Quarterbacks: There are a lot of them! Each week, QB Curve will keep you up to speed on the game’s most important position by putting a different SEC signal-caller in the spotlight and putting the rest of the field in perspective.

QB(s) of the Week: Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa

Typecasting: The Decision. College football has been around a long, loooong time, much too long to say with any confidence that any particular development — no matter how unexpected, unwise, or unwieldy — is unprecedented. Rare? Sure. Bizarre? Happens all the time. Go back far enough, and there’s precedent for just about everything. And within the context of a preseason quarterback competition, specifically, The Incumbent vs. The Insurgent isn’t exactly a novel dynamic.

But then, how often in that scenario has the incumbent in question been a decorated veteran with a sterling track record and a clean bill of health? And how many times has he been at legitimate risk of losing his job to an up-and-comer who, gifted as he may be, has yet to play for more than two consecutive quarters? Short of injury, it’s hard to conceive of another set of circumstances in which Jalen Hurts’ status as Alabama’s starting QB would ever be up for debate, or in which the controversy that’s loomed over the position for the past eight months even begins to make sense.

Almost all of the calculations that go into a standard-issue quarterback duel are skewed in this one to the point of irrelevance. Not only is the former understudy the odds-on favorite to win the starting job, in the wake of his crunch-time triumph in the national championship game, Tua Tagovailoa’s stock has soared so dramatically he’s emerged as the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman. Hurts, the proven winner, owner of a 26-2 record as a starter over the past two years, has been hounded by speculation over an impending transfer if he winds up being demoted. (Or, as the the question itself implies, when he winds up being demoted.) Anywhere else, any other year, Hurts would be the unquestioned face of the program entering the prime of his college career. Here, now, he finds himself through the looking glass.

If there’s no blueprint, though, the flip side of the surreal decision facing Nick Saban is that there’s not necessarily a wrong answer. There’s a case to be made for either, or for both. Whoever wins the job, he’ll be surrounded by blue-chip talent and protected by a long-in-the-tooth offensive line on a team that, as usual, will be heavily favored in every regular-season game. The Tide won’t face a team that finished in the AP Top 25 last year, or that’s starting out there this year, until November, by which time the issue will likely be resolved with all of the big goals — SEC championship, Playoff bid, national championship — still very much intact. In that sense, Bama is still Bama, and a choice between two viable quarterbacks is the kind of problem other coaches will commit major NCAA infractions for.

Still, in the long run it’s the kind of choice that can define a season, or potentially derail it. (Ask Ohio State, which never fully settled the 2015 debate between Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, looked out of sync despite an abundance of next-level talent, and ultimately watched its Playoff chances collapse in November.) Given the expectations, it’s not a stretch to say it will be the most scrutinized personnel move of Saban’s career, one he continues to insist the decision has yet to be made, and might not be by kickoff of Saturday’s opener against Louisville. When it is, it will be with the postseason in mind and judged accordingly. The only right choice is the one that ends with Alabama claiming another national title.

The Case for Hurts

Ironically, for a guy who was initially hailed as a dynamic, game-changing athlete in a position that for years had been manned by interchangeable “game manager” types, at this stage in his career Hurts arguably gets less credit for his raw talent than he deserves. He did, in fact, change the game: His output on the ground over the past two years — 2,049 yards, 21 touchdowns on 6.8 per carry, not including negative yardage on sacks — places him among the elite rushing threats in the conference, and if anything understates his importance as a decision-maker and decoy in Alabama’s read-option packages.

(For that matter, Alabama’s unlikely evolution into an option-heavy offense is a testament to Hurts’ skill set in itself.) He’s efficient, having converted nearly a third of his career carries into first downs; he’s explosive, with 36 runs of 20 yards or longer, more than any other SEC player in the same span.

Above and beyond everything else, though, Hurts is safe. As a sophomore, he committed so few big mistakes last year that at times he seemed almost immune to them: Out of 408 plays on which Hurts was credited as a rusher or passer, only three resulted in a turnover — one interception, two lost fumbles — a truly astonishing rate for a guy who handled the ball on every snap. One result of that low-risk approach was the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in the nation, by far. Another, more important result was that opponents were rarely afforded opportunities for cheap points via defensive touchdowns or short fields.

Credit: Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Scoring against Alabama’s defense is a Herculean task under any circumstances; when the offense puts the D in position to lead the SEC in average starting field position, as it did in 2017, a big part of the battle has already been won.

