By JC Shurburtt
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The ball was a perfect spiral with the velocity of a rocket coming out of his left hand. The packed house at Mercedes-Benz Stadium held its collective breath. I muttered touchdown and a half-second later the receiver caught the ball in stride, wide open and Alabama claimed another national title with a 26-23 overtime win over Southeastern Conference rival Georgia.
The owner of that left arm, then-true freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, is now who I consider the top-ranked quarterback in the SEC heading into the 2018 season. It’s not just because of that one play, though.
Typically, I like to examine complete body of work. I often say that one game does not a player make and that as much information as possible is needed before putting a player or a recruit on the hype train. Not in this case.
Quarterbacking is complex when it comes to major college football, particularly in the SEC and the upper-echelon of the ACC where you face athletic defensive lines week-in and week-out. It’s a mystery why some signal callers thrive and others don’t, even with excellent high school credentials. After a decade of getting a lot of quarterback recruits wrong, but some right, I tend to look for the player that is going to respond in a pressure situation. I often repeat a quote from a friend of mine- “football is an allegory of life”- and if you read any sort of life advice, most of the “experts” will tell you that life isn’t about what adversity you face, it’s how you respond to that adversity. Such is the case with the most important position on the field in the sport of football.
I felt Clemson’s DeShaun Watson was the best quarterback in the 2017 NFL Draft and based on his injury-shortened season with the Houston Texans, I was on my way to being correct. Time and time again, Watson would shake off any mistakes made during the course of the game, any adversity his team faced and when everything was on the line, he was nearly flawless. You could take it to the bank. Alabama fans will remember Watson’s late-game performance during the previous season’s national title game, a 35-31 Tigers win in Tampa.
Tagovailoa proved he is capable of responding in a similar fashion to Watson. Now, let’s be clear, it’s not just because of the game-winning pass. With four minutes to go in the game and Alabama down 20-13, he was facing 4th-and-4 and with sheer feel fired a touchdown to Calvin Ridley to tie the contest. The Crimson Tide would have never gotten to overtime to begin with had that not happened. He had three touchdowns in the contest, all in the second half, after replacing struggling starter Jalen Hurts.
This is not a broad body of work for sure, but it’s enough. It’s rare we can get tangible proof of what’s between a player’s ears and what’s inside of his chest. But this game gave us that insight into Tagovailoa and that’s all that was needed to say he’s the best in the SEC.
As far as Hurts is concerned, there are some who are overly-critical of his ability to throw the football. He does not have the arm talent Tagovailoa does for sure, but he’s good enough to start nearly anywhere. Also, lets keep in mind that in that game against Clemson the previous season, as a true freshman, Hurts led the Tide down the field for a go-ahead touchdown that put them up 31-28 with two minutes to play. Lets also not forget that he is 25-2 as a starter and is still a young player. I wrote in The Sporting News preseason college football magazine when he was an incoming freshman he has the chance to be special and his body of work has reflected that. But Alabama has tons of talent at receiver and the ability to be explosive in the passing game and though Tagovailoa doesn’t quite have the dynamic running ability that Hurts does, he’s a good enough runner to keep that element as a part of the Tide offense. Regardless of what ultimately happens in terms of the future of Hurts and Tagovailoa, Hurts has been a tremendous collegiate quarterback in two seasons.
But at the end of the day, even though Hurts is special and there are quarterbacks galore in the SEC that deserve praise like Georgia’s Jake Fromm, South Carolina’s Jake Bentley, Missouri’s Drew Lock, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham and others, Tagovailoa bests them all.
And at this time next year, we may be talking about him being the best quarterback in the entire country.