There’s an old, gridiron adage that says, “If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one.”
Let’s hope the inventor of that quote hasn’t seen the AP Top 25 poll this season, which features three teams – No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Georgia and No. 3 Clemson – atop the rankings that have deployed two quarterbacks this season.
In the first year of a new NCAA rule that allows players to compete in up to four games in a season and still maintain their redshirt, which allows them to gain both valuable playing experience and an extra year of eligibility, each school has played its backup quarterback in all three games this season.
That suggests Alabama, Georgia and Clemson have plans to play their No. 2 quarterbacks this season, whether it’s solely in a backup capacity, as part of a true quarterback rotation or just to occasionally give opposing defenses a different look.
Here’s a closer look at the dynamic between the starter and backup at each school, how the No. 2 signal callers have been used, and what precedents there might be for a national title contender consistently playing two quarterbacks during a season.
Starter: Tua Tagovailoa – 36-of-50, 72%, 646 yards, 12.9 yards/attempt, 8 TD, 0 INT, 233.3 passing efficiency rating
Backup: Jalen Hurts – 19-of-28, 67.9%, 248 yards, 8.9 yards/attempt, 4 TD, 1 INT, 182.3 passing efficiency rating
We live in an age of hyperbole, where everything is the biggest, best, craziest, [insert strong adjective here]ever. But the evolution of Alabama’s quarterback situation in the last nine months may truly be unprecedented.
How else do you classify a position battle where the first true freshman quarterback (Hurts) to ever start for arguably the most accomplished head coach in the history of the sport (Nick Saban) leads his team to a 26-2 record as a starter and to back-to-back national championship games, but he only got credit for that 26th win because, as a sophomore, he was supplanted by a true freshman (Tagovailoa) at halftime of the national championship, only to watch from the sideline as his replacement led the team to a historic comeback?
That was intentionally a mouthful but see what we mean?
Despite Hurts’ natural ability as a runner – 1,809 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns on 5.2 yards per carry in his first two seasons – the side-by-side passing comparison above between Tagovailoa and Hurts shows why the former started the second half of last season’s national championship game against Georgia and won the starting job this season.
Here’s how Alabama’s per-game passing statistics have improved significantly this year compared to the last two seasons, albeit with a small sample size for 2018.
Tagovailoa has completed his passes at a higher rate than Hurts this year and his 2018 completion percentage is almost 12 percent higher than Hurts’ 2017 completion percentage. It’s not just the accuracy of Tua that makes him the stronger passer but also his downfield throwing ability.
Tagovailoa is averaging nearly 45 percent more yards per attempt than Hurts through three games.
Watch below as Tagovailoa – facing 3rd & 9 – throws a 40-yard pass on a rope to wide receiver Jerry Juedy that hits him in stride and allows him to out-run the Ole Miss defense for a 79-yard touchdown.
With Tagovailoa as the starter, Alabama is averaging a national-best 56.7 points per game and Hurts hasn’t seen playing time this season until Alabama has already built a comfortable lead.
The following list shows when Hurts attempted his first pass in each game this season.
- vs. Louisville: 7:30 2Q – Alabama 21, Louisville 0
- vs. Arkansas State: 1:15 1Q – Alabama 19, Arkansas State 0
- vs. Ole Miss: 4:42 2Q – Alabama 42, Ole Miss 7
It appears Tagovailoa has accessed previously untapped potential in the Crimson Tide’s offense. With a rotation of four talented running backs and a QB in Tagovailoa who, while not the runner that Hurts is, is still mobile (93 yards and a touchdown on 14 attempts this season), Alabama has been productive on the ground despite a limited number of carries from Hurts.
Where does Alabama’s quarterback situation and more specifically, Hurts’ role in the offense, go from here?
Hurts has shown he’s good enough that when flanked by supremely talented weapons on offense and historically a strong defense behind him, he can lead Alabama to the national championship game.
He’s done that twice already.
But it took the insertion of Tagovailoa at halftime against Georgia to bring the title home to Tuscaloosa.
