There’s a rhetorical question that I’ve pondered for several years.

How financially beneficial is it to light up the scoreboard against Alabama?

Based on Gus Malzahn’s new $49 million contract, it’s safe to say it’s as lucrative of a 60 minutes as one can have in the sport. And while it’s valuable for coaches — Malzahn is the only active head coach with multiple wins at his current school against Nick Saban at Alabama — it’s valuable for players, too. Specifically quarterbacks.

Remember what it did for Johnny Manziel back in 2012? How about Cardale Jones in 2014? Or Deshaun Watson in 2015?

There’s no denying that Alabama is the ultimate money game for a quarterback. Ironically enough, all 3 of those quarterbacks came back to school for 1 more year before they had their NFL paydays.

On Saturday, Drew Lock will get his first and last opportunity against the Tide. That’s not saying he has a realistic chance to lead an upset victory against Alabama like Manziel, Jones and Watson all did. The Tigers are 4-touchdown underdogs for a reason.

But the first-round draft prospect will still have a golden opportunity.

“He knows the challenge that’s out there this week,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said on the SEC Coaches Teleconference. “He also knows the opportunities, not only from his standpoint, but for our football team.”

Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Before Lock even takes the field Saturday, he already has something of value. That is, the Saban stamp of approval.

I asked Saban about his impressions of the 2018 version of Lock on the SEC Coaches Teleconference on Wednesday.

“I think he’s an outstanding player. He’s gotta be one of the most outstanding quarterbacks in the country,” Saban said. “He’s athletic enough to make plays with his feet or pull the ball every now and then and run it. I think he’s a smart player. I think he does a good job of executing this offense … he’s a very, very talented guy. I don’t know how many quarterbacks are better than him in the country, but he’s gotta be one of the best.

“He’s got to be right up there at the top.”

Saban knew that Lock enters Saturday with 11 touchdown passes, “only” 4 interceptions (Saban’s words, not mine), and nearly 300 passing yards a game. What Saban might not realize — at least he didn’t acknowledge it — is that Lock enters Saturday in the midst of a 157-minute drought without a touchdown pass dating to the second quarter at Purdue in Week 3.

Well, he did throw a pick-6 last week against South Carolina. That play won’t be on the draft film.

But Odom isn’t worried about the fact that the SEC’s single-season passing leader is in a bit of a dry spell in Derek Dooley’s new offense.

“Ah, I think he’s comfortable. We ran the ball for over 300 yards last week, so we leaned on that side because that’s what we had going and we already had a couple injuries at a depleted (receivers) unit so we weren’t able to stretch the field vertically,” Odom said. “The monsoon that came into Columbia, some of the things in the passing game weren’t there anyway. Really, we had 2 maybe even 3 dropped touchdown passes or opportunities. Now they were contested balls, but if we complete those and a couple inches here or there, then the narrative isn’t even there.

“I think Drew is alright.”

The problem is that Mizzou will still be without Emanuel Hall, who has been Lock’s favorite downfield target for the last couple years. It was Hall who connected with Lock for 141 yards and a pair of 63-yard touchdown catches against Georgia in Athens last year. That game might have fueled some of Lock’s NFL draft buzz.

But with the exception of that game, there’s a clear knock on Lock (sorry for the rhyme). When the competition gets tough, Lock falls apart. Coming into 2018, here were Lock’s well-documented struggles against SEC teams with winning records in conference play:

  • 0-5
  • 15.7 points per game
  • 49.7% accuracy
  • 6.3 yards per attempt
  • 7-7 TD-INT

That was before Mizzou lost and Lock was held without a touchdown pass against Georgia and South Carolina.

Odom admitted that Lock took those losses hard. While Mizzou has experience losing SEC games in recent memory — the Tigers are 6-12 in SEC play since Odom arrived — losing nail-biter finishes is new for the Mizzou star. According to Odom, that’s had a different kind of effect on Lock than say last year’s blowout loss at Purdue. That’s why Odom said he isn’t worried about keeping Lock from trying to do too much given what’s at stake Saturday.

Having a big game against Alabama would certainly have a way of taking the sting off Lock’s disappointing performances.

While Lock will be without his top deep threat, Alabama will also be without one of its best playmakers in the secondary in Trevon Diggs, who is out for the season with a broken foot. And the Tide secondary did just allow Arkansas quarterback Ty Storey to throw for 230 yards and a couple touchdowns.

Lock will be a different kind of challenge for Alabama even without his favorite deep target. Manziel, Jones and Watson all had the ability to stretch the field and extend plays with their legs. Lock might not be quite on that level mobility-wise, but lesser arm talents have had success against Saban’s defense.

Plenty of next-level opinions will be formed about Lock on Saturday. A 7 p.m. ET game on ESPN will give Lock as big of a stage as he could ask for.

Now would be the ultimate time to cash in.