Alabama-Florida SEC Championship game a study in sturdy quarterbacks

The first Florida quarterback to capture the attention of Michael McCorkle Jones was a natural. Coming of age as a kid quarterback himself in Jacksonville, young “Mac” Jones had little choice but to join Tim Tebow’s legion.

If that meant doing the hokey fan thing – standing in line at the mall to get his picture taken with his fave – then so be it. And photographic evidence today exists of a middle-school-aged Jones in his No. 15 Florida jersey, posing with the once-great Gator and a certain stiff-arming bronze figure Tebow won in 2007. It’s a trophy Jones may get close and personal with again.

Just days away from facing those same Gators in the SEC Championship game, the current prince of Alabama football explained himself this week: “It was just a cool experience. Obviously, Tim is a great player, but he also did a lot of great things off the field. I just looked up to him when I was younger.”

A second Florida quarterback has Jones’ undivided attention now. Only this one’s a peer. The Gators’ Kyle Trask is Jones’ opposite in Saturday’s game, a matchup that may decide which one wins both a title and a Heisman Trophy. That will leave little time for autograph signings.

The matchup between Jones and Trask is at the core of Saturday’s championship game. Not only have these two put together fabulous seasons – Trask leads the FBS in passing yards (3,717) while Jones ranks fourth (3,321); and no one is within single digits of Trask’s 40 touchdown passes (Jones has 27). But they also seem to have taken the same path to this game, a narrow dirt roadway as opposed to the interstate that phenoms travel. They are two kindred spirits bound by a common, up-from-the-bench back story.

Neither was a hotshot recruit coming out of high school, each labeled three-star prospects. In fact, Trask didn’t start in high school, playing behind current Miami quarterback D’Eriq King at Manvel (Texas) High. Fortunately for him, Manvel routed enough opponents that Trask managed significant playing time and got to commit some of his work to tape.

Both Jones and Trask have had to wait their turn to start, exhibiting a patience hard to find these days when everyone seems to have one foot in the transfer portal.

Jones redshirted in 2017 and watched while Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts took up all the oxygen in the quarterback room. Last year he was tossed into the fray in November when Tagovailoa sustained a serious hip injury that ended his college career. Some may have doubted Jones after throwing a pair of interceptions in a 2019 loss to Auburn (one of those a pick-six); some anointed freshman Bryce Young the one to watch this season. But no one seems to be too terribly troubled now as he has led the unbeaten Crimson Tide and is on the Heisman short list.

The last time Florida was in the SEC Championship game – 2016 – Trask spectated as a redshirt freshman. He still carries around the backpack he got from that game. It’s getting pretty beat up by now, but as he said, “I always told myself I’m not going to switch backpacks until we get back here. ... Luckily we got the chance to go back this year. It can finally get replaced.”

He was injured and sidelined in 2017 and appeared in only four games as a backup the following season. Stepping in against Kentucky in 2019 after starter Feleipe Franks was injured, Trask seized the job and didn’t give it back.

One can’t help but see a little of himself in the other. “I know he’s a great quarterback on and off the field,” Trask said of Jones. “We’ve had to overcome some obstacles throughout our careers. We both came to big-time football schools. Now we’re having the opportunity to play against each other, which is really cool.”

Nick Saban, that old softie, is a sucker for stories like these.

“I know (Trask) has had a tough road coming up, just like Mac has, kind of,” the Alabama coach said. “I have a lot of respect for guys that stick with it, persevere, come through a lot of adversity, go through growing pains. When they get an opportunity, they take advantage of it, do it extremely well.

“It’s good to see that there are guys that play the game that still do that. It’s good to see them have success after they go through those ups and downs and adversities.”

It would have been easy – almost expected, really – for neither quarterback to show up Saturday with Florida or Alabama. There is so much restlessness at that position, in particular. Before the 2019 season, for instance, 124 quarterbacks transferred, seeking a better opportunity elsewhere. Jones and Trask ignored such temptation, stuck it out, and their patience has yielded dividends this season.

“I think all that’s just a personal decision to stay, develop personally. That’s kind of how I looked at it,” Jones said. “Eventually we both got our chance to help out our teams.

“I obviously decided to stick it out and try to just get better to help my team eventually. I think a lot of quarterbacks did that, including Kyle as a great example.”

Neither quarterback blinds the viewer over with his shimmering athletic ability. But what each lacks in nimbleness he more than makes up for in effectiveness. Jones leads FBS in efficiency rating (Trask is sixth), and both have thrown a lot this season while managing to complete more than 70% of their attempts.

When Florida coach Dan Mullen spoke of Jones in terms of being a “game manager” it seemed to some that he was employing faint praise. But the entire quote actually covered both Alabama’s quarterback and his guy, binding the two with another common thread.

This is what Mullen said about Jones this week: “He’s a guy that has had a great year. Very similar to Kyle. Does a great job managing the offense, distributing the ball to all the different playmakers, getting them in the right plays at the right time, taking what the defense gives him.”

Jones and Trask have managed their teams all the way to the SEC’s last game. They have managed to combine for the best quarterback matchup in the history of this championship game – never before have Heisman finalists met in this game. They have managed to persevere.