Thursday September 2nd, 2010

Jake Locker has been called a potential first-round NFL pick for so long that you might think he attends the University of NFL Combine. If, like much of America, you believe the two most important sports in America are the NFL and the NFL Draft, you have heard of Locker.

Locker actually plays for the University of Washington, which is relevant if you care how good he is, not just how good he is supposed to be someday. And this weekend, in one of the more interesting storylines of this college football season, Locker can start to show he deserves the hype.

Frankly, he has not shown it yet. Ask yourself: What are the qualities that usually make NFL teams reach into their pockets and pull out $50 million in small, unmarked bills to give to a quarterback?

Accuracy? Locker completed 58 percent of his passes last year -- pretty good, but not special. Yardage? He threw for 2,800 last year, 33rd in the FBS. Leadership? Locker has yet to post a winning record.

Locker has an unusual combination of size and athleticism -- he is going to amaze people at his workouts. And he might turn into an All-America this year. I'm not saying he won't be a great NFL player. I'm saying that, to this point, the hype has far exceeded the production. It is an absolute mystery to me why Locker might be considered a better NFL prospect than Stanford's Andrew Luck or Arkansas's Ryan Mallett.

The beautiful thing about college football -- well, one of many beautiful things -- is that we start to get answers right away. Even in this era of watered-down nonconference slates -- teams would count their spring games toward the regular season if they could -- we get a few enticing matchups every weekend. They will have a lasting impact on the season, more so than in any other sport.

So when Washington plays BYU on Saturday, it will be a chance to see if Jake Locker, human being, can start to close the gap with Jake Locker, Most Awesome NFL Draft Prospect Of All Time. He'll follow the BYU game with Syracuse, Nebraska and USC.

A No. 1 overall draft pick keeps his team in those games. A No. 1 overall draft pick elevates his team. That is what Eli Manning did at Mississippi, what Jay Cutler did at Vanderbilt and what Philip Rivers did at North Carolina State. (Only Manning went No. 1 overall, but all three went in the first round.)

It's not Locker's fault that he has received so much hype, and it won't be a character flaw if he fails to deliver. But it will be interesting to find out how good he really is.

This is not the only enticing storyline of the weekend. When Oregon State plays TCU, the fate of a Heisman candidacy (for Oregon State's extremely watchable Jacquizz Rodgers) and a Bowl Championship Series dream (for TCU) will be on the line. I can assure you that if Rodgers or TCU has a great year, their supporters will point to this game as evidence of true greatness.

When USC plays Hawaii, we'll find out just how mad Lane Kiffin is about all the names he has been called. Kiffin, the Trojans' new coach, probably doesn't have the talent for a "screw you, NCAA" undefeated season. But something tells me that in the opener, he wouldn't mind tacking on an extra touchdown or three if he has a chance.

When Pittsburgh plays Utah, we'll find out if Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt can quiet the doubters in Chicago, Miami and Pittsburgh, which happen to be the only three places he has ever been a head coach. Wannstedt is one of the more fascinating coaches of his generation: He is entering his 17th year as a head coach (11 in the NFL) without really distinguishing himself. His teams are usually decent but rarely better than that. The Panthers are the Big East favorites this year, though not overwhelming favorites.

When LSU visits North Carolina, two coaching careers may be on the line. Les Miles has never been all that popular in the Bayou, even when he won the 2007 national title. Meanwhile, Butch Davis' North Carolina program is being eaten away at all angles by scandals -- academics, agents, you name it. Davis supposedly has the talent to make an ACC title run this year. But it is starting to look like one of those seasons from hell -- and LSU can start that spiral.

And of course, when Boise State plays Virginia Tech in Washington, D.C., it will have very real championship implications -- something you just won't get from Ravens-Jets in the NFL's first weekend.

College football has so many flaws, it is easy to overlook its best quality: It gives us a season that is riveting from the opening kickoff. Nothing in sports can match it. Year after year, it actually exceeds the hype. (Let's see if you can, too, Jake.)

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