By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
Recency bias plays a big role in how we analyze college football.
Alabama had its worst regular season since 2010 last year when it lost a whopping two games before postseason play. The second loss came with backup quarterback Mac Jones having to start the Iron Bowl in place of the injured Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa, of course, made his first major national introduction in the 2017 national championship game off the bench to lead the Crimson Tide to a comeback win in overtime over Georgia.
Tagovailoa replaced Jalen Hurts in that title game and then permanently as the starter the following year. Hurts transferred to Oklahoma after the 2018 season and led the Sooners to the 2019 College Football Playoff.
After Tagovailoa’s departure to the NFL, many questioned whether Jones would be able to help Alabama sustain the level of success the Tide has enjoyed for most of the last decade, or whether he’d even hold onto the starting job over five-star freshman Bryce Young.
It’s as if we forget Alabama has done this before.
Hurts and Tagovailoa elevated Alabama’s offense to a different level. It wasn’t simply a matter of elite running backs and big-play wide receivers (those are still a big part of the equation) combined with a great defense (also still a typical part of the equation). But Nick Saban has found ways to have success—and I mean elite success—regardless of who’s at quarterback.
Greg McElroy and A.J. McCarron both won national championships at Alabama. Converted running back Blake Sims won the SEC In 2014 and led the Tide to the College Football Playoff. Sims’ backup Jake Coker led Alabama to the national championship the following season.
Jones has stepped in and has the No. 2 Crimson Tide at 4-0 with a visit to Tennessee upcoming. He threw for more than 400 yards and four touchdowns in Alabama’s 41-24 win over Georgia on Saturday. That same Bulldogs defense was widely considered one of the best in the nation entering the game.
It’s not a matter of system quarterbacks, it’s strong recruiting and development. Alabama’s got it and that’s why Nick Saban has five national championships in Tuscaloosa since 2009.
The Good: Alabama. Jones put on a show, but Najee Harris averaged nearly five yards with his 31 carries, totaling 152 yards and a touchdown to balance Alabama’s offense. The defense shutout Georgia in the second half and picked off Stetson Bennett three times after he hadn’t thrown an interception in his first three games. Serious question: is Arkansas the most likely team to beat Alabama before the SEC Championship game?
Honorable Mention: BYU. The Cougars aren’t getting enough chatter about their 5-0 start. Other than Boise State, who’s beating this team? BYU went on a 22-0 run in the fourth quarter to avoid an upset against Houston 43-26. Zach Wilson threw for 400 yards and four touchdowns. He’s averaging more than 300 yards per game, completing 78 percent of his passes and has 12 touchdowns to just one interception. It’s hard to imagine a College Football Playoff berth even if BYU goes unbeaten, but maybe it can take the Big 12’s spot.
The Bad: North Carolina. The Tar Heels dug themselves into a 24-point whole and nearly scrapped their way out of it. At least, until three consecutive dropped passes on their final drive led to a turnover on downs. It was painful to watch and probably more painful for Tar Heels fans, who witnessed North Carolina’s first loss of the season to a Seminoles team that looked lost entering the weekend. With no divisions in the ACC this year there’s less room for error for every team fighting for that second spot to (probably) join Clemson in the conference title bout.
Honorable Mention: Auburn. The Tigers are lucky they’re not 1-3, but 2-2 still looks bad after getting outscored 16-6 in the second half on their way to a 30-22 loss to South Carolina—the first win against Auburn since both teams became SEC members. Bo Nix has seriously regressed as a sophomore and his three interceptions led to 21 Gamecock points. The upcoming game against Ole Miss feels like a big one for both teams.
The Ugly: Tennessee. Quarterback play was the biggest piece of the problem pie for the Vols on Saturday, and you can read more about that here, but Tennessee’s 34-7 loss to Kentucky still goes beyond that. The Vols had four turnovers, couldn’t get stops in the second half and allowed Terry Wilson to beat them on the ground and through the air. Wilson didn’t have to throw much, but he was efficient and effective in leading Kentucky to its first win in Neyland Stadium since 1984.
Honorable Mention: Ole Miss. Matt Corral entered the game with some of the best passing numbers in the country and was coming off an impressive performance against Alabama where the Rebels scored 48 points. Arkansas shut that down in a hurry. Corral threw six interceptions—two returned for touchdowns—and set season lows for completions, passing yards, completion percentage, average yards per attempt, rating and total QBR. Though I could’ve stopped at the six picks to show how rough it was for Lane Kiffin’s team during its 33-21 loss to Arkansas. Credit again to Sam Pittman, who has that team playing well.