First and 10: Will an honest-to-goodness quarterback controversy take down the Tide in 2018?
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
It has been nearly a decade since Nick Saban first lifted the national championship trophy as the Alabama coach. Nothing has come close to stopping the Tide behemoth since.
Nothing, that is, that Alabama hasn’t already experienced.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the one true kryptonite that every program must eventually endure: the quarterback controversy.
It might be the last thing that could slow the Tide train.
“We don’t care who’s back there, just like the quarterbacks don’t care who’s catching it,” Tide receiver DeVonta Smith said. “They call the play, we execute it.”
In Saban’s perfect football world, that analogy fits every time. But nothing – absolutely nothing – is a perfect fit at the most important position on the field. It’s more than just throwing and catching and winning games.
It’s chemistry and leadership, and comfort and cohesiveness. It’s directing the show and lighting motivational fires.
It’s those fine intangibles and more that make a greater quarterback, a great team leader, that have never been in question before at Alabama. Saban picked a quarterback, and the team moved forward.
Just like Year 1 with John Parker Wilson, and every new quarterback after that: from Greg McElroy to AJ McCarron to Blake Sims, to Jake Coker to Jalen Hurts.
Tua Tagovailoa changed all of that Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Alabama officially has a quarterback controversy on its hands.
“Let us enjoy this one,” Alabama tailback Damien Harris said. “Nothing has stopped this team before. Why would something like that?”
Because it has never happened before, and by the nature of the position and all that it entails, the potential is there for significant drama. Hurts was 25-2 as a starter going in to the championship game before being benched for Tagovailoa.
Were it not for last-minute heroics from Deshaun Watson in the 2017 CFP National Championship Game, Hurts would already have a national title on his resume and would be remembered for the last drive against Clemson.
You remember that drive, right? Where Hurts converted on 3rd-and-16 with three minutes to play after buying time in the pocket, scrambling and throwing a strike to wideout ArDarius Stewart. Where Hurts weaved through the Clemson defense for a go-ahead 30-yard touchdown run.
That drive, and his two seasons of near flawless ball security and game management, can’t be overlooked or tossed away. Are you really going to turn away from a player who brought you to two consecutive national championship games for one who played two quarters and an overtime?
Tagovailoa was brilliant in leading the Tide to a comeback win, showing a strong arm and athleticism and the ability to go through progressions before taking off to run. The thought of him playing a full season and finding himself in the offense is scary.
Alabama has had such little drama on the field since Saban arrived in 2007. His management style and the foundation of demanding excellence from everyone in their specific job essentially eliminates it.
But he has never had a distraction like this. Never dealt with a quarterback controversy.
“You don’t know by now that (Saban) will figure it out?” Tide wideout Calvin Ridley said. “I wouldn’t worry about that.”
2. The QB Controversy, Part II
Saban has dealt with quarterback competition before, but never to this extent.
Star Jackson pushed McElroy in the 2009 fall camp, but never got close enough to warrant a start. McCarron and Phillip Sims shared the position early in 2011, before McCarron took over for good in Week 2.
Blake Barnett started the 2016 season opener, was replaced by Hurts in the first quarter and never played significant minutes again.
These aren’t full-blown quarterback controversies, everyone. This is Saban choosing between one quarterback and another – when there really isn’t much of a decision to be made.
That won’t be the case next season. He’ll have two quarterbacks with unique talents, each already proving he can win at a high level. Or as one Alabama assistant coach said late Monday night in the post-game locker room: “This time it won’t be easy.”
Tagovailoa and Hurts clearly have a strong relationship, and both showed humility and said the right things after beating Georgia. That might change this spring when they’re going at it for 15 practices.
3. The QB Controversy, The Epilogue
It’s easy to jump on the Tua momentum and ride it all the way to next September.
But understand this: Tagovailoa hasn’t been scouted. He hasn’t had the SEC’s best defensive minds watch his game tape and find flaws in what he does and doesn’t do well.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart said he knew Saban would play Tagovailoa; he just didn’t know when. The problem with that: There’s limited game tape on him, and they had no idea what they were getting.
You can watch tape on how he threw in mop-up duties with backups, but a quarterback’s demeanor and play change dramatically when he’s with the first team offense and starting. The next big question for Tagovailoa: How will he react when defenses finally get enough game tape to find his weaknesses?
Or as one NFL scout told me two days ago, “The real game is just beginning for Tua.”
4. Closing in on Alabama
Don’t think Georgia is going away after that gut-punch loss. We’re staring at the beginning of Year 3 under Smart at Georgia, and the personnel might be better next year.
Lost amid the hype from the Alabama freshmen (and it was well-deserved) was the play of Georgia’s underclassmen at specific spots, including tailback D’Andre Swift and wideouts Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman. Add to that, a No. 1-ranked recruiting class that – at the moment – includes six 5-star recruits, and you can clearly tell where Georgia is headed.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Smart said.
Without a perfectly-thrown 2nd-and-26 deep ball from Tagovailoa to Smith in overtime, the narrative now might be how Georgia is the new king of the SEC. And it’s not just the personnel.