The early returns from Alabama’s offense in 2018 suggest the Crimson Tide should have little trouble moving the chains and reaching the end zone with Tagovailoa under center.
But if there is a potential role for Hurts other than playing the “closer” after Tagovailoa gives the team a big lead, it could be akin to say, a scaled-back version of Tim Tebow complementing Chris Leak on Florida’s 2006 national championship team or former Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett at times replacing starter Cardale Jones when the Buckeyes reached the red zone in 2015.
Hurts led the team in carries and he ranked second in rushing yards in each of the last two seasons so his best chance of playing is if the Tide’s ground game or red zone offense ever gets stagnant. Maybe there’s a short-yardage situation, like a key 4th & 1 just across midfield in the midst of a tight game, where Saban puts Hurts in to get the first down with the Tide’s power running game.
Watch below as Jalen Hurts keeps a read option against Fresno State last season and runs 55 yards for a touchdown.
Here’s an example of Hurts’ value as a dual-threat quarterback in a short-yardage situation in the red zone against Tennessee in 2016. On 1st & Goal, Hurts has two wide receivers to his right, a wide receiver and a tight end to his left, and running back Damien Harris behind him.
He runs, untouched, into the end zone after a fake to Harris.
In other words, Hurts could provide a more dangerous running threat at quarterback while still keeping defenses honest with his potential to throw. We’ll touch on both the Florida and Ohio State QB situations later.
Starter: Kelly Bryant – 29-of-43, 67.4%, 400 yards, 9.3 yards/attempt, 2 TD, 1 INT, 156.3 passing efficiency rating
Backup: Trevor Lawrence – 26-of-43, 60.5%, 424 yards, 9.9 yards/attempt, 5 TD, 1 INT, 177.0 passing efficiency rating
While Alabama and Georgia have played two quarterbacks this season, there’s a clear hierarchy that appears unlikely to change – barring injury. Tua Tagovailoa and Jake Fromm are each school’s preferred option under center, respectively. The combination of lopsided scoreboards, injury prevention and the desire to have a proven backup quarterback in case disaster strikes has led to backups Jalen Hurts and Justin Fields seeing the amount of snaps they have in September.
Clemson’s quarterback situation, however, is a different animal.
Or a luxury, depending on how you look at it.
Starter Kelly Bryant and backup Trevor Lawrence have attempted the same number of passes through three games. Lawrence has thrown for more yards and touchdowns, while Bryant has a higher completion percentage and the second-best rushing numbers on the team – 26 attempts for 139 yards and two touchdowns.
Watch Bryant’s running ability below as he takes a read option into the end zone from one yard out after beating a Texas A&M linebacker to the corner in Week 2.
However, after Bryant led the Tigers on a scoring drive it was Lawrence who took the field on Clemson’s next possession. In the first two possessions with Bryant, the Tigers’ passing offense was mostly limited to screen passes and short slant routes over the middle.
Lawrence threw a 64-yard touchdown on his first play from scrimmage. The throw traveled 30 yards in the air into double coverage and it was located where only 6-4 wide receiver Tee Higgins could catch it.
As the Tigers found themselves in a tight game on the road with the Aggies, it was Bryant who took the field for the Tigers’ final six drives, if you include the end-of-game kneel to exhaust the game clock to seal a 28-26 win.
Bryant was knocked out of Clemson’s Week 3 matchup with Georgia Southern after suffering a chest bruise in the second quarter. Hence the importance of having a trusted backup, especially for a Tigers team that has arguably the best defensive line in the country.
Bryant has since told reporters that he has recovered to 100 percent, meaning there won’t be a Jacob Eason-to-Jake Fromm-esque transition like when Eason, who started last season as Georgia’s quarterback, suffered an injury in the Bulldogs’ season opener, paving the way for the true freshman Fromm to lead them to the national championship game.
An examination of Clemson’s remaining regular season schedule shows just four road games and only one currently ranked opponent – No. 23 Boston College. That’s not to suggest a perfect record for the Tigers – unranked Syracuse and Pittsburgh have been responsible for their only ACC loss in each of the last two seasons, respectively – but it could allow Dabo Swinney to play musical chairs at quarterback for the foreseeable future.
