USC is not just opening its 2009 season today against San Jose State at the Coliseum -- it’s trying to make history.
There has been plenty of talk-show debate about the wisdom of starting true freshman quarterback Matt Barkley on a team that aspires to win this year’s Bowl Championship Series national title.
There is no arguing one fact:
Since the NCAA reinstituted freshman eligibility for athletes in 1972, the number of true freshman quarterbacks to start the season and lead their school to a national title is . . . zero.
Only one true freshman has ever led a team to a national championship: Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985.
Holieway, from Wilmington Banning High, became the Sooners’ starter in the fourth game of the 1985 season because Troy Aikman broke his leg during an Oct. 19 loss to Miami. Aikman would later transfer to UCLA.
Oklahoma, with Holieway thrust into the lead role, won its last eight games and capped a championship season with a win over Penn State in the Orange Bowl.
Was playing a true freshman scary?
“Hell, yeah,” former Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer recalled this week.
Switzer had no choice.
He had revamped his run-option offense to take advantage of Aikman’s passing skills. After the injury, Switzer called a midseason audible.
“Jamelle had great speed,” Switzer said. “He was a great option quarterback. We were throwing the ball 17, 18 times a game with Troy. After he got hurt, we went back to the pure wishbone. We stuck Jamelle in there and it was all over.”
Holieway averaged only 6.4 pass attempts a game. His legs were his strength, as he ran for 862 yards as the wishbone’s point man.
Bernie Kosar is the only other freshman quarterback to lead his team to the national title. He started all 12 games for Miami in 1983, but Kosar was a redshirt.
Switzer says that doesn’t count, that second-year freshmen should be considered sophomores.
Kosar also lost in his first start, 28-3, to Florida.
Tim Tebow, a true freshman, contributed to Florida’s 2006 national title as backup to starter Chris Leak.
Tebow attempted only 33 passes, but rushed for 469 yards and eight touchdowns.
Two of the greatest college quarterbacks of all time, John Elway and Peyton Manning, played as true freshmen but did not lead their schools to championships.
Elway, in 1979, played sparingly behind Stanford starter Turk Schonert; Manning, at Tennessee, became the freshman starter in 1994 after injuries to Jerry Colquitt and Todd Helton.
More true freshmen, of late, are getting the chance to play sooner -- with mixed results.
The most successful first-year freshman this decade may have been Michigan’s Chad Henne, who in 2004 led the Wolverines to a 9-2 record while passing for 25 touchdowns with only 12 interceptions.
Last year, Ohio State earned a share of the Big Ten title with the help of first-year quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
Others have struggled. Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft, played as a true freshman at Georgia and finished with seven touchdown passes and 13 interceptions.
Jimmy Clausen, in 2007, started nine games on a Notre Dame team that finished 3-9. Clausen had seven touchdown passes and six interceptions.
Switzer hasn’t seen enough of Barkley to predict how much success the Trojans freshman will have early in his career, but he expects opposing defensive coordinators to try to exploit the situation.
“He will be given a lot of problems,” Switzer said. “I’m sure he’s a good player or Pete [Carroll] wouldn’t be playing him.”
Switzer said there is no substitute for playing time.
“I don’t care how talented you are, the more snaps you get in game experience the more talented you’ll become,” Switzer said.
“Our quarterback here, Sam Bradford, will be better this year than last year.”
If you’re looking for a possible cautionary tale for Barkley, consider this: Colt McCoy, a redshirt freshman who took over at Texas for Vince Young in 2006, lost his second career start -- against Ohio State.
Switzer, though, says the idea of Barkley making his first road start, in front of more than 100,000 fans at Columbus next week, may be a plus.
“Everything will be downhill after that,” Switzer said.