By BOB HARIG
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 3, 2000
GAINESVILLE -- Jesse Palmer looked across the line of scrimmage and found a foe he truly could dislike. For too long, it seems, all he had to do was look to his own sideline.
Steve Spurrier still stacks up as a tougher opponent than Ball State.
Palmer was well aware of that before Saturday's opener at Florida Field, where the Gators yawned their way to a 40-19 victory in the annual dress rehearsal to kick off another run toward glory.
This year, Florida paid $350,000 for a guaranteed victory over a team that won zero games in 1999. The Gators sent 85,000 fans home troubled and the Cardinals back to Muncie, Ind., with an 18-game losing streak.
Palmer viewed this as more than an exhibition. This was another opportunity to prove that he deserves his position as Florida's No. 1 quarterback, status that Spurrier has given him somewhat grudgingly.
Now we see why.
Palmer didn't exactly give his coach reason to strut with confidence. He connected on 21 of 46 passes for 327 yards and three touchdowns, but missed his share of open receivers, allowed a rout to turn into a game and probably frustrated Spurrier as much as ever.
Yet knowing Palmer is his only quarterback with a lick of collegiate experience, he wasn't about to go to the bench in the fourth quarter to summon a freshman in a game that was far too close for far too long.
This was a chance to pad the stats for Palmer, to feel good about himself, get on a roll. Instead, the questions remain.
Is Palmer the player to lead the Gators to their first Southeastern Conference title since 1996? If not, who is?
For all the hype about Brock Berlin, it is unrealistic to believe he could step into this highly charged environment right out of high school and lead a major college program. Rex Grossman, another highly touted quarterback who beat out Berlin for the No. 2 spot, threw his first pass Saturday night in mop-up duty.
So Spurrier faces a dilemma. Knowing he has no experience behind Palmer, does he ride the senior quarterback so hard that he is constantly looking over his shoulder? Or does he tell the world Palmer is his man, then stick by him through the tough times?
The latter seems impossible for Spurrier. The UF coach hardly seems enamored with Palmer, delivering some rather hollow endorsements. He anointed Palmer the starter, but with no assurance.
Some of it might be good old-fashioned coaching mind games. Keep the starter on his toes, keep the back-ups interested by letting them think they could be called upon at any time.
Whatever the case, Palmer failed to quiet the critics against a school far more famous for being David Letterman's alma mater than for any football prowess.
"I let a few balls get away from me," Palmer said. "I became too hesitant. There's a lot of room for improvement."
After completing his first five passes, including one for a touchdown, Palmer turned erratic and had the masses wondering at what moment Grossman or Berlin would need to save the season.
It never came to that, but Palmer clearly was not the quarterback Gator fans hope to see this season. The game never should have been as close as 33-19 in the fourth quarter. The Cardinals were outmatched, incapable of covering UF's fleet receivers. Palmer completed 15 of 34 passes in the first half. It was not an effort that would have won many SEC games.
"He needs to play better than he did tonight," Spurrier said. "He started off super. Hopefully he can play a lot better. He knows that. And our receivers are going to have to play a lot better, too. They're not doing anything to help us."
No doubt, playing quarterback for Spurrier is a tough task. Believed by many to have the best offensive mind in college football, even Spurrier's harshest critics would have difficulty denying his place among the game's great innovators.
The offensive mastermind questioned himself and his offense after the three-game losing streak to end last season. The Fun 'N Gun is obviously no longer as prolific as during an earlier time. Whether opposing defenses have caught up to Spurrier's schemes or his teams simply don't execute as well, the points don't go up on the scoreboard as quickly or as often.
"We don't hardly score 50 anymore," Spurrier lamented. "We used to score 50 against a lot of conference teams. We haven't been as good."
Palmer talked confidently during the preseason, with a burden seemingly lifted. He's the man and he knows it. There is no Doug Johnson to interfere, and realistically, no backup to make noise behind him.
The most formidable opponent remains the man with the visor. How many times Spurrier throws it in Palmer's direction this season remains to be seen.