Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

With Malik Zaire bound for Florida, UGA's path just got tougher


It was only a week ago that this correspondent picked the Florida Gators to win the SEC East . (Note that they've won it two years running, and I picked them neither time.) The division's dynamics have since changed. Quarterback Malik Zaire, lately of Notre Dame, told Bruce Feldman of FoxSports he'll enroll at Florida.

Gainesville had long been posited as a destination for Zaire, but he had to wait to see what happened at the SEC meetings in Destin before committing. On cue, the conference changed its rule regarding graduate transfers. If it hadn't, Florida wouldn't have been able to take him. But now he's southbound, and there's rejoicing in the realm of rowdy reptiles.

Be advised that it's unclear just how good Zaire is. He was named Notre Dame's starter at the beginning of the 2015 season. He'd been the understudy to Everett Golson for most of 2014 -- as a freshman, Golson had led the Irish to the BCS title game against Alabama; he was suspended for academic misdoing in 2013 -- and Zaire started the Music City Bowl against LSU ahead of Golson, who would soon transfer to Florida State, where he did not much.

Zaire broke his ankle at Virginia on Sept. 12, 2015. DeShone Kizer saved that game and beat Georgia Tech -- Notre Dame was a home underdog against the Jackets , if you recall -- the next Saturday. Behind its backup quarterback, ND came close to making the College Football Playoff. As of Thanksgiving, the Irish were No. 6 in the CFP standings with a game at No. 9 Stanford upcoming. They lost 38-36 on a last-second field goal -- blame Brian VanGorder, not Kizer -- and landed in the Fiesta Bowl, where they lost to Ohio State.

Notre Dame was ranked No. 10 in last year's preseason Associated Press poll. It was expected to have -- shades of Ohio State -- two first-rate quarterbacks, Kizer still being around and Zaire having recovered from his injury. We now list all the teams the 2016 Irish beat: Nevada, Syracuse, Miami and Army. The crash from 10-3 to 4-8 cost the wayfaring VanGorder his job and nearly cost Brian Kelly his.

The anticipated quarterback rotation never materialized. Kizer started every game. Zaire was scarcely seen after the opening loss at Texas. Kizer declared early for the NFL draft and was taken in Round 2 by the Cleveland Browns. Zaire became the hottest name on what has become college football's waiver wire. He considered Texas, North Carolina Wisconsin and even Harvard, but the deferring of any decision until the SEC met indicated Florida was his preference. Sure enough ...

It was believed redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks had moved ahead of Luke Del Rio, the transfer who been Florida's No. 1 quarterback last year, sort of. Del Rio got hurt twice, giving way to Austin Appleby, yet another transfer. The Gators again won the East, mostly in spite of their quarterbacks. Nobody in Gainesville was looking forward to another installment of Del Rio, and there's thought that Franks might be OK. But a program doesn't accept a grad transfer from Notre Dame if it doesn't believe he can start.

For the record, Zaire started three games for the Irish. He finished two. Notre Dame won all three. He's considered a dual-threat type. He has thrown 98 collegiate passes, completing 58. He has thrown four touchdown passes against zero interceptions. Viewing this modest body of work, should the Gators be giddy?

Giddy, no. Mildly encouraged, yes. Watching Florida's quarterbacks the past two seasons, the thought occurred, "Can't they find anybody better than this?" Zaire is surely better and certainly no worse. This isn't to say Georgia should resign itself to playing for second place in the East. This is to suggest that the job looks a wee bit tougher than it did a week ago.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.