Bernard Fernandez:

TAMPA - True story: Mississippi State once had an athletic department employee named James Bond who snuck into an opposing team's practice and was caught diagramming plays that presumably would be used in an upcoming game against the Bulldogs.

Not that the rules-honoring folks at Penn State would resort to such underhanded tactics, but before tomorrow's Outback Bowl against Florida concludes, Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Tom Bradley may wish there had been some double-ought spy passing along classified information on the Gators, whose practices have been closed to the public and the media, and probably for good reason.

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See, Florida's primary quarterback in coach Urban Meyer's final game goes by the name of Brantley . . . John Brantley.

Or maybe it'll be Burton . . . Trey Burton.

Or Reed . . . Jordan Reed.

Heck, the Lions probably are going to see all three of those guys. There probably will be times when they'll see all three on the field at Raymond James Stadium at the same time.

And here you thought that other James Bond had it tough battling SPECTRE and Smersh. Since Meyer, offensive coordinator Steve Addazio (Temple's new head coach, bound for North Broad Street upon the game's conclusion) and quarterbacks coach Scott Loeffler have had more than a month to play mad-scientist at those top-secret workouts, what the Lions are apt to see might be like nothing the Gators showed during a disappointing 7-5 regular season.

"If we were playing them in a week's time, we'd have a better idea of what they can do," Bradley said of Florida's unsettled and unsettling quarterback situation. "They've had a month off. I'm sure they've progressed each quarterback to do more things because they're all very skilled athletes. They can do a lot of things. Those guys play quarterback, they play wideout, they play running back, they play tight end.

"Burton, he's their second-leading receiver and their second-leading rusher. Reed is a beast. How far they can expand their offensive package, who knows with this amount of time off?"

Penn State cornerback D'Anton Lynn said he and his teammates on defense will have to be alert to who lines up behind center, and to react instantly.

"When they switch quarterbacks, it's like a completely different offense," Lynn said. "It's almost like we're game-planning for three different teams."

To help prepare for Florida's three-headed quarterback monster, three scout-team players have been assigned the roles of Brantley, Burton and Reed.

"Paul Jones [pthe highly regarded true freshman who was redshirted this season] plays No. 11 [Reeves]," Lynn said. "Derek Day plays No. 8 [Burton], because he's more of a runner. And Garrett Venuto plays No. 12 [Brantley].

"The scout-team guys are so helpful. Without them, we don't get the live looks that we need. You can't know what you need to know just by watching something on film. We need to practice it on the field."

During the previous three seasons and for much of the one before that, Meyer didn't have to resort to such quarterback subterfuge. He had a guy named Tim Tebow. You might have heard of him. Won the Heisman Trophy in 2008, was one of the finalists for college football's top individual award last year. Tebow ran like Earl Campbell, passed like - well, it wasn't always pretty, but it was effective - and was a forceful leader, the kind who can lift the team on the force of his personality. The only time one of his backups, including Brantley, ever saw the field was in mop-up situations, when the Gators were well ahead late in games.

Brantley, a redshirt junior, was supposed to slip comfortably into the large shoes left behind by Tebow, now a rookie with the Denver Broncos. But although Brantley - a five-star recruit and the son of former Florida quarterback John Brantley III - broke Tebow's Florida high-school record with 99 career touchdown passes, he is a prototypical dropback passer and proved an ill fit in the Gators' spread-option offense. He finished this season with just nine touchdown passes against nine interceptions, pedestrian numbers compared to Tebow's rewrite of the UF record book.

As the Gators struggled to hit their stride with Brantley, opportunities arose for Burton, a true freshman, and for Reed, a high school quarterback in New London, Conn., a 6-3, 240-pound redshirt freshman who was moved to tight end during Sugar Bowl preparations at the end of the 2009 season.

All the 6-3, 222-pound Burton did was score 11 touchdowns (five in one game against Kentucky), including one on a reception. He rushed for 347 yards on 73 carries, caught 30 passes for 188 yards and another score and completed four of five passes for 83 yards.

Reed, meanwhile, rushed for five touchdowns, passed for three more and caught six passes, one for a TD.

So much depth at the game's most important position should make for a pleasant problem when new coach Will Muschamp, the defensive coordinator at Texas, replaces Meyer after the Outback Bowl.

Tomorrow, the problems encountered by Bradley and the Penn State defense figure to be something entirely different.

3 things to look for

* Florida's human bullet, junior running back Jeffrey Demps, will score at least one long touchdown on a rushing play, reception or kickoff return.

* True freshman tailback Silas Redd to see as much, and possibly more, playing time than Penn State's career rushing leader, senior Evan Royster. Hey, coach Joe Paterno said he regarded the Outback Bowl as more of a launching pad for the 2011 season than the finale of the 2010 campaign.

* Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley to dial up more blitzes to put pressure on the Florida quarterback du jour. The Lions registered only 16 sacks this season; in 2009 they had 37. It does make a difference.

Prediction

Florida 28, Penn State 24. *

Send e-mail to fernanb@phillynews.com