I wrote last week about Smart is the monster Saban has created from his years as Saban’s top assistant – and that now Saban has to deal with Smart for the foreseeable future.
That’s not an enviable place to be in, especially when the guy you’re dealing with knows your coaching decisions before you do – and when he’s recruiting against you on nearly every player you’re going after.
The wins vs. Alabama will eventually come for Smart and Georgia if they continue to win vs. Saban and the Tide on the recruiting trail.
The Weekly 5
The Weekly 5 becomes 14 with a way-too-early look at the SEC offseason power poll:
- 1. Alabama
- 2. Georgia
- 3. Auburn
- 4. LSU
- 5. South Carolina
- 6. Texas A&M
- 7. Mississippi State
- 8. Florida
- 9. Missouri
- 12. Vanderbilt
- 13. Arkansas
- 14. Ole Miss
6. Against all odds
Alabama, in the CFP National Championship Game:
— Benched its starting quarterback who had won 25 of his previous 27 starts.
— Played a true freshman quarterback who hadn’t thrown a pass against an FBS team since mid-October, and a pass of significance all season.
— In the fourth quarter, was playing with true freshmen at quarterback, tailback, two wide receivers and left tackle.
— Missed two field goals, one a chip shot potential game-winner at the end of regulation.
— Had a player collapse on the sidelines.
— Had a player swing at a coach in he sidelines.
— Was down 13 points twice (13-0, 20-7).
— Faced a 2nd-and-26 when it trailed in overtime.
And still won another national championship.
7. Getting serious, getting stronger
Jimbo Fisher made his best coaching hire Wednesday, an assistant who won’t coach one position on the field.
He’ll just make the Aggies a whole lot better on it.
Fisher hired longtime strength and conditioning legend Jerry Schmidt away from Oklahoma, where Schmidt had been since Bob Stoops arrived in Norman in 1999.
Stoops credited Schmidt with helping change the foundation of the program when he arrived.
It’s a bold move for a program that has made multiple off-field statements since it arrived in the SEC. From elite facilities to fat coaching contracts to fat contract buyouts, Texas A&M has spared no expense.
The hiring of Schmidt comes on the heels of another important hire: defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who changed the fortunes of the Notre Dame defense this season.
Fisher began to build his staff in December with three assistants most important to the process right now: position coaches (and ace recruiters) Tim Brewster, Jay Graham and Dameyune Craig. Since then, he hired coordinators Darrell Dickey (offense) and Elko, and not has the one coach who will lead his program through the offseason (Schmidt).
Schmidt likely will be paid among the top three in his profession, along the lines of the elite contracts for Iowa’s Chris Doyle ($675,000), Ohio State’s Mickey Marotti ($562,440) and Alabama’s Scott Cochran ($535,000).
8. Ask and you shall receive
Hey Matt: I like to see the guys who work hard in the offseason, and it shows when they get their time the following year. I loved watching Damien Harris play this year, and I’m a Gators fan! Who are some of the out of the shadow guys for 2018?
— Thomas Gray, Sarasota, Fla
Thomas: How about if we begin with any of the five freshmen on the field for Alabama in crunch time during the CFP National Championship Game? That’s all three receivers (Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Smith), tailback Najee Harris and Tagovailoa. If I had to choose between the group, I’d say Harris.
We haven’t seen the last of Hurts playing significant time for Alabama; he’s too much of a competitor to not work as hard as he possibly can this offseason to keep his job. Harris is such a gifted, natural runner. He has the power of Derrick Henry and the lean of Mark Ingram.
Others to watch: Imagine D’Andre Swift getting 20-25 carries for Georgia next year, or QB Kellen Mond getting coached and prepared to play by Fisher.
I still think there’s hope for Feleipe Franks at Florida under new coach Dan Mullen. Franks has an elite arm and great size, and has proven he can run more than as just a changeup.
Mullen hasn’t had a quarterback with Franks’ arm strength in years, maybe ever. Franks was poorly coached in his two seasons at Florida, and predictable and unimaginative play calling put him in position to fail. He absolutely can be a different player under Mullen.
9. Numbers game
57.8. In an absolutely shocking move, Missouri quarterback Drew Lock decided to return for his senior season.
This is odd on two fronts: Even if he received a lower grade than he had hopped for from the NFL Draft Advisory Committee, he could have ignored it and played his way up the draft with individual workouts and work at the Combine.
Instead, he’ll return and try to improve his biggest flaw — he has completed under 60 percent of his throws his entire career, and 57.8 percent in 2017 – with new Missouri offensive coordinator Derek Dooley.
Dooley previously worked coaching wide receivers for the NFL’s Cowboys, and hasn’t been an offensive coordinator at any point in his career.
10. Quote to note
Alabama coach Nick Saban: “This will be a game that I’ll never forget. I think you forget that we scored on fourth down, missed a field goal to win, and then got sacked before we made a big play to win the game. There were a lot of things that happened that were critical moments in the game.”