There was no quarterback tandem more dangerously delicious in the nation last season than Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts at Alabama. That was some pair.
Both had won national championships for the Crimson Tide and either could have led their offense in 2018. But Nick Saban chose Tagovailoa and relegated Hurts, the SEC’s offensive player of the year in 2016, to the bench after Tagovailoa rallied Alabama to victory in the 2018 national championship game.
Now here we are, about a month away from the start of the 2019 season, and the two have been separated for good by Hurts’ decision to transfer to Oklahoma. Hey, we know what every college football fan is wondering: will these two eventually square off in the 2020 national championship game. We can only hope.
Of course, for that to happen, they’re going to have to roll through defending champion Clemson, perhaps a Big Ten team, maybe even Georgia. But from the sound of it, Hurts first needs to convince his head coach that he should be the starter.
“What kind of message would I be sending to our entire team if we bring some guy in and name him starter right away?” Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley said at Big 12 media day. “That wouldn’t be good for the [quarterback] room and certainly not good for the rest of the team with other position battles going on. In a team game, competition is the most important thing there is. And the second you just go anoint somebody, that’s gone.
“I don’t care if Joe Namath himself walks into our room right now, he’s got to win the job. It’s not about what the outside world thinks. It’s about what do you have in that room, and the best man wins, and you give everybody a shot. I know what people think on the outside, but I think the guys within our walls see a little different story than maybe what’s portrayed in the media.”
Truth is, Hurts is the best, certainly the most accomplished quarterback in that room. And when a program fields two consecutive Heisman Trophy winners in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray – both No. 1 overall picks in the NFL Draft – has another supersonic offense in tow and harbors major championship aspirations, you would think anything less than Hurts wouldn’t be tolerated.
But hey, Riley is entitled to his opinion. Even Namath would agree.
Hurts was 26-2 as a starter with the Crimson Tide, won a national championship and his final famous act last season was rescuing his team from impending defeat against Georgia in SEC Championship.
Saban couldn’t say enough nice things about his class and dedication. But business is business and Hurts knew there was no chance he beat out a healthy Tagovailoa for the starting job this season. So he bolted.
During media day, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy was asked what he thought of Hurts.
“He’s a terrific football player, I don’t think there’s any question about it. We’re looking forward to playing him,” said Gundy. “People say, ‘Well that wasn’t any fun.’ We’ve had a chance to play the last two Heisman Trophy winners and compete against the very best in that game at that position. It’s exciting for us to try to prepare against the best.”
Hurts impressed everyone at Oklahoma’s spring game, particularly with his passing, the skill set that likely leapfrogged Tagovailoa over him. But Riley is determined to give redshirt freshman Tanner Mordecai and to a lesser extent, true freshman Spencer Rattler, the No. 1 QB in the Class of 2019, a fair shot to win the job.
“You know when you come to OU, you’re not going to be handed jobs,” Riley said. “And certainly not at that position.”
If nothing else, Riley has certainly peaked Hurts interest and given his younger players a reason to push hard in camp. Nothing can come out of that but a final product that will percolate given the gifts the Sooners’ offense has.
“I’m speechless every time they ask me,” said receiver CeeDee Lamb. “I mean, Jalen went 26-2, Kyler and Baker won the Heisman and were first picks in the draft. You can’t break it down any more than that.”
Oklahoma led the nation last year in points (48.4), total offense (570.3 yards per game) and yards per play (8.4). But along with Murray, the Sooners also lost four starting offensive linemen and receiver Marquise Brown, another first-round draft pick.
“We don’t plan on the offense dipping,” Riley said.
That’s pretty much the sentiment at Alabama, too. Still stinging from their loss to Clemson, the Crimson Tide figures it will ride Tagovailoa to a greater place.
“I think it’s good to both get the opportunity to win and have the opportunity to lose as well,” Tagovailoa said at SEC media day. “I know this sounds bad, but I’m glad I had that opportunity to feel a loss like that. What can you learn from winning? You can’t learn as much. But when you lose, you start appreciating things a lot more, definitely in a different perspective, as well. So I’m kind of glad that we did [lose]. Many lessons have been learned from that loss.”
You’ll recall Tagovailoa was intercepted twice before Hurts took over against Georgia in the SEC championship and threw another two in the national championship game. So Saban isn’t lying when he says he sees room for growth.
“Our mantra now for our guys that we have as a leadership group is to never be satisfied,” said Tagovailoa. “Early in the season, we had been beating teams by a lot and of course you’re going to get satisfied because we feel invincible as a team. But never being satisfied is the way to go for us. We’ve got to keep going until we get what we want.”