The forgotten "what-if" of Alabama's season? Bryce Young starts at quarterback
Go back to halftime of the Citrus Bowl last season.
In many ways, it was Alabama’s least significant bowl game in 9 years. It wasn’t even a New Year’s 6 Bowl. With Tua Tagovailoa out with his season-ending hip injury, the Crimson Tide trailed 16-14 at halftime on the first day of 2020. Alabama was in jeopardy of losing 2 games in a row in the same season for the first time since 2013.
Everything was up in the air when it came to 2020. That is, at the quarterback position. Mac Jones had played well in the Iron Bowl, but throwing a pair of pick-6s in a losing effort didn’t exactly etch his name in stone as QB1 for 2020. Suffer another loss at the hands of a lesser Michigan team and suddenly the clamors for the start of the Bryce Young era reach a fever pitch.
But instead, Jones found his stride in Orlando. He was excellent in the second half, completing a pair of touchdown passes to a couple of guys who were also returning to Alabama in 2020, DeVonta Smith and Miller Forristall.
It was a lopsided Alabama win that nationally speaking, might’ve been a bit of an afterthought. I mean, of course Nick Saban out-coached Jim Harbaugh.
Lost in the shuffle was Jones’ audition that day. He took command. He recognized that he had something in front of him that Jones or Taulia Tagovailoa wouldn’t have the luxury of getting before the start of the 2020 season — a chance to show they could run Steve Sarkisian’s offense in an actual game.
Did beating Michigan earn Jones the starting job? Not necessarily, but after a COVID-fueled offseason, did it help make him the no-doubter option to be named the 2020 Alabama starter? Absolutely.
Consider that the great “what-if” of Alabama’s season, which will culminate in a College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday night.
What if Jones had never run away with the starting gig? What if Young had gotten a normal offseason and flashed that 5-star potential on national TV in a spring game en route to becoming the starting quarterback?
It’s fair to wonder if Alabama would still be playing on Monday night. After all, Jones delivered more production at the quarterback position than Tagovailoa did in either season as a starter. Jones recorded one of the most efficient seasons we’ve ever seen from an FBS quarterback, and he helped Alabama set an FBS record with games of 35-plus points (it ended at 24 in the Rose Bowl). Jones has been the steady, high-floor, high-ceiling player that few thought he could be.
Game manager? How about game leader? How about worthy Heisman Trophy finalist?
Those who have been sipping the Young Kool-Aid might’ve argued that Alabama could’ve been equally explosive with the talented true freshman as QB1. Remember, true freshman Jalen Hurts was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year for an Alabama team that finished as national-runner up.
Granted, Alabama had the No. 1 defense in America that year. That’ll certainly help a true freshman.
It’s hard to imagine that Young as the starter would’ve been more beneficial to the 2020 Alabama defense. Why? Jones threw an interception once every 89.3 passes, and he never had a multi-interception game in 2020. Also impressive was the fact that despite those 357 pass attempts, he only took 11 sacks playing being the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s top offensive line. Jones only took multiple sacks in 2 of Alabama’s 12 games, which was also a product of how well he performed against pressure.
Why is Mac Jones successful? Many reasons, one being he’s solid against pressure. Doesn’t allow the possibility of pressure to throw off his timing or mechanics. Ex. vs UGA 1/2 pic.twitter.com/QPrpd6j5nl
— Matt Wyatt (@RadioWyatt) October 29, 2020
Could Young, playing against an all-SEC schedule as a true freshman, have come in and played that type of mistake-free football? Nope. Even Trevor Lawrence’s true freshman season saw him make a freshman mistake on that play where he stayed in bounds against Syracuse and got himself hurt in what turned out to be a nail-biter win for Clemson.
And here’s the other thing. Alabama hasn’t faced a second-half deficit all year. Even if Young could’ve made a few more throws than Jones with that cannon of an arm, Alabama hasn’t really lacked offense at any point. All but 1 of those Alabama wins were decided by at least 15 points, with the lone 1-score game being the SEC Championship … in which Florida never led.
What seems more likely is that Jones would’ve had some tough moments against the better defenses Alabama faced. Texas A&M? Probably. Auburn? I could see that. Georgia? I’d say that’s a strong possibility.
The question is if Young’s rough moments could’ve cost Alabama a game. And even if they did, could that have prevented Alabama from getting to this point? That depends. If it came against A&M and Alabama was the 1-loss team on the outside looking in of the SEC Championship, that certainly would’ve made things interesting.
The most optimistic version of what Young could’ve been at the starter pretty much eliminates the atypical arrival he had at Alabama. Sure, he was able to work out with receivers and start to develop that chemistry. Perhaps a COVID offseason that took Young’s spring reps away allowed Alabama to have a clearer focus on getting Jones increased first-team reps. The chemistry he developed with the receivers has been second-to-none. I mean, as great as Smith has been, he wouldn’t have become the first receiver to win the Heisman Trophy in 29 years without some all-world chemistry with his quarterback.
Jones had essentially an extra month and a half at the end of 2019 to get practice reps with the first-teamers. And, of course, he had those all-important games. That certainly didn’t hurt Alabama in 2020.
What could’ve hurt would’ve been Young starting and struggling. It could’ve created a divide in the locker room over who should’ve been the guy, which is never ideal for a team with championship aspirations.
In a weird way, this couldn’t have worked out better for Alabama. Jones wasn’t just the placeholder; he was a star. He was so good that Young got reps in 7 games against SEC competition. Young got to learn Sarkisian’s offense, which figures to be the foundation for future Alabama offenses. Nobody was turned to out of necessity. Once September rolled around, there was never really even a quarterback debate because of Jones’ status as the more-established veteran.
Even if they had been able to have a true camp battle, maybe there would’ve been more of a split at the beginning of the season. In limited reps, we’ve seen some of the things Young has to work on. He still needs to find the right touch on that firehose of an arm, and he needs to diagnose pressure better (he took 6 sacks with just 22 pass attempts compared to Jones’ 11 sacks with 357 pass attempts).
Don’t get it twisted. The kid is ridiculously talented. His first career touchdown was the perfect example of a play that he can make that Jones can’t:
Bryce Young’s first career TD at @AlabamaFTBL 🎯
He got next. pic.twitter.com/qwFuhGpiyz
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 21, 2020
Yeah, it’s OK to get excited about that. It’s also OK to be glad that Jones never gave Alabama fans a reason to wonder if the backup was better suited to maximize the potential of the offense.
Young can take Alabama to new heights in 2021, and it still would’ve been the right decision to essentially redshirt him in 2020. If that happens, Saban will have played this perfectly.
We take for granted what it means to replace a generational quarterback. Look at Florida with Tim Tebow. Look at Texas with Colt McCoy. Look at Auburn with Cam Newton. At Alabama, some might’ve assumed that replacing a generational quarterback meant replacing it with generational talent. As it turned out, that wasn’t needed to get this 2020 Alabama team where it wanted to go.
Of all the accolades that Jones racked up this season, 1 accomplishment deserves to stand the test of time. He came out of that Citrus Bowl halftime locker room and proceeded to shred any ounce of uncertainty in the post-Tagovailoa era.
No “what-ifs” needed.