One is the quarterback who got the University of Alabama football team to the National Championship Game. The other ended up winning it.
It’s what they call a good problem to have in college football, assuming one of them doesn’t transfer. It’s also the overriding question regarding the Crimson Tide heading into the 2018 season: What does Nick Saban do about Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa?
Heading into his junior season, Hurts is 26-2 as a two-year starter. He’s a dynamic running threat and was 20th nationally in passer efficiency last season. Hurts also was the 2016 SEC Offensive Player of the Year and led the Crimson Tide to two national title games.
As good as Hurts is running the ball, Tagovailoa is as exciting as a passer. Despite not having a career start he led the SEC in passer efficiency as a freshman and threw 3 touchdowns in relief against Georgia.
“For such a young guy, coming out of high school, to have that kind of talent, it’s crazy,” defensive lineman Raekwon Davis said.
Yet this kind of situation isn’t unheard of. Ohio State went through something similar in 2015 after Cardale Jones led the Buckeyes in the College Football Playoff. He and J.T. Barrett competed for the job through the offseason.
Both were initially listed as co-starters on the depth chart, but Jones started the first seven games before being benched for Barrett. Having not played a ranked opponent in its first 10 games, Ohio State lost to Michigan State and missed the playoff.
Saban also has been down this road before, when he was at LSU.
“Josh Booty was our quarterback [in 2000],” he said. “We got behind Georgia Tech like 14-0 or something, here in Atlanta playing in the Peach Bowl. I just went in at halftime and said, ‘Rohan Davey you need to go play, because we need a spark on offense and we need something to change.’ We ended up winning the game 28-14.
“Sometimes just a little change of style, a little spark sort of ignites everyone, and I think that happened. Tua gets a lot of credit for that, but I think his teammates’ response to him was equally important.”
There was a little more to the story. Booty wasn’t your typical quarterback, but the fifth-overall pick in the 1994 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. It was only after he spent five years in the Marlins organization that Booty decided to give football another shot. The Peach Bowl was his last college game as he subsequently declared himself eligible for the 2001 NFL Draft and was selected in the sixth round by the Seahawks.
Saban subsequently had a similar player as his starting quarterback in 2003, when the coach won his first national title. Matt Mauck, after playing minor-league baseball for three years, had the SEC’s highest quarterback rating at age 24.
The subsequent season, LSU rotated between quarterbacks JaMarcus Russell and Marcus Randall.
Fans wonder if Hurts and Tagovailoa can co-exist, but if they pause and think about it they already know the answer because the two did so this season.
Tired of people not appreciating the fact that if this man led us to the National Championship. And for all the fans that are against Jalen, you against me too. You either WITH US or AGAINST US. Love you 2 🐐#BigBroLittleBro @JalenHurts pic.twitter.com/ExjHAB7yHh
— Tua Tagovailoa (@Tuaamann_) January 11, 2018
A better question that needs to be asked by Hurts to those in the know: Is he a legitimate NFL prospect at quarterback? Remember, Hurts is only 19, and when it comes to executing an offense he’s top-notch. But the NFL is a passing game and if he isn’t cut out for the position at that level it could heavily influence his approach now.
Regardless, assuming something changes — and you know that the last thing Saban wants is to have only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster — Alabama has three options beginning in the spring:
Option 1: A pure quarterback competition
The competition could bring out the best of both players, and the team as a whole. The same kind of thing will be happening at a number of other positions as well.
Option 2: Split time
Even if one player wins the job outright, both would likely see significant playing time in 2018, making Alabama extremely difficult to game-plan against.
Option 3: An offense featuring both
How much fun could Alabama’s new offensive coordinator have designing plays for both, and implementing plays in which they’re on the field together? With the right person, college football could see some extremely innovative play calling next season by the Crimson Tide.
The guess here is that all three will happen, and if anyone can pull it off it’s Saban.