two Heisman winners and three national championships.

Miami has produced zero. The Canes haven't had a quarterback drafted, either. Down cycles are to be expected -- Florida is in one now; Florida State was in one before Christian Ponder emerged in 2008. But dating back to the 1990s, neither Florida State nor Florida has gone through the decade-long drought Miami is in now.

That is why there is optimism in Coral Gables with Brad Kaaya behind center. Florida and Florida State have yet to announce their starting quarterbacks for 2015, while Miami returns the reigning ACC Rookie of the Year.

"Finding a quarterback -- it is the most elusive thing in football," Miami coach Al Golden said. "Our situation looks a lot different than a year ago. We didn't know who our quarterback was going to be, so it's hard to say these two things in the same sentence -- we want to be champions but we don't know who our quarterback is. That's a difficult thing."

Kaaya started as a true freshman last season and threw for more than 3,000 yards, emerging as potentially the best quarterback to play at Miami since Ken Dorsey in 2002. It is not for a lack of trying. Miami signed a slew of four- and five-star recruits in the years that followed Dorsey's tenure, but none of them lived up to their potential for a host of reasons. Kaaya had less pedigree than players such as Kyle Wright (2003 Gatorade High School Player of the Year) and ESPN 300 quarterback Kevin Olsen, who had a shot at the starting job last year before he was kicked off the team for repeated off-field problems.

Kaaya might not have had the stars next to his name, but he had the intangibles coaches look for: work ethic, drive, determination and a high football IQ. Not one thing about the quarterback tradition at Miami scared him off.

"I knew pretty well about their history," Kaaya said. "This team in general, I want this team to be able to leave a legacy. That's what I've always wanted. I love The U. I love going to school here, I love everything about it. But at the same time, I want to bring us back to where we used to be."

Florida State got itself back thanks, in part, to what Jimbo Fisher has done with his quarterbacks. Before he arrived, the Seminoles scuffled along with QBs such as Drew Weatherford, Chris Rix, Wyatt Sexton and Adrian McPherson.

Since he arrived in 2007, first as coordinator and then as head coach, Fisher has produced two first-round NFL picks in Ponder and EJ Manuel. Jameis Winston will likely make it three in a row next week. That would give Florida State three first-round quarterbacks over a five-year span, the first time that has happened since the AFL-NFL merger.

But 2015 is far from certain. Sean Maguire is the favorite to win the job, but Fisher has yet to name him the starter. When Winston became the starter as a redshirt freshman in 2013, he had a veteran supporting cast around him. The only established player Florida State returns on offense this year is running back Dalvin Cook.

"It goes back to play calling," Fisher said. "You have to be careful the scenarios you put your quarterbacks in, and you want to make sure they have success so they can grow because a season -- it's about winning a game not how much you win it by. You have to grow.

"There are challenges that we're facing. I've got an idea of what we can do, but I want to push those boundaries to see how far they can go, and how far Sean can go and then when they go wrong, how does he react? A lot of playing quarterback is managing the bad plays. That's as important as managing the good plays."

McElwain has developed his fair share of quarterbacks, too, working with Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron at Alabama and Garrett Grayson at Colorado State. His offensive background is a major reason why Florida hired him. The Gators have struggled to find a quarterback since Tim Tebow left in 2009.

Right now, Will Grier and Treon Harris remain the the lone contenders to start. But neither did much this spring to begin to change the idea that Florida still is deficient at that position. And that is an idea that must be changed quickly for McElwain to be embraced among the Gators faithful.

"Maybe this is growing up in Montana, but I've never thought of anything as pressure," McElwain said. "The bigger the stakes, the greater the opportunity. What a great opportunity at a great place that's known for the position to mold someone that's here and as we continue to recruit, to get that back where it becomes, 'Hey this is the quarterback at the University of Florida, right?'"

Not just any quarterback, mind you. For those three schools, each national championship trophy has been lifted with a quarterback able to make astonishing plays out of nothing, while turning the mundane into the extraordinary. And he has been inextricably linked with a coach unafraid to put the ball into his quarterback's hands and not simply manage the game, but take over the game.

This is what Fisher, Spurrier and Urban Meyer do so well. You always get the sense their quarterbacks will thrive in their respective offenses. Golden and McElwain are trying to get one to thrive.

Kaaya is close. But his sophomore year is the ultimate test for Golden, who simply cannot afford another 6-7 season. It has been 13 years since Miami fans believed in their quarterback the way they do now. Golden knows what he has in Kaaya, too. He could be the key to not only saving Golden's job, but saving Miami itself.

"He's clearly very comfortable in his skin now and he's an established starter and obviously talented," Golden said. "He's getting better, he's leading more. He'll do extra work. He studies like crazy. Very mature and he's starting to relax more. We're excited about him."

The schedule is tough, but there is no more time for excuses. Fisher and McElwain both agree that their rival's quarterback is something special. Golden cannot afford to see Kaaya have anything less than a special season.

Not when it is so clearly obvious the Canes finally have the edge there.