That might be quintessential “game manager” logic, but it’s also the basic blueprint for some of Saban’s best teams. And while he might be less likely than in the past to defer to seniority behind center for seniority’s sake, Saban can always be counted on to appreciate the virtues of sound, consistent decision-making that minimizes killer mistakes and keeps the defense out of trouble. On that count, Hurts is a proven commodity. Tagovailoa is not.

On the contrary, even in limited, mostly garbage-time action last year Tua was guilty of his share of dumb freshman stuff, including an ugly pick-six against Tennessee that served as the Vols’ only points of that game. Amid his heroics in the national title game, Tagovailoa made two potentially crippling decisions under pressure that were largely forgotten in the drama of the Tide’s win, but which succinctly illustrate the advantage of a mistake-averse player like Hurts.

On the first, rather than throw the ball away on an apparently busted play — while Tagovailoa rolled out to throw, all of this receivers were blocking downfield as if they were expecting a run or screen — he lobbed an ill-advised throw in the general vicinity of two receivers (Calvin Ridley and Jerry Jeudy) who weren’t even alert to the possibility of a pass in their direction. Georgia’s Deandre Baker was, and came down with the pick just inside the Bama 40-yard line.

(That gift was immediately absolved by the defense, which came up with a fluky interception of UGA’s Jake Fromm on the very next play.) The second lapse was more memorable, and potentially much worse: Down 23-20 in overtime, needing a score to tie or win, Tagovailoa scrambled futilely on Bama’s first offensive play, eventually spinning his way into a worst-case-scenario sack 16 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

That one, of course, Tua promptly absolved himself. But from Hurts’ perspective, ask yourself: In the same situation, which play would the older player have been more likely to make — the devastating sack on first down, or the improbable, game-winning heave that immediately followed it on 2nd-and-26? If it’s not the latter, that’s only because Hurts never would have made the mistake that put his team in that position in the first place.

The Case for Tua

All that said, by overtime it was beyond obvious that had Saban opted to stick with the horse he rode in on Alabama would not have been in position to win in the end under almost any circumstances. Tagovailoa’s impact was palpable almost immediately: After a quick three-and-out to open the second half, Bama proceeded to score on four of its next six possessions in regulation and drove within range of a would-be game-winning field goal on the seventh. (The kick was no good, facilitating OT.) That was a with a lineup full of true freshmen, against a top-10 defense that had held 11 of its 14 opponents to that point under 20 points. Even before the 2nd-and-26 dagger to DeVonta Smith, the freshman’s arm strength had clearly brought a downfield threat to the offense that had been sorely lacking under Hurts, and which Georgia was forced to respect.

It would be one thing if Hurts’ first-half performance against UGA could be written off as an aberration. Who doesn’t have an off night? But his inability to challenge the Bulldogs downfield was in keeping with a predictable pattern against blue-chip defenses in the postseason:

Again, Hurts hasn’t done anything on the biggest stages to get the Tide beat. But he hasn’t done much to strike fear in opposing secondaries, either, particularly on third down, where his success rate on passes that actually leave his hand is abysmal. For some context on the other columns, Hurts’ career completion percentage in all games is 61.9 percent, he averages 8.2 yards per attempt, and his efficiency rating is 143.5 — highly respectable numbers that turn to dust against top-shelf competition. Efficiency and decision-making notwithstanding, Hurts is not about to develop an NFL-ready arm over the course of an offseason. If Alabama can’t grind out points on the ground in these games, the offense tends to grind to a halt.

At the end of the day, Tua can go deep. And while his high-flying style might invite more negative plays, with great quarterbacks the risk is usually worth the reward: Consider Jameis Winston, for example, who served up 28 interceptions during his two-year, 26-1 run as the starting QB at Florida State, or Deshaun Watson, who was picked off 30 times in his final two years at Clemson — both of which ended, unforgettably, in a pair of legendary turns against omnivorous Alabama defenses in the national championship game. Those are heady comparison for a guy who’s yet to start a college game, but Tagovailoa arrived in Tuscaloosa with the same level of 5-star hype and has already shown the same capacity for making the kind of plays that render the negatives obsolete. (Note that immediately following the pick-six against Tennessee, he responded by leading three consecutive scoring drives, featuring a touchdown run from 23 yards out and a TD pass that covered 60.) If he is who we think he is, leaving him on the bench is out of the question.

The Takeaway

There’s a case for playing both guys in roughly even measure, which remains a distinct possibility early on. As the season unfolds, it’s possible Bama will need both guys: Broadly speaking, Hurts profiles as the steady hand who’s more likely to steer the Tide back to the championship game, and Tua as the gunslinger they need to win it once they get there. Exactly how a time share might play out on a weekly basis is anyone’s guess.

