by Justyn Spanski
Phil Steele Publications Associate/PhilSteele.com Contributor
**NOTE**: PS #’s of players mentioned can be found in Phil Steele’s 2019 College Football Preview. All statistics, pass efficiency defense ratings, and power ratings can be found on PhilSteele.com as a subscriber to Phil Steele Plus. Subscribe to Phil Steele Plus right now for just $44.00 through the Super Bowl on the PhilSteele.com Store.
It has been a week since Alabama Crimson Tide junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa went down with a gruesome hip injury late in the first half last Saturday at Mississippi State. The injury shook Tide fans and the college football world to its core. A 2019 Phil Steele First Team All-SEC and Preseason Second Team All-American, Tagovailoa has been without a doubt one of the most exciting players in the nation to watch. He narrowly missed out on winning last year’s prestigious Heisman Trophy, as he threw for 3,966 yards and 43 touchdowns while adding five more scores on the ground. Tua had been equally as impressive this season throwing for 2,840 yards in nine games with a 33-3 TD-INT ratio until he was lost for the season last Saturday. The Tide signal caller had a successful surgery to repair his dislocated left hip on Monday in Houston. He will be dearly missed by college football fans as he is a pure joy to watch on the gridiron. While head coach Nick Saban recognizes how big of a loss his All-American quarterback is, he also knows that it is “next man up,” and so does redshirt sophomore QB Mac Jones, who will be replacing Tua under center for the Crimson Tide. While Jones is certainly no Tua Tagovailoa, he should not be underestimated or counted out.
Jones was ranked the PS#29 quarterback for the class of 2017. Jones played his high school ball at The Bolles School in Jacksonville, FL. He held offers from Baylor, Kentucky, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M but ended up choosing Alabama, despite knowing they already had another highly talented commit at the quarterback position in PS#7 quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Jones redshirted his first year on campus in 2017, sitting behind and learning the offense from former SEC Offensive Player of the Year and current Oklahoma graduate transfer quarterback Jalen Hurts. Ultimately, Tagovailoa ended up taking over the reins of the offense as the Tide’s starting quarterback for 2018 while Hurts moved to the bench as a backup. Despite this move, Jones would still see solid game action in 2018, appearing in 14 games. As a redshirt freshman, he finished the year 5-13 for 123 yards and a touchdown pass.
Hurts opted to transfer to Oklahoma as a graduate transfer in January, opening the door for Jones to become the backup to Tagovailoa at QB. Jones was officially named the Tide’s backup in Fall camp, beating out two true freshmen in PS#11 Taulia Tagovailoa, who is the younger brother of Tua, and PS#21 Paul Tyson. He saw limited action earlier this season during “garbage time” against Duke, South Carolina, and Southern Mississippi.
When Tua Tagovailoa exited the game against Tennessee in the first half with a high ankle sprain, Jones was thrust into action. This was a spot that the Jacksonville native had not yet experienced in his three years at Alabama. For the first time, Jones was under center where the score was close, and he was relied on to keep Alabama’s perfect season alive. The redshirt sophomore performed well given the circumstances, finishing the game 6-11 for 72 yards through the air. With Tagovailoa undergoing surgery on his ankle the day after the win against Tennessee to help give him any chance of playing in the highly anticipated matchup against LSU, Jones was called upon to start against Arkansas. Although Jones was playing against an Arkansas team that sits at a lowly 2-8 on the season heading into this week, he surprised many Tide fans, throwing for 235 yards and three touchdowns finishing an impressive 18-22 on the evening. Jones showcased his arm talent, hooking up with star wideout Jerry Jeudy seven times for 103 yards and two scores. Jones resumed his role as backup against LSU, where the then No. 3 Tide ultimately fell at home to the currently top ranked Tigers, 46-41.
Jones is being asked to do a lot for Nick Saban and Alabama fans. As it stands right now, Alabama is ranked No. 5 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings. They would need a few things to fall their way, namely Georgia losing this week to Texas A&M or to LSU in the SEC Championship game, assuming the Tigers win this week against Arkansas where they are a six touchdown favorite at home and next week against rival Texas A&M to send them to Atlanta to face off against the Bulldogs in the SEC title game. However, the Tide cannot look too far ahead and hope for too much since they have in-state rival Auburn on deck and War Eagle will be out for revenge after their 52-21 loss last year in the Iron Bowl. This week will be a good tune up game for Jones this weekend against 3-8 FCS opponent Western Carolina. Saban and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will look to identify what are some of Jones’ strengths and weaknesses in the offense and how might they alter their scheme to better suit him before the Iron Bowl.
Jones throws a very accurate ball and has adequate arm strength. He will look to find much of the same success Tagovailoa had with his top three receivers in Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, and Henry Ruggs. There is no question that Jones has three of the top playmakers in the country at his disposal and he will look to connect with them the same way Tua did. There is no question that it will be interesting to see how Mac Jones and the Alabama offense fare without their star under center. Could we see another Cardale Jones like performance out of another Jones? It was not long ago that the Ohio State backup quarterback stepped in for injured starter JT Barrett, who like Tagovailoa suffered a season ending injury late in the regular season. An unknown commodity in the redshirt sophomore quarterback, Cardale Jones stepped in during the Big Ten Championship and shocked the nation, leading the Buckeyes to a 59-0 rout of Wisconsin in the conference title game. From there on Jones and the Buckeyes would go on to defeat No. 1 Alabama 42-35 and No. 2 Oregon 42-20 to win the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship.
While it is unfair to compare Mac Jones to Cardale Jones, Mac should not be viewed as your ordinary backup. He was a talented prospect coming out of high school and had multiple offers from high level Power 5 programs, but ultimately chose Alabama because of their history and well documented excellence under Nick Saban. Saban has expressed time and time again this week that he has the ultimate faith in his redshirt sophomore quarterback to execute what he is taught in practice and lead his football team to victories. A berth in the College Football Playoff is uncertain at this point for Alabama, but it would not be surprising to see Mac Jones perform at a high level in the Tide’s offense. Alabama should easily take care of Western Carolina this weekend, but all eyes will be on Jones and his teammates as they head to Jordan-Hare Stadium for the matchup against Auburn. There is a good chance Jones can turn some heads with an outstanding performance on the biggest stage against Auburn while honoring the injured Tagovailoa.