Alabama enters tonight’s opener against Louisville having not yet announced its starting quarterback. Nick Saban did, however, say that both Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa will play. The guess is that Hurts will take the Crimson Tide’s first snap. The belief remains that Tagovailoa will be taking more of the snaps come November.
(The guess was, as often happens with my guesses, incorrect. Tagovailoa started Saturday night -- and outplayed Hurts by some distance in the Tide’s 51-14 victory.)
There was little chance that Bama would anoint a permanent starter in preseason, for the simple reason that the unanointed one could up and transfer. Hurts has been good enough that the Crimson Tide have won 26 of his 28 starts; Tagovailoa was so good Jan. 8 that Bama won the national title.
Short of reinventing football, there’s not a way for Saban to get both on the field at the same time on a consistent basis – gadget throwbacks do not constitute a consistent basis – and history teaches us that quarterback platoons rarely work. My stock line: It’s almost better to go with the wrong guy than to shuttle two guys, but Ray Goff the runner and Matt Robinson the thrower did lead Georgia to the 1976 SEC title. (Granted, that’s a dated example.)
In 2015, Ohio State was itself coming off a national championship. The Buckeyes finished 2014 on their third quarterback. Braxton Miller, twice the Big Ten MVP, hurt his shoulder in preseason and was lost for the duration. J.T. Barrett took over – he would finish fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting – but was lost to a broken ankle against Michigan. Cardale Jones led the Buckeyes to improbable victories over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title tilt, Alabama in the Sugar Bowl semifinal and Oregon in the championship game.
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All three quarterbacks were healthy and accounted for when practice began. Miller was eventually moved to receiver. Jones was named the starter at quarterback, though he and Barrett split time. The Buckeyes began the 2015 season as the first unanimous No. 1 in the history of the Associated Press preseason poll. They won their first 10 games against a soft schedule but never quite seemed dominant. By late October, Barrett was starting ahead of Jones.
On Nov. 22, Ohio State managed 132 yards and five first downs – Barrett played the entire game – in a 17-14 home loss to Michigan State. That game kept the Buckeyes from winning their division, from gracing the Big Ten championship and from being invited to defend their College Football Playoff crown. They wound up 12-1 and rank as one of the most talented teams not to win a title.
Did Jones’ ability to throw deep, which served the Buckeyes well at the end of 2014, lead Urban Meyer to shift, albeit slightly, from the dual-threat tactics that sustained his teams Utah and Florida and then in Columbus? Did having the Greatest Collection of Quarterbacks Ever wind up hurting Ohio State?
The same Meyer had taken his first national title with Chris Leak and Tim Tebow at Florida, but Leak, the senior, was the clear No. 1, and the freshman Tebow the change-of-pace/goal-line-jump-passer guy. Soon the Gators would have two Heisman quarterbacks on their roster; for reasons not entirely connected to football, Cam Newton had to transfer to Auburn by way of junior college to earn his trophy.
Newton’s exit from Gainesville came before No. 2 quarterbacks created a waiver wire of their own. Baker Mayfield began college at Texas Tech. Kyler Murray, who was Mayfield’s backup at Oklahoma last season and is now the Sooners’ No. 1, began at Texas A&M. Will Grier, now of West Virginia, began at Florida. Oh, and lest we forget: Georgia’s starting quarterback for Game 1 of both 2015 and 2016 was Greyson Lambert, who’d lost his job at Virginia; its No. 1 in Game 1 of last season was Jacob Eason, now a Washington redshirt.
Hurts’ dad Averion, a high school coach in Texas, told Matt Hayes of Bleacher Report that his son would become “the biggest free agent in college football history” if he lost his starting job at Alabama. That’s what Saban is trying to avoid: If he hadn’t had both Hurts and Tagovailoa last season, he wouldn’t have taken National Title No. 6. But big-time recruits don’t sign to do long-term sitting. Had Alabama not trailed Georgia 13-0 at halftime, Tagovailoa might be elsewhere.
Of Clemson, Alabama and Georgia – all of which made last year’s playoff, all of which saw incumbent No. 1s return – the Bulldogs’ Jake Fromm has the tightest hold on his job, and we note that Kirby Smart declined this week to name his starting quarterback for today’s opener against Austin Peay. (Freshman Justin Fields is majorly talented.) Kelly Bryant will start for Clemson against Furman, but freshman Trevor Lawrence of Cartersville could supplant him soon.
That’s the way of college football: The best quarterbacks sign with the best programs, and coaches must try -- emphasis on “try” -- to sort things out. The nation’s three best teams could enter this year’s playoff with starting quarterbacks different from those that opened Game 1. Should that happen, the January waiver wire would be something to behold.