More likely, Tagovailoa is the pick, full stop, and Hurts is faced with a decision of his own: Settle in as a part-timer who comes on in certain packages and garbage time, or angle for a redshirt that would allow him to graduate in December and transfer with two years of eligibility intact. Under the new redshirt rule, he could still play in four games without forfeiting one of those years, which could allow him to a) compete early and sit the rest of the year if he doesn’t win the job, or b) Sit early and preserve those appearances for later in the year, when the degree of difficulty ramps up.

A lot can happen over the course of a season, and even if Hurts is relegated to a backup role he knows firsthand his opportunity to reclaim the top spot could come at any time. His poised, team-first response to being benched in the title game spoke volumes about his attitude as a teammate and a leader. But the writing was on the wall then, and eight months later it still reads the same way: The future belongs to Tua.

Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports


A Tale of Two Drews. After three turbulent years at Missouri, Drew Lock’s combination of size, arm strength, experience, and production could make him arguably the most NFL-ready quarterback in college football this season. He’s also the prospect with the most to prove against the top half of his team’s schedule:

It’s no feat of analysis to point out that most players struggle against better competition, but that split is about as black-and-white as they come. Against losing teams, Lock was consistently dominant; over the course of Mizzou’s six-game winning streak to close the regular season, he racked up 26 touchdowns to 4 picks at the expense of opponents that all went on to finish 5-7 or worse. Against winners, he was ordinary at best. (Add his 521-yard, 7-TD performance against FCS Southwest Missouri State, and the gap between the two columns widens even further.)

The optimistic angle: All five of Mizzou’s regular-season losses came in September and October, and in retrospect Lock’s individual production began to turn the corner even before the team’s fortunes flipped at midseason. Going strictly by the calendar, he exhibited remarkable growth. But that narrative doesn’t jibe with the finish, a 33-16 loss to Texas in the Texas Bowl. Taken as a whole, the competition-based pattern is more compelling, and remains the biggest question mark in Lock’s bid to become a first-round pick.

Coming Attractions. Mississippi State’s Keytaon Thompson was one of the pleasant surprises of bowl season, accounting for 270 total yards and three touchdowns (all rushing) in his first career start, a 31-27 win over Louisville.

Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

He’ll get an unexpected chance to build on that performance this weekend, filling in again for starter Nick Fitzgerald while Fitzgerald serves a one-game suspension in the Bulldogs’ opener against Stephen F. Austin. There’s no danger of Thompson overtaking a fifth-year senior on the depth chart — not as long as Fitzgerald is healthy, anyway — but as the next man up he’s certainly intriguing enough to play his way into some relevant reps as a sophomore. If the bowl game was any indication, Thompson’s time is coming.

Tennessee. Outside of Alabama, the only other unresolved QB competition in the conference is at Tennessee, where coach Jeremy Pruitt has refused to tip his hand in the debate between sophomore Jarrett Guarantano and Stanford transfer Keller Chryst. Guarantano is the incumbent, having started six of the Vols’ last seven game last year as a redshirt freshman; two years ago he was rated as the No. 1 dual-threat prospect in the country, the most likely reason the locals seem to favor him over Chryst, a relatively vanilla pocket type who logged 13 career starts at his hometown school but never managed a firm grip on the job there. Frankly, after last year, whoever winds up taking the first snap against West Virginia has nowhere to go but up.


Ranking the league’s starting quarterbacks heading into the first week of 2018.

1. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn. Stidham will start out 2018 in the same place he finished 2017, albeit by a much slimmer margin in a year that could see any of a half-dozen guys realistically finish on top by season’s end. There are bigger arms and better athletes on this list, but no one else who can check as many boxes in terms of both potential — Stidham is a former 4-star recruit with legitimate first-round ambitions in next year’s draft — and proven production over the course of a full season. If the growth curve continues apace in Year 2, he’s going to be tough to pass here, and Auburn’s going to be very tough to beat.

2. Jake Fromm, Georgia. Fromm’s pass efficiency rating last year (160.1) was the best ever for a true freshman starter in the SEC, outpacing his 2016 predecessor, Jacob Eason, by a whopping 45 points. Some of that had to do with the degree to which Fromm was sheltered in Georgia’s run-first offense, which carried most of the burden and consistently opened up the deep passing game. He looked the part from Day 1, though, and his poised performance in the postseason proved he’s more than capable of holding his own on a big stage. Other than Tagovailoa, no college passer saw his stock rise as quickly after Thanksgiving.

