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Sizing Up the quarterbacks // Peyton Manning

Experts say Peyton Manning is a top pro prospect, and there is plenty of proof. His numbers speak loudly, but forget for now the statistical evidence _ there is a Tennessee record book full of that.

Numerous college quarterbacks have put up similar highlights, with little NFL success to show for it. (See Gino Torretta, David Klingler, Andre Ware.)

Other things hint at Manning's pro aptitude. When Florida hired Bob Stoops as defensive coordinator last spring, Manning began scouring tape of Kansas State, Stoops' former employer, hoping to get a feel for what the Gators' defense might become.

At a banquet last winter, Manning sought out the NFL quarterbacks in attendance _ including Kerry Collins, Ty Detmer and Steve Young _ and picked their brains on various topics such as how to prepare for NFL defenses and the nuances of the West Coast offense.

Before Manning even enrolled at Tennessee, he arrived in Knoxville six weeks early to work out on his own. And just days after last season's Citrus Bowl victory, he organized throwing workouts indoors, working with receivers and defensive backs.

But if Manning is thinking of the future and the potential riches that might be there for him, he is not talking about it. He lives for this Tennessee season, today's game at Neyland Stadium against Florida, playing in the Southeastern Conference.

For all his success, Manning has yet to play in a game as big as today's. He is 20-2 as a starter but has no championships. He could step onto a professional field tomorrow but will see a huge hole on his college resume if the Volunteers do not win today.

"I like college football and I like playing it," said Manning, a junior who some believe could be the first pick in next spring's NFL draft. "We have a huge game coming up. This season you're only guaranteed 11 games. If you look ahead one game, much less one, two, three years down the road it's not worth it.

"I love every game. I love the idea of getting better each week. I'm excited to get out there and practice. I like getting out there and throwing and trying to get better."

A loss to the Gators all but assures the Volunteers will again be denied a shot at the SEC championship. Florida has won the past three games in the series, going on to take the SEC East and securing a spot in the SEC title game. Manning has yet to experience any of that.

That's why all the talk about professional football is for another time. No better an expert than his father, Mississippi legend Archie Manning, sees the love his son has for the college game.

He recognizes his son's skills as a pocket passer who has enough mobility to throw on the run. He sees the strong arm, the smarts, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound body. And as a broadcaster for the New Orleans Saints, he gets feedback from NFL folks who say Peyton is a lock for pro stardom.

But not even Archie knows what Peyton will do after this season.

"Peyton has got big goals as far as college football," Archie said. "He really does have a passion for college football and SEC football. He's told me he thinks this season will dictate what he will do."

A speech communications major with a minor in business, Peyton has a 3.5 grade-point average and could graduate as early as next summer. In addition to his physical tools, Manning impresses the pros with his study of the game. He loves to watch tape and learn the intricacies of defenses. And with the complexities of today's pro game, that gives Manning a head start.

"He has a great understanding of the game, a great love for the game," Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said. "He's really a bright guy, the brightest I've ever been around. There's not anything he ever forgets. You say something one way, one time, he'll hold you to it."

Peyton's affection for the college game stems from his father, who is still a hero in his home state of Mississippi.

Peyton learned about his father's college brilliance by listening to tapes, and by asking lots of questions of both his father and mother, Olivia, the Ole Miss homecoming queen whom Archie married in 1971.

He only needs to remember back to his childhood to see his father as a pro playing for a poor New Orleans Saints team, beaten and battered nearly every week. Peyton and his brother, Cooper, often would wait for their father after games, watching as other players brushed past autograph seekers.

Archie was always the last one out. "Even when he got killed and was hurting, he stopped" to sign autographs, said Peyton, who has learned more than the game from his father.

"He was really my idol because of the person he is," Peyton said. "He was one of the best college players to play the game but if I can be the person he was as far as the way he did things off the field, I would be happy with that."

Perhaps that is why for now the pros can wait.