Officially, Alabama's highly anticipated quarterback competition between Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa will begin in March when the Crimson Tide kicks off spring practice. But that's "officially" in loosest meaning of the word. This position battle, which figures to be the most publicized and closely watched of its kind throughout the offseason, has been a storyline in the making for the past year.
Some, like former Crimson Tide quarterback and current ESPN college football analyst Greg McElroy, might say it started when Tagovailoa signed and enrolled early at Alabama in January 2017. Tagovailoa was a five-star recruit and the top dual-threat quarterback in his class, according to 247Sports. That might be enough to start immediately at most programs. However, Hurts was coming off a freshman campaign in which he was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Year and took the Crimson Tide to a national championship appearance against Clemson. Tagovailoa's decision to enroll early anyway .
"You want to compete against the best. Why else did Baker Mayfield go to Oklahoma [in 2014] when Trevor Knight was just named the Sugar Bowl MVP?" McElroy told CBS Sports. "Unless you have Tom Brady, there should be a competition at quarterback every year. It should be just like every other position. What you did last year doesn't matter, it's about what you're doing currently."
There's also an argument that Hurts, of all people, inspired Nick Saban to play the best quarterback available regardless of age. After all, Hurts was not the starting quarterback at the beginning of the 2016 season. Yet when he took over in relief of veteran Blake Barnett in the opener against USC, there was no confusion as to who should be starting. The following week against Western Kentucky, Hurts became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the Crimson Tide since 1984.
In a time-is-a-flat-circle kind of way, if Saban never had enough faith* to roll with Hurts, he may never have had the onions to bench him later in favor of another freshman in the national championship against Georgia.
*Remember, too, that Hurts lost a fumble on his first snap and Alabama trotted him back out there on the next possession anyway.
"I think it opened his eyes," said FAU coach Lane Kiffin, who was Alabama's offensive coordinator in 2016. "As we know, coach Saban is a little bit old school. He would talk about how Alabama is consumed by football. If you play a quarterback too early and he doesn't play well, he may be done forever because of how the fans are. There's so much attention on football that when a guy does play badly, he hears non-stop about it all day. Coach was very hesitant to play a true freshman at that spot."
But now Saban finds himself with two quarterbacks who thrived in those spots and must choose between them. And regardless of whenever and however it began, the impending competition became a reality the moment Tagovailoa threw his walk-off touchdown pass to fellow frosh DeVonta Smith.
Saban has managed quarterback competitions before -- some have even bled into the start of the season -- but never has he had this type of talent. With that comes a new level of cautiousness and balance in handling two stars at football's most important position capable of winning a national championship.
So, how will he approach it?
"Just make it open from the beginning, splitting reps," McElroy said. "It's obvious with Jalen's experience that Saban can't just say it's Tua's show. You give both guys an equal opportunity to showcase the improvements they've made throughout the offseason. And that's the only fair way."
Both players are ready to compete. Tagovailoa wouldn't have come to Alabama early if he wasn't. Hurts knows every year is a competition in #TheProcess. Managing those expectations from the start is the easy part for Saban. Ideally, this is what everyone should want.
"I, for one, always wanted to see my competition do well because that was fuel. That forces you to be better," McElroy said. "Some guys get happy when their competition isn't doing well, but you shouldn't want the other guy to play his way out of the job. You should want to go and capture it. If you have a great day, I should have an even better day. I always wanted everyone to play well because that would allow us collectively as a group of quarterbacks to get better.
"And I think that's the way these guys approach it. They have mutual admiration for each other. When you go through the gauntlet in college football, you spend more time with other quarterbacks and the quarterbacks coach than anyone else in your life and it's not even close. You become extremely tight with those guys. My roommate at Alabama was one of the quarterbacks on our roster. He was in my wedding and to this day is one of my best friends. You all love each other because no one else understands the quarterback position except quarterbacks."
Kiffin added that the mental makeup for the two quarterbacks is a product of their upbringing as much as it is their current environment.
"They're abnormal," Kiffin said. "Is that because they're at Alabama? No, that's parenting. Those two kids have great parents. Their moms and dads did a phenomenal job and that shows with them truly rooting for each other. You can't fake that. Those are two awesome kids."
Tired of people not appreciating the fact that if this man led us to the National Championship. And for all the fans that are against Jalen, you against me too. You either WITH US or AGAINST US. Love you 2 🐐#BigBroLittleBro @JalenHurts pic.twitter.com/ExjHAB7yHh— Tua. T 🇦🇸 (@Tuaamann_) January 11, 2018
Eventually, of course, one of the two is going to emerge with the 1s, which means the other will fall back with the 2s. Alabama has 15 practice opportunities this spring and then preseason camp, but there's no hard and fast timeline of when this order will emerge. "It may answer itself after five practices, it may answer itself in the second game of the year," Kiffin said.
The real challenge for Saban begins once it does answer itself because it will dictate how to react. On one hand ... no one is stupid. Players know when there's a leader in a position battle. With that comes a responsibility to make a timely decision. Chemistry on the field and in the locker room usually depends on it.
"If it becomes apparent who's going to win the job, then I'm not sure splitting the reps is going to ultimately decide who stays and who goes," McElroy said. "Because if one guy is lighting it up and the other guy is struggling throughout spring then it's pretty obvious which guy they're going to go with."