3. Drew Lock, Missouri. Lock is on schedule for a big senior year, but the boom-or-bust nature of his stat line makes it hard to project just how big we’re talking about here. By midseason he could be in the Heisman discussion, or be resigned again to racking up big stats in relative obscurity against the weaker half of the schedule.

4. Tua Tagovailoa or Jalen Hurts, Alabama. Hurts spent virtually all of 2017 at the top of this list before ceding the No. 1 spot to Stidham at the finish line. This year, there’s a good chance he’s going to cede his spot in the rankings altogether.

5. Jake Bentley, South Carolina. Bentley was an enigma last year, as sophomores tend to be, but his overall skill set makes him a no-brainer candidate for the next level. Whether that translates into more points for an offense that’s languished near the bottom of the league in scoring the past two years is to be determined.

6. Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State. This might seem like a snub for Fitzgerald, who (assuming he’s back to full speed on his surgically repaired ankle) should remain a highly productive rusher on par with some of the league’s better running backs. His trajectory as a passer is another story: On paper, Fitzgerald has ranked among the SEC’s most erratic arms each of the past two years, and actually regressed in 2017, putting his status as a draftable prospect in some doubt.

7. Jordan Ta’amu, Ole Miss. Ta’amu only started five games in place of the since-departed Shea Patterson, but in that span finished among the SEC leaders in yards per game, yards per attempt, touchdowns, and overall efficiency. If he’d put up the exact same stat line as a heralded recruit rather than as a JUCO stopgap, he’d be getting Heisman buzz. If he manages to replicate it over an entire season, he might be anyway.

8. Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt. Shurmur accounted for a full two-thirds of Vandy’s total offense in 2017, the largest individual share of any SEC player. With Ralph Webb off to the next level, this year’s share could be even bigger, and will probably have to be if the Commodores have any hope of avoiding the basement.

9. Joe Burrow, LSU. Burrow’s official promotion to the top of the depth chart was a major disappointment for the guy he beat out there, Myles Brennan, who was given every opportunity to win the job — last year, as a true-freshman understudy to the pedestrian Danny Etling; in the spring, against less heralded competition; in the preseason, against the newly arrived Burrow — and never managed to seize it. Brennan still has time to make good, but if coaches still trusted him as the heir apparent they wouldn’t have pursued the Ohio State transfer in the first place. For now, it’s safe to assume that they’re much more comfortable with the offense in Burrow’s hands for the next two years.

10. Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee. Guarantano was thrown to the wolves as a redshirt freshman, but under the circumstances he fared a little better down the stretch than you might recall, posting an efficiency rating north of 154.0 in each of final three SEC starts. True, the Volunteers were 0-3 in those games (including losses to Kentucky and Vanderbilt), and that stretch also included an injury that sidelined him for two weeks. Still, any shreds of optimism that can be salvaged from the train wreck that was Tennessee football in 2017 are worth noting.

11. Kellen Mond, Texas A&M. Mond had his moments as a true freshman — in what frankly should have been a redshirt year, if not for the mass exodus of once-touted quarterbacks from A&M prior to his arrival — and benefited this offseason from a clean slate under the new coaching staff. If he’s going to hold off Nick Starkel for good, though, his consistency as a sophomore must improve by leaps and bounds.

12. Feleipe Franks, Florida. Franks’ size and arm strength are undeniable. How his skill set fits into Dan Mullen’s offense, less so: At his previous stops, Mullen has always preferred a sturdy, workhorse athlete behind center in the Tebow/Prescott/Fitzgerald mold; Franks is a classic pocket type who (in addition to his obvious struggles as a passer) made zero impact last year on designed runs. It’s not like the offense is going to be worse, but how long before the catcalls for Emory Jones begin in earnest?

13. Cole Kelley, Arkansas. The main takeaway from Kelley’s brief stint in the starting lineup last year was that the kid is freaking huge. Now that he’s reportedly slimmed down a bit and beaten out Ty Storey for the full-time job, the focus this year will be on his actual production.

14. Terry Wilson, Kentucky. Wilson arrived from Oregon via the JUCO route, making him the only projected starter in the conference who’s yet to log significant reps in a live D-I game. He’s considered a better runner than passer; he possesses a formidable set of dreadlocks that have reportedly been in the works since the eighth grade. Beyond that? Check again later.