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Leak's legacy as Gator hinges on title game performance

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Chris Leak grew up watching Florida roll through the Southeastern Conference, advancing to the championship game seven times in nine years and setting numerous passing records along the way.

He figured to do the same when he became a Gator.

It didn't quite work out like he planned. Leak has endured a coaching change, three offensive coordinators, four years of criticism and the awkward addition of freshman Tim Tebow.

Although he has broken several school records, Leak's legacy in many ways comes down to one game - his only shot at a championship - Saturday in the SEC title game against Arkansas.

"This weekend will be a telling tale," coach Urban Meyer said. "The '90s kind of set the standard for how (Florida) quarterbacks are evaluated. Tim Tebow's going to be evaluated on the same thing, and the quarterback after him.

"Maybe that's a little harsh evaluation because other schools don't have that same precedent set. But there's a bunch of former quarterbacks walking around Gainesville. I know them all. They work our camps, they're around, they're great people and they all have a ring on their finger. That's how Chris is going to be

evaluated."

Leak understands that when it comes to playing quarterback, perception might be more important than reality.

"You see it in high school, college and pros: guys that are thought of as being real successful have won championships," Leak said. "They've won Super Bowls and all those things. I think that's very important. It shows a lot of maturity, a lot of hard work. If you put your team in a position to be successful, that shows a lot about the character of your team and the way you handled things."

Leak already owns school records for attempts (1,392), completions (854) and total offense (11,575). He needs 65 yards passing to eclipse Danny Wuerffel's career mark (10,875).

Leak's critics believe his records are more a result of longevity than success. They point out that Shane Matthews played only three years under former coach Steve Spurrier, that Wuerffel shared time with Terry Dean in 1993 and 1994, and that Rex Grossman left school after his junior season.

Each of those quarterbacks, including Dean, led the Gators to at least one championship.

Leak has a chance to join them if the fourth-ranked Gators (11-1) beat No. 8 Arkansas (10-2) in Atlanta.

"If you look at his career, he's got all the stats to be one of the best quarterbacks that's ever played here," center Steve Rissler said. "I think he's had an awesome career. ... If we can send him off with a championship, he's going to be looked at in a different way."

The expectations for Leak may have been too high from the start.

Widely considered the best high school quarterback in the country following the 2002 season, Leak surprised most everyone when he chose to leave his home state of North Carolina and play for coach Ron Zook and the Gators.

He shared time with Ingle Martin and Gavin Dickey in his first four games as a freshman, then made his first start at Kentucky. He trailed 21-3 to open the fourth quarter before rallying the Gators to their biggest road comeback, completing 20 of 35 passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns.

But Leak lost his next start, against Ole Miss in Gainesville, and two more to end the season, prompting Zook to replace Ed Zaunbrecher with Larry Fedora before the following year.

The offense changed slightly, but remained inconsistent under Fedora, and an embarrassing loss to Mississippi State ended Zook's tenure. It also opened the door for Meyer and his spread-option offense - hardly the perfect system for Leak.

Leak has looked uncomfortable running certain aspects of the offense the last two years and appeared even less cozy giving way to Tebow in short-yardage situations and near the goal line this season.

"I'm going to handle every situation the best I can," Leak said. "The thing I try to do is maintain communication with my teammates when I get back in there, maintain the flow and rhythm of the offense, and make sure we have a great tempo."

Leak has completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,540 yards, with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions this season - a far cry from the 50 TD passes he hoped to throw as a senior to break Wuerffel's career mark.

He has been stellar in some games, has taken a back seat Tebow or the defense in others and received most of the blame for Florida's lone loss - he had two crucial turnovers and was sacked three times at Auburn.

But after all the ups and downs, all the highs and lows, Leak has one final chance to make his legacy.

"You come to Florida to play for an SEC title," Leak said.

"Just to be able to win a championship is sweet enough. But obviously to do it your senior year, I just think it means so much for us seniors to go out champions. A lot of guys have put a lot of work into it, so it would be a great feeling to be able to have that happen."