As Alabama, Nick Saban and Tua Tagovailoa showed in the final half of the final game last season when faced with Georgia’s defense, it might take a stage so big and a defense so tough that Swinney has no choice but to decide if Bryant’s experience and threat to run or Lawrence’s downfield passing ability is better for his team.
Starter: Jake Fromm – 37-of-46, 80.4%, 479 yards, 10.4 yards/attempt, 6 TD, 1 INT, 206.6 passing efficiency rating
Backup: Justin Fields – 14-of-17, 82.4%, 142 yards, 8.4 yards/attempt, 2 TD, 0 INT, 191.3 passing efficiency rating
Of the three teams examined, Georgia likely has the most common or “normal” of the three quarterback scenarios. Fromm is the incumbent starter after leading the Bulldogs to a 13-1 record as a starter, including an SEC title and a national runner-up finish, as a true freshman.
This year Georgia fans have another true freshman quarterback to root for – albeit in a backup capacity – in Justin Fields, a 6-3, 225-pound signal caller from Kennesaw, Georgia.
Like Jalen Hurts at Alabama, Fields has taken his first snaps in each game only after his team has built a comfortable lead.
Here is when Fields recorded his first rush or pass attempt in Georgia’s three games this season.
- vs. Austin Peay: 11:05 2Q – Georgia 24, Austin Peay 0
- at South Carolina: 12:08 4Q – Georgia 41, South Carolina 10
- vs. Middle Tennessee State: 2:01 1Q – Georgia 21, Middle Tennessee State 0
A common thread between the two-deep depth charts at Alabama, Clemson and Georgia is one of the two quarterbacks has proven to be a better runner. Fields has seven carries for 67 yards and a touchdown this season, compared to Fromm’s listed rushing stats of six carries for -16 yards.
Watch below as Fields scores on a 15-yard touchdown run against Middle Tennessee. The most encouraging part for Georgia fans is that the true freshman went through three progressions, looking for an open receiver, before deciding to scramble and making two defenders miss on the way to the end zone.
Fromm’s season-high for rushing yards in a game last season was 36 yards and Fields has already rushed for 33 yards and 31 yards in limited action in two of Georgia’s first three games, showing his potential as a dual-threat QB.
However, passes like this touchdown throw on a corner route from Fromm to wide receiver Riley Ridley show the improvement Georgia’s sophomore quarterback has made since last season and the maturation Fields will need to go through as a passer.
Like Alabama, the more Georgia wins and the greater its margin of victory, the more likely it is its backup QB will play. Fields’ speed and ability to make defenders miss leaves the door open for him to play meaningful snaps on offense – perhaps even if it’s just a few series or just a few plays – as Georgia enters the heart of SEC play, given the different dynamic he brings to the Bulldogs’ offense compared to Fromm.
While Georgia’s two-handed monster of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel at running back graduated following last season, the Bulldogs appear to have another strong rotation in their backfield this season. That means Georgia doesn’t need to run the ball from the quarterback position, especially considering Fromm’s improvement as a passer.
If Georgia comes anywhere close maintaining its average margin of victory of 37 points, Fields will likely continue to get snaps to develop him for the future and limit Fromm’s risk of injury. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Fields finish the year with far fewer pass attempts than Hurts and Lawrence.
The history of national championship contenders playing two quarterbacks
Let’s generally define “national title contenders” as teams that finish the season in the top 10 of the AP Top 25 poll, which seems reasonable now that we’re in the era of a four-team playoff, given that the other six teams likely lost their in conference championship games or were a regular season win away from competing for a conference title.
We examined the top 10 teams from the postseason AP Top 25 poll from the last five seasons and found a few examples of two-quarterback rotations – to varying degrees. We’re also including Florida’s national championship team from 2006, since the Gators played two quarterbacks all season and won a national championship.
