Let the debate rage about the wisdom of throwing so much responsibility on the backs of freshmen who have never played college football and whose muscles are still more fantasy than fact.

Argue endlessly about the impact a healthy-again Mike Dudek could have on a University of Illinois offense that desperately needs a jump start.

Wonder out loud what it means to be in the second year of Lovie Smith’s sweeping program rebuild.

All of those are fair points open to discussion, but not one of them will really matter if Chayce Crouch turns out to be a bust at quarterback. Or if his backup, Jeff George Jr., can’t deliver passes on time and on target.

The quality of the defensive line may seem hugely important right now, but the fact is Illinois has not fielded a truly good football team in the last 50 years that wasn’t operated by a truly good quarterback.

Admittedly, it’s not an overwhelming list of teams to consider. In those 50 years Illinois has fielded 15 bowl teams and a couple of those would probably not qualify as “truly good.”

Go back to 1983 when Mike White was the coach and no one would argue that Jack Trudeau wasn’t a good quarterback. Trudeau threw for 8,146 yards and 51 touchdowns at Illinois and was a second-round draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts.

That Illini team went to the Rose Bowl, even if it did lay an egg in Padadena, losing 45-9.

Still, very good Illini team, very good quarterback.

John Mackovic’s stay as head coach lasted four seasons and he fielded bowl teams every year. Mackovic’s 1989 team went 10-2 with Jeff George Sr. quarterbacking Illinois to a 31-21 victory over Virginia in the Citrus Bowl. George, as we know, was the No. 1 pick in the 1990 NFL draft.

Very good Illini team, very good quarterback.

The next season Illinois (8-4) went to the Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa where Jason Verduzco was the quarterback in a 30-0 loss to Clemson.

Pretty good Illini team, pretty good quarterback.

Lou Tepper’s best team went 7-5 in 1994 and beat East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl with Johnny Johnson at quarterback.

Pretty good Illini team, pretty good quarterback.

Ron Turner produced two bowl teams, both with Kurt Kittner at quarterback. In 1999 Illinois was 8-4 and beat Virginia 63-21 in the Micronpc.com Bowl in Miami. And in 2001, Kittner was sensational in leading Illinois to a 10-2 record and a tie for the Big Ten title before losing to LSU 47-34 in the Sugar Bowl.

Two very good Illini teams led by one very good quarterback.

Ron Zook shocked the nation when his 2007 Illini team went 9-4 and jetted off to the Rose Bowl, where it lost to Southern California 49-17. Juice Williams was the quarterback.

Surprisingly good Illini team, pretty darned good quarterback.

Finally, Zook’s final two teams wiggled into the bowl picture and each team finished 7-6. The 2010 team won its bowl game against Baylor and the 2011 team won its bowl game against UCLA. In each case, Nathan Scheelhaase was the QB.

Decent teams with a quarterback who was better than decent.

Yes, Tim Beckman did field a bowl team. That was 2014 when quarterback Reilly O’Toole rode to the rescue once Wes Lunt was injured, beating Penn State and Northwestern in the final two regular-season games to earn a spot in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. There Illinois lost to Louisiana Tech, 35-18.

O’Toole gets credit for doing all that he could, but the quarterback situation was a mad scramble as the 6-7 record would indicate.

One season with Bill Cubit as interim head coach and one under Smith were quarterback scrambles, too, with Lunt fighting inconsistency and injuries and Crouch getting hurt last season as well.

So here we are. It’s Crouch’s turn and there might be enough weapons on offense to create some fireworks. Those freshmen receivers look awfully good.

We just need to see Crouch light the fuse. No one questions his toughness or his ability to run the ball, but there’s not enough evidence to know if he can effectively and safely operate the passing game. He’ll have to if Illinois is going to have a chance.

We won’t know until it matters on Sept. 2 against Ball State. And the real tests come the next two games against South Florida and Western Kentucky, each of which won 11 games in 2016.

The best thing that could happen is that in November, there’s a genuine debate about the effectiveness of Smith’s young defensive line. That would mean the quarterback play has been good enough so those other things still matter.

A lot is riding on the quarterback. It always is.

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Sports Columnist

Sports columnist for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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