NEW ORLEANS -- Forget the national championship. Thad Busby has to worry about being No. 1 in Tallahassee, Fla.
Busby has been the starter while Florida State has rolled to an 11-0 record, a No. 1 ranking and the inside track to its second national title in four years, but it's not as if the junior quarterback has the strongest vote of confidence heading into tomorrow's Sugar Bowl against Florida.
"This game will go a long way to seeing how his [Busby's] career goes with us," said Mark Richt, the Florida State offensive coordinator. "If he has a great game, it will solidify him as our starter. If he has a poor game, it's open again in the spring."
An interception here or a fumble there against the Gators, and Richt and coach Bobby Bowden won't wait until March to make a quarterback change.
The Florida State tradition is for a quarterback to serve a lengthy apprenticeship, then assume the starter's role as a junior. Busby waited behind Danny Kanell. Kanell waited behind Charlie Ward. Ward waited behind Casey Weldon.
Now along comes Dan Kendra, a redshirt freshman from Bethlehem, Pa. The consensus national prep Player of the Year in 1994, Kendra didn't renege on a promise to play for Penn State because he wanted to ride the Seminoles' bench.
Busby has 16 touchdown passes in 243 attempts, Kendra nine in 89. Busby, 6 feet 3 and 220 pounds, has the superior size and experience, but his play has been affected by several injuries, and perhaps by the burden of expectations.
"People say I'm fighting for my job, but I don't feel that way," said Busby, who followed Kanell's lead and got an unlisted phone number this year. "Look, it's tough to be a quarterback at Florida State, because there's always somebody behind you.
"Sometimes it gets frustrating, but I understand how the media and the fans look at it. They see the numbers that the other guys have put up before me. They expect me to do the same. It's frustrating, because I feel that I've done better than some people thought."
Busby had three 300-yard passing games this season. Ward had six for his career, and Busby's 1996 statistics were comparable to the ones the 1993 Heisman Trophy winner put up when he was a junior.
"I've been told that," said Busby, who admits he wasn't fully prepared for the demands. "You think you're ready to play as a junior. You've watched the other guys, you've done the right things on the practice field, but when you get out there in a game, it's totally different.
"It's tough to sit for three years, then go out and set the world on fire."
Busby's timing could have been better. Warrick Dunn, the top rusher in Florida State history, is at the end of a stellar career. Busby became the starter in a landmark year for defenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and at a time when quarterbacks are under more pressure than ever from the pass rush.
The fans didn't want excuses when the Seminoles had 221 yards in total offense in the opener against hapless Duke, and 213 yards two games later against North Carolina.
Busby had 300-yard games against Clemson and Virginia, and in between became the first Florida State quarterback to beat Miami in the Orange Bowl in 10 years, but he threw for only 125 yards against the Hurricanes.
Busby fractured his left wrist in week seven, and against Maryland in week 10, he injured cartilage in his left knee. He's been on the mend since the regular-season finale, the 24-21 win over Florida in which he completed only 12 of 32 passes, for 124 yards and a touchdown.
"He's been streaky all year long, and he knows he hasn't played up to his potential," Richt said. "He'll have a good game, and then a poor game. His consistency is what I'm disappointed in. There were a couple of other games in which he played good enough for us not to get beat."
Dunn, who had a career-high 185 yards rushing against Florida, said all that Busby has to do is "get the ball in the athletes' hands, then let the athletes take over."
Gators free safety Shea Showers was equally flattering.
"He's not the one they want to win games for them," Showers said.
"I like that," Busby said. "Go ahead, put it on my shoulders."
No. 1 Florida State (11-0) vs. No. 3 Florida (11-1)
Site: New Orleans
Time: 8 p.m. Tomorrow
TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WJFK (1300 AM)
Line: Florida by 3
Pub Date: 1/01/97