Chris Leak was Florida’s starting quarterback in 2006, when backup Tim Tebow was a freshman, but both players carved out critical roles in the Gators’ offense.
Leak threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns. Tebow was the team’s second-leading rusher with almost 500 yards on the ground and eight rushing touchdowns. On a limited number of throws, he was more accurate and averaged more yards per attempt than Leak, with five passing touchdowns.
In Florida’s 41-14 win over Ohio State in the national championship, Leak recorded a rushing and passing attempt before Tebow on nine of the Gators’ 12 offensive possessions, as the latter was often substituted mid-drive in red zone and goal line scenarios. Leak attempted 36 passes and three rushes. Tebow threw the ball once and ran 10 times.
In the title game, Tebow took over for Leak in the middle of possessions at Ohio State’s 21-, 7-, 7-, 17-yard lines, showing his value in short-yardage situations near the end zone.
When Florida recovered a fumble and took over on offense at Ohio State’s 5-yard line, Tebow led a three-play scoring drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown pass.
Florida’s quarterback room in 2006 was a unique situation with a freshman and a senior who had clearly defined roles and complementary skill sets in the only season in which they co-existed in the team’s offense.
Tebow took over as Florida’s starting quarterback in 2007, when he won the Heisman Trophy after throwing for 3,286 yards and 32 touchdowns and rushing for 895 yards and 23 scores.
Ohio State (2015)
Ohio State initially had a three-quarterback battle heading into the 2015 season between Braxton Miller, the 2012 and 2013 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, J.T. Barrett, a First Team All-Big Ten selection in 2014, and Cardale Jones, who was coming off of leading Ohio State to a national championship. Miller ultimately took himself out of the race and switched to wide receiver.
Jones won the starting job. But the quarterback situation wasn’t solved by simply naming a starter.
For example, in a 49-28 win at Maryland, Ohio State replaced Jones with Barrett once the offense moved inside the 20-yard line. Ohio State was six-for-six inside the red zone that day.
J.T. Barrett played in 11 games in 2015 and Cardale Jones played in 10. Despite not starting a game until October 24, Barrett was the team’s leading passer in six games, Jones was in seven.
The defending national champion Buckeyes were shut out of the Big Ten championship game – and as a result, the College Football Playoff – after a 17-14 home loss to Michigan State, despite an offense with Jones, Barrett, Miller, Ezekiel Elliott and Michael Thomas.
It’s hard to second-guess a 12-1 season that ended with a Fiesta Bowl win and a No. 4 ranking in the AP poll but the Buckeyes’ offense didn’t consistently click, given the weapons it had, with the changing quarterback roles throughout the season.
Despite alternating starting quarterbacks several times during the 2013 season and sometimes making quarterback changes mid-game, Oklahoma went 11-2 and finished the season ranked No. 6 in the AP poll. A midseason injury also affected the Sooners’ quarterback situation.
Redshirt freshman Trevor Knight won the starting quarterback job in the preseason but he was replaced by backup Blake Bell in the second game of the 2013 season against West Virginia. Bell went on to start the next eight games before suffering a knee injury against Iowa State, only to be replaced by Knight.
Bell then rallied Oklahoma to a 33-24 win over rival Oklahoma State in the regular season finale in relief of Knight.
Knight got the start in the Sugar Bowl and led Oklahoma to a 45-31 win over Alabama.
Wisconsin went 11-3 and finished No. 9 in the final AP poll in 2016 so maybe the Badgers weren’t truly national championship contenders after back-to-back losses to Michigan and Ohio State but they played in the Big Ten championship, each of their losses was by seven points and one came in overtime, so they weren’t necessarily out of the conversation either.
The Badgers played both redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook and fifth-year senior Bart Houston two years ago. Hornibrook made his first career start in huge, 30-6 road win over No. 8 Michigan State, which was followed by the defeats at the hands of the Wolverines and Buckeyes.
Hornibrook led Wisconsin in passing in eight games – a stretch from September 17 to November 12 – while Houston led the Badgers in their first two games and then their last four.