Georgia coach Mark Richt has coached quarterbacks for a quarter century, and he doesn’t mind saying that the guy the Bulldogs will face this Saturday in Neyland Stadium has a big-time future.
Even Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, never one to gush about his own players, can’t dismiss the gaudy numbers that his sophomore quarterback has put up this season.
But Tyler Bray, in his typical California cool demeanor, is quick to shrug it all off.
He’s not much of a numbers guy.
“I’m more worried about the wins,” said Bray, who’s thrown 14 touchdown passes and only two interceptions and leads the SEC in every passing category.
What Bray doesn’t have is a big win, or probably better stated, a signature win.
And Bray is well aware true greatness at the quarterback position is achieved by how many wins you rack up over teams that “matter” and not how many touchdown passes you throw.
In the realm of Tennessee football, Georgia matters. So do Alabama and Florida, and here lately, South Carolina.
“Those are the big games on our schedule, so how we play against them is how our team is going to be judged … not just me,” said Bray, who’s thrown 32 touchdown passes in his last 10 games dating back to last season.
He’s absolutely right. Any coach will tell you that quarterbacks get too much of the credit when the team wins and too much of the blame when the team loses.
But it’s also a fact that a quarterback’s legacy begins and ends with how he plays in the big games, and more specifically, how many championships he leads his team to.
Don’t think so?
Ask Dan Marino, who’s easily the greatest quarterback to ever play that never won a Super Bowl.
And closer to Rocky Top, ask Peyton Manning. For all of Manning’s greatness in college (and, yes, he did lead the Vols to an SEC championship in 1997), he never beat Florida.
Even now, when Manning’s name is brought up in SEC circles, the Florida thing usually has a way of rearing its head. That’s because Florida was Tennessee’s chief rival in the 1990s and the team the Big Orange Nation wanted to beat worse than anybody else.
Bray is 0-1 against the Gators as a starter, but he gets his first shot at the Bulldogs in a starting role on Saturday.
“I can’t wait,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for these games ever since last year when I had to sit there and watch them. This year, I get to play.”
He’s playing lights out, too, and has made the transition from being more of a gun-slinger last season as a true freshman to a quarterback.
“You go back to when he took over, and he’s got great numbers,” Dooley said. “But he’s playing a lot better than he ever played the last few games of last season, even though last season’s numbers were good.
“He’s got a better understanding of the offense. That’s number one. But more than anything, he’s shown a greater understanding of what it means to be a quarterback.”
In other words, Bray’s spreading the ball around, checking down to the shorter throw when nothing else is there and going out of his way to be more of a leader.
And when a bad play does happen, he’s not as hellbent on trying to get 40 or 50 yards on the next play.
“I wouldn’t say the game has slowed down. It’s the same speed, but you’re able to make your reads so much faster, and mentally, that does slow it down for you,” Bray said. “Last year, I was doing well if I got to my second read. This year, I’m getting all the way to my fourth sometimes.”
Nobody has ever questioned Bray’s fearlessness in the pocket. He’s added a few pounds since arriving in Knoxville, but is still rail thin when you look at some of the defenders coming after him.
Against Florida earlier this season, he took a beating, but stood in there and kept firing away.
“People know now I can take hits,” Bray joked. “I don’t know how many more hits I’ve got to take.”
It’s that calm in the pocket that has made such an impression on Richt, who says Bray will be a terrific NFL quarterback.
“He’s a very, very smooth guy,” Richt said. “I’ve coached QBs for 25 years, and you can tell when a guy’s got it. He really has a tremendous calm about him. He’s got great fundamentals. He’s deadly accurate, and he’s effortless when he does it.”
Bray insists he hasn’t paid any attention to some of the numbers he’s put up, and he’s unfazed by the fact that he’s well ahead of the pace Manning set at this same point during his college career.
Obviously, it's unfair to compare any college quarterback to Manning, but it’s at least worth noting that Bray has thrown for 2,874 yards and 30 touchdowns in his first nine games as a starter and compiled a 7-2 record. Manning, in his first nine games as a starter, threw for 1,115 yards and 11 touchdowns and compiled an 8-1 record. Bray has also gone 10 games in a row with at least two touchdown passes, breaking Manning's record of seven in a row.
What matters is what Bray does from here, and a big step in that journey comes Saturday night in Neyland Stadium.
“Tyler understands that you have to prove it over time,” Dooley said.
The other thing Bray understands, more so than he ever did a year ago, is that what really matters is how he impacts his teammates.
In fact, that’s Bray’s definition of what makes a great quarterback.
“It’s about getting your team to play at a whole different level,” he said. “Great quarterbacks and great leaders can get guys to do stuff they didn’t even know they could do.
“That’s the way I look at it, and it’s something I’m going to keep working on until we get there.”