Is Mac Jones 2 wins from becoming a better Alabama quarterback than Tua Tagovailoa?
When Tua Tagovailoa announced that he was off to the NFL, he addressed the new elephant in the room.
Arguably the best quarterback in program history was off to the NFL, and now, another heated competition was set to take place.
“It’ll be good, I’m looking forward it,” Tagovailoa said of the Alabama quarterback competition back in January. “They got another guy coming in, Bryce Young, he looked good at his All-American Game. If you love competition, now’s the best time for it, for Mac Jones, for my little brother (Taulia Tagovailoa) and for Bryce Young as an incoming freshman.”
Little did Tagovailoa know that there wasn’t much of a competition at all. His brother, Taulia, transferred to Maryland months later. COVID hit, which meant Young was out of a spring game, as well as valuable reps heading into his true freshman season. Meanwhile, Jones left fall camp as the no-brainer starter and never looked back.
It’s strange to think that the big question in Tuscaloosa when Tagovailoa left was, well, who will replace him? Now, there’s a question worth asking that nobody could’ve seen coming.
Is Jones 2 wins way from becoming a better Alabama quarterback than Tagovailoa?
Stunning, I know.
You would’ve been laughed out of the room if you asked that last January. A straw poll probably would’ve favored Young being Alabama’s starter instead of Jones becoming an All-SEC quarterback, much less Jones becoming a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.
But here we are in late December. Alabama, with Jones as its starter, is the biggest favorite in Playoff history against Notre Dame having rolled to an 11-0 record against all-SEC competition with just 1 game decided by less than 15 points. Jones fueled the nation’s best Power 5 offense by a whopping 5 points per game. Florida is the only Power 5 team that averages more passing yards per game, though Jones is No. 1 among all FBS players in quarterback rating.
His legacy could come down to how these next 2 games go. If he wins them both, he’ll have put together the greatest single-season in Alabama quarterback history.
Yes, that includes Tagovailoa’s 2018 season. As memorable as it was in those first 2 months, getting bailed out by Jalen Hurts after going down in the SEC Championship has to matter, as does the Clemson disaster. Of course, that was an all-time Clemson team. Still, though. Go back to Jones’ start in the 2019 Iron Bowl and compare it to Tagovailoa’s 2018:
And again, that’s Jones against all Power 5 competition. How much of that is Steve Sarkisian? I’d say it’s certainly part of that. But then on the flip side, Tagovailoa’s numbers came with Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. Half of Jones’ games have only been with Smith, albeit a superhuman version of Smith.
You can’t make the case that “Tagovailoa never played in the 4th quarter” when all but 1 of Jones’ post-Iron Bowl games were decided by at least 15 points.
So add 2 more wins, a Heisman finalist nod and a national championship to Jones’ résumé and what does it look like? Remarkable. Historically efficient, historically productive and perhaps historically better than any Alabama quarterback so far.
I know. It’s only 1 season. If Jones doesn’t return in 2021, it complicates this discussion. Tagovailoa’s 2nd-and-26 will always complicate the discussion. How do you quantify not just that play, but that relief work on that stage? But then how do you also quantify the frustrating ends to Tagovailoa’s 2 seasons as a starter? It’s murky.
And for what it’s worth, this isn’t necessarily a question about who has more talent or who will be the better NFL player. Tagovailoa is more talented, and he certainly had a better flair for the dramatics. No matter what happens in this Playoff, Jones won’t surpass his predecessor in that department.
Tagovailoa did things that Jones could never do, and I’m not sure you could say the opposite was true. Part of that is the talent. Still, the production will tell the tale.
What happens if Jones gets a date with Clemson in the national championship and he puts up a casual 45-point effort against Brent Venables’ defense? Will that be the sign that Jones surpassed Tagovailoa? Or will it instead be pointed out that Tagovailoa was coming off ankle surgery and the offensive coaching staff was in flux? Both can be true at the same time.
That conversation isn’t very far off these days. Jones has been asked to do things that AJ McCarron, Jake Coker and Greg McElroy never had to do when they won their titles. Jones averaged 30 pass attempts per game so far. That’s essentially 5 more pass attempts per game than McCarron during his most pass-heavy season, it’s 7 more than McElroy’s 23 attempts per game in 2009 and it’s 4 more than Coker in 2015.
Jones trumps them even more in the efficiency department. None of those previous Alabama signal-callers were tasked with pushing the ball downfield like Jones, either.
Here’s the crazy thing. Jones actually averaged nearly 7 more attempts per game than Tagovailoa did in 2018 … yet Jones and Tagovailoa were nearly identical in terms of efficiency. Jones actually had the better quarterback rating, and he did that against all-SEC competition.
According to Pro Football Focus, Tagovailoa’s career college grade was 92.2. That’s outstanding.
What’s even more outstanding? Jones currently has PFF’s highest-graded season by any Power 5 quarterback, including Joe Burrow:
Highest-graded season by a P5 QB
1. Mac Jones (2020) – 95.3
2. Joe Burrow (‘19) – 94.9🏆
3. Kyler Murray (‘18) – 94.6🏆
3. Baker Mayfield (‘17) – 94.6🏆 pic.twitter.com/yrXHOgF4xi
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 22, 2020
Starting to get it?
History probably won’t appreciate Jones in the same way as Tagovailoa, especially if it is only 1 season as the starter. You could argue that what Tagovailoa did over the course of his 3 seasons in Tuscaloosa was more noteworthy, and that it set a new standard for the quarterback position in Tuscaloosa. You can argue that Tagovailoa blew us away more times with his deep passes that floated into the arms of his receivers like pillows. You can say that Tagovailoa evaded pressure like Steve Young and he had instincts that couldn’t be taught.
But by no means should Jones be remembered as in a different class of Alabama quarterback.
We often say in sports that one of the most challenging things to do is to replace a legend. Coaches never want to do it, and it often turns about to be an uphill climb for high-profile quarterbacks in that spot, too.
You’d never know it by looking at Jones. Somewhere between Tagovailoa’s NFL announcement and those regular post-touchdown struts to the end zone, Jones became a legend in his own right. That is, for those of us who have been paying attention. He’s got 2 more games to make his legend status a unanimous opinion.
As for whether a 2020 title will make Jones a better college player than Tagovailoa, well, there’s a quarterback debate Alabama fans would welcome with open arms.