On the other hand ... Saban would like to keep Hurts and Tagovailoa on the same depth chart for as long as possible. What coach wouldn't? What if the starter ends up not playing well or, God forbid, gets hurt halfway through the 2018 season? Alabama would absolutely want Hurts or Tagovailoa as a backup option, even if it meant losing them the following year.
When asked how long it might take to decide on a starter, Kiffin said "my guess is coach is going to take awhile with this."
What they bring
What makes the outcome of this quarterback competition equal parts fascinating and difficult to predict is how different Hurts and Tagovailoa are as players. It's not as if they give the offense the same skill set and one simply executes it better. They each offer something uniquely theirs.
"It's funny, they're almost total opposite players," McElroy said. "They're totally different in their approach and they can both benefit from being around each other. They could apply little pieces of each other's game to their own."
Put simply, Hurts is effective. He's led an offense that averaged 38 points per game over the last two seasons and dramatically reduced his turnovers from his freshman to sophomore year. (He had just one interception in 2017.) He brings a veteran presence to the huddle and has a history of making smart decisions with the football.
"One of the things missed in all these complaints about Jalen last year is that he took care of the ball. People might say he didn't throw for that many yards per game, but when you have the No. 1 defense in the country, you want to take care of the ball," Kiffin said. "That's how you win a bunch of games -- and he did. He's lost two games in his entire career and a big reason for that is he takes care of the ball. Last year, Alabama was No. 1 in the nation for fewest interceptions thrown . That's Jalen for the most part. That plays into the decision-making aspect. You want to look at that in the evaluation process. It's not always who makes the big play, it's who runs the offense the most consistently.
"We keep track of the drives in scrimmages. We not only have their stats like everyone else does, but also the outcome of their drives. We look at touchdown percentage, punt percentage, turnover percentage," Kiffin continued. "At the end of the day that's what you're looking for: someone who leads scoring drives and doesn't turn the ball over."
To be clear: Hurts doesn't lack flash. He's not the stereotypical "game manager." His first-ever touchdown was a rollout bomb 39 yards down the field to ArDarius Stewart. His 30-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter of the 2017 CFP National Championship would have won the game if Clemson wideout Hunter Renfrow wasn't the bane of the Crimson Tide's existence.
However, there's is a perception that Hurts is gun shy -- almost to a fault. "One thing for Jalen -- and I think we all fall victim to it a little bit in that system because you lean so heavily on the defense -- is he can't be afraid to make a mistake," McElroy said.
Conversely, Tagovailoa looks for the home run ball on almost every play. His overtime possession against Georgia was a perfect snapshot into how that makes him different from Hurts. Not necessarily better, just different.
There are things Tagovailoa can do as a passer at this stage of his game that Hurts hasn't yet been able to -- and may never -- master. "I remember when Tua was in camp with us," Kiffin said, "and camp is hard when you're in high school because you don't know any of the receivers. They're not your teammates. And yet he had this unbelievable ability to drop the ball into tight windows with incredible accuracy downfield. It was very unusual."
That playmaking talent was on display in mop-up duty this past season, most notably against Vanderbilt.
Sack... NOPE, TD— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 23, 2017
Bama absolutely pouring it on. pic.twitter.com/OZtv2kAggW
There's a creed to the gunslinger's handbook, though. You live ... and die ... by the chances you take. "It's hard to reel a guy like that back in," Kiffin said. While Tagovailoa's championship-winning pass is what will be remembered, the less talked about play came right before when he took an egregious, nearly game-defining, 16-yard sack.
Saban can chuckle about it now, but there's a serious side observation to it: Hurts would not have taken that sack.
And if we're really diving into the comparison, Tagovailoa's ill-advised interception on an apparent miscommunication in the third quarter isn't a ball Hurts would have forced. "Those are the things that kept Tua on the sidelines for as long as he was because he makes those kinds of mistakes," McElroy said. "But he'll also make the throw he did to win the game."
It may be in a few months or not until the end of the year, but at some point it's easy to recognize how this is going to end. Someone is going to lose this battle. Barring the unforeseen, Hurts or Tagovailoa is likely to transfer.
Kiffin says he evaluates quarterbacks in three areas: decision-making, accuracy and timing. Chances are Alabama evaluates similarly. With receivers coach Mike Locksley being promoted to offensive coordinator in the wake of Brian Daboll's return to the NFL, Hurts and Tagovailoa should be well aware of how the offense will run. In the end, it will be about execution. The one who executes the offense better will start. The other will probably consider his options.
Even if that's not the intention of either player now, it would appear Alabama is bracing for it later. Just this week, grad transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew from East Carolina said he was committing to the Crimson Tide and plans to join the team in May. "That wouldn't make sense unless they're concerned about a guy leaving. They must be protecting themselves for that," Kiffin said.
If and/or when Hurts or Tagovailoa hits the transfer market, it could be the biggest of its kind in years. This would be especially true for Hurts. Depending on the progress of his classwork, Hurts could graduate mid-year and be immediately eligible in 2019.
"In a perfect world, this is what Saban wants," McElroy said. "The problem is in this day and age of competition the winner is the starting quarterback for a certain amount of time and everyone else who was involved leaves. At every other position you can still play, and even play a lot, in a backup or specialized role.
"It's different with quarterbacks. It occupies so much attention -- and it should because it's the most important position by a wide margin -- but it's tough sometimes to put so much on it," McElroy continued. "Of course Saban would like 10 quarterbacks, but that's not the reality of the position. Everyone wants to play but only one can play at a time."