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Alabama’s 5-Star QB Problem And Solution

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The truth is, 90% of Division I-A college football programs would be thrilled to have even one 5-star quarterback prospect on their roster.

Yet, of course, the University of Alabama finds itself with the most “#firstworldproblems” issue in college football: having too many 5-star quarterbacks on its roster for for its own good.

Heading into last night’s National Championship game, all we heard about was the fact that Jalen Hurts was 25–2 as the starter for the Crimson Tide, the reigning SEC Freshman of the Year and SEC Offensive Player of the Year, and a guy so stung from last year’s loss to Clemson University in the 2017 edition of the National Championship game that he kept an image of the orange and purple confetti falling on him after said game as the screen saver of his iPhone, so he’d be constantly remind of — and motivated from — that loss.

But one week after playing the best game of his college career, and now arriving at the scene of last year’s heartbreak, of which he reminded himself all year long, Hurts was 3-of-8 passing for all of 21 yards passing in the first half of his sport’s biggest stage. His abysmal performance helped “lead” the Tide to their first 13-point first-half deficit under Nick Saban in four years. Alabama’s offense had 94 yards at halftime, which was the lowest total first-half yardage the Tide had in a decade.

As plenty of other people have stated, the fact that Saban had the chutzpah to bench a quarterback who was so highly-regarded and so previously successful, in favor of a true freshman quarterback, on the sport’s biggest stage, is one of the main reasons he deserves as much credit for his fifth National Championship win as head coach of the Crimson Tide as anyone on the team. That’s an “executive decision” — using Saban’s own words — that very, very few coaches would have the stones to make, even if it was absolutely the right decision in that situation.

And yet, that very decision, which led to Alabama winning yet another national title, presents a simple yet simultaneously difficult question: who plays quarterback for Alabama next year?

There’s an adage among football coaches, when it comes to the guy that plays under center: if you have two quarterbacks, then you really don’t have any. The two-quarterback rotation thing doesn’t work; all you’re doing is stopping one quarterback from getting into any rhythm within the flow of a game, pulling a “cold” quarterback off the bench and for a period of time that’s too short to let him establish any rhythm himself, and potentially having either or both guys look over their shoulder every time they do something wrong.

The right answer is always choosing one guy, and sticking with him until he absolutely forces you to make a change, or until he makes you look like a genius.

Last night, we got the answer, in terms of which of Alabama’s quarterbacks is which.

We all keep pointing to Hurts’ 25–2 record, and conveniently ignore the fact that he was 9th (among 15 quarterbacks) in passing yards per game, and prior to the start of the college football playoffs, only had one game since September 30th where he threw more than one touchdown pass. Some of his 25 wins as a starter need to be taken with an iceberg-sized grain of salt, given that in two of his wins this year (against Vanderbilt and Mercer), he competed a grand total of 16 passes, yet Alabama still outscored those two opponents by a combined score of 115–0.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart spent the entire evening daring Hurts to beat the Bulldogs with his arm instead of his legs, and the results were nothing short of catastrophic for Hurts. He missed Calvin Ridley on a wide-open touchdown pass, when Georgia’s defensive back covering Ridley had fallen down. After Georgia went up 6–0, Hurts killed a promising drive by taking a big sack from Davin “humble yourself” Bellamy after holding the football too long in the pocket.

It got to the point where:

In contrast, prior to this season, former NFL quarterback and current Elite 11 head honcho Trent Dilfer, who is certainly no stranger to the usual NFL coach-speak hyperboles, called Tagovailoa “the most gifted passer I have ever seen at his age,” and then followed that up with even more over-the-top lavish praise: “Tua throws it better than Aaron Rodgers threw it as a sophomore at Cal-Berkley; that’s not an exaggeration.” At Dilfer’s 2016 Elite 11 camp, Tagovailoa beat out Tate Martell — the 2016–2017 Gatorade National Player of the Year and the presumptive favorite to start for Ohio State next fall — and Jake Fromm — Georgia’s own young 5-star stud at quarterback, who looks like he himself could be taken very, very early in the NFL Draft some day — for MVP honors.

Hype and potential are well and good. But Tagovailoa then went out and justified said hype.

Even if it was a bit bumpy at times, when he entered the game, it looked like someone had used a defibrillator to bring Alabama’s entire offense back from cardiac arrest. Suddenly, the threat of Ridley — and Alabama’s other crazy-talented receivers — making “chunk plays” became substantially more real. That forced Georgia to move away from stacking the box with eight defenders, which they had done all evening while Hurts was under center, subsequently opening things up for freshman running back Najee Harris to start ripping off big chunks of yardage.

(Side note — Damien Harris and Bo Scarborough were Alabama’s top two running backs, and two of the 10 best running back prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft, yet Najee Harris looked significantly better than either of them; the Tide’s embarrassment of riches at the running back position under Saban is mind-boggling).

On the 2nd-and-26 play in overtime (after taking a really awful sack on the previous play), the way he identified Georgia’s defense playing a base Cover 2, manipulated the defense by looking off the Georgia safety and freezing him down the middle of the field, and then delivering a rocket to the streaking DeVonta Smith, was absolutely textbook.

While being interviewed when going into the tunnel at the end of the first half, Saban brought up Hurts’ name and tried (at least publicly) to absolve him of the blame, saying the team’s offensive struggles wasn’t just about him. That’s just coachspeak for “we need someone to step up and put the offense on his back, ’cause the quarterback ain’t doing it.” Naturally, Saban followed up his comments by going into the locker room and telling Hurts that he’d be sitting, and that Tagovailoa would be the starter.

For all of Hurts’ previous success and accolades, and even the mature-beyond-his-years way he handled the demotion and post-game interviews, that change at quarterback shouldn’t be limited to the context of just last night’s game. If that results in Hurts leaving Alabama, after leading the Tide to back-to-back National Championship appearances, so be it. It wouldn’t be the first time Saban has had a 5-star quarterback come to Tuscaloosa, and leave after not getting (or keeping) the starting quarterback job. Just ask David Cornwell or Blake Barnett (or 4-star recruit Cooper Bateman).

The Tide can’t go back to Hurts, after Tagovailoa’s heroics last night might’ve forever etched his name in hallowed history of Alabama football. Hurts might be the two-year incumbent with the 25–2 record, but Tagovailoa could quickly become the best passer that Saban has ever had during his time in Tuscaloosa.

Entering last night, everyone knew that Alabama was in the enviable situation of having multiple choices of 5-star quarterbacks on its roster. But after last night, the Crimson Tide not only emerged with its most dramatic National Championship win under Saban, but also a clear answer among those 5-star choices.

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Rajan Nanavati

Rajan Nanavati

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Father. Husband. Indian American. Sports Junkie. Marketing Dude. Freelance Writer. Productivity Zealot. Enthusiastic Gourmand.