The nation's top three teams face quarterback conundrums, and there's no end in sight

Even Trevor Lawrence had to admit his situation was kind of weird.

No. 2 Clemson has been finding snaps for the hyped freshman quarterback, essentially taking them away from the senior starter while chasing a national championship.

"It's definitely different," Lawrence said. "I haven't really seen anything quite like it."

He is not alone. Playing two quarterbacks is nothing new in college football, although traditional football knowledge says that playing two quarterbacks suggests a weakness. In other words, a team that can't settle on one is in trouble.

All of that might be true. Elsewhere.

At Clemson, No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia, they're staking their seasons on two-headed quarterbacks. That is basically unprecedented.

That is unless you can remember a time when the top three teams in the AP Top 25 all intentionally played two quarterbacks. By doing so, all three are either trying to placate a rising star or keep a current starter happy while juggling all the things that make quarterback culture so maddening -- egos, parents and playing time.

Those concepts might not be mentioned out loud, but they are becoming obvious:

In the modern quarterback rock star culture, you're either startin' or you're departin'. That culture is unique, complicated and different in every situation, but it essentially comes down to this: Five-star quarterbacks expect to play right away. If they do not, there is always someplace else to transfer and do so.

No surprise, but the consolidation of the top quarterback talent is at, well, the top.

Tua Tagovailoa was the No. 1 dual-threat prospect when he joined Alabama last year. In that 2017 season, he (mostly) sat behind Jalen Hurts, the 2016 SEC Freshman of the Year.

That was until Tagovailoa's second-half relief appearance ended with a game-winning pass to beat Georgia in the College Football Playoff National Championship.

The Alabama quarterback situation after that moment became the No. 1 offseason storyline. It hasn't budged much from that spot now that we've actually kicked off.

Georgia landed five-star freshman Justin Fields last year, a Deshaun Watson type with a better arm and stronger legs than Clemson's legend. Lawrence arrived at Clemson at the same time. With his angular 6-foot-6 height and flowing locks, he looks like the Fabio of Football.

Both Fields and Lawrence were rated as the No. 1 prep prospect in the country, depending on what recruiting service you follow. Lawrence continues to share time with senior Kelly Bryant, a veteran of 16 career starts.

But as Lawrence mentioned, all of it is different. Consider those egos, those parents, those external pressures. Consider the players themselves wanting to … play. Consider what's at stake with all three teams in the running for the College Football Playoff.

"It's no different to me than playing multiple linebackers, multiple D-linemen where it's close," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "Playing multiple receivers, playing multiple running backs. It just happens to be a quarterback."

If only it were that simple. You need multiple linemen, linebackers and receivers to win. Quarterback is the singular position with loads of pressure, leadership and expectations heaped on one man. Coaches, fans and media look to him …

… unless there are two guys who are sharing pressure, leadership and expectations.

"If the guy is good enough to help you win, you find a way to get him on the field -- if it doesn't deter from the other guy's ability to help you win," Texas coach Tom Herman said. "That probably sounds over-simplified. It doesn't mean [your quarterbacks] have to like it."

Herman has never seen anything like it, either. The former coordinator left Ohio State before J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones battled for the job in 2015. Because of injuries, Jones was elevated from third-string to starter in 2014. Herman's stock began to rise with every play Jones made. The next year, Herman was Houston's coach.

He is like the rest of us watching Kelly, who has been on the roster for three ACC title games and five playoff games -- share time at Clemson.

The starters at Alabama and Georgia still seem entrenched for now. This whole season-long dance at Clemson may be about which quarterback gives the Tigers the best chance to win the CFP.

Tua was the face of the future when he threw that game-winning touchdown in relief of Hurts last January. Through two games, Tagovailoa is the nation's second-rated passer. Neither Lawrence nor Fields has played enough to show up in NCAA statistical rankings.

Hurts has played in both games as well, placing his future further up for debate.  If Hurts appears in three more games, he would theoretically lose a year of eligibility. In the offseason, the NCAA changed its rules so that any player can appear in up to four games and retain that year of eligibility.

So, unless he does transfer this fall, Hurts will have either two or three years left. They most probably won't be at Alabama.

"It's definitely interesting, but I think that redshirt rule is a game-changer," said Steve Clarkson, the nationally-known private quarterback coach who tutored Tagovailoa and Lawrence. "I don't know if it's for the better because it just allows for chaos in everyone's program."

tua.jpg
Tua Tagovailoa has impressed in his first career starts for Alabama. USATSI

Let's consider only Alabama for a moment. Tagovailoa is already being mentioned as the best quarterback Nick Saban's had to date. But that's not exactly the first thought that comes to mind.

Saban has had his hand in making it a true quarterback controversy. The coach didn't allow either quarterback to talk to media in the offseason, despite both being model citizens. They were noticeably complimentary of each other after that national title game.

When he was finally allowed to speak before the season, Hurts said he was kept in the dark.

Saban then famously snapped at an ESPN sideline reporter's innocuous question after a season-opening victory over Louisville. He apologized, having to know there are a bunch of future five-star quarterbacks -- and their mommas -- who could be considering Alabama.

Part of this reflects the intrigue of the backup quarterback. Fans are always looking ahead to the next guy.

If Fields hadn't come to Georgia, he might be at another SEC rival. Who cares if the roster was stocked with a freshman who led the team to the national title game.

Lawrence, with those flowing locks, projects his own air of intrigue. He has a better arm than Kelly, but Kelly has the experience and superior running ability. Judging by Saturday's result, Kelly is savvier than the freshman.

At one point against Texas A&M, Lawrence had played seven of the first 11 possessions. But when winning time came in the third and fourth quarters, Kelly played the final six. The Tigers won by two.

"I think me and Kelly have done really well handling it and wanting the best for each other," Lawrence said. "He took over at the end of the game, and I'm right there cheering him on. When I'm in there, he's cheering me on."

But the backup did flash intrigue. Lawrence launched a 64-yard scoring pass on his first snap of the game.

"Trevor's just going to get better," Swinney gushed after the game. "You just gotta love what you see about Kelly. He's just locked in what he's doing.

"I think both of those guys can help our football team. If something really changes and separates and we have way more confidence in one guy, you'll see an adjustment down the road. I hope that they will both play well with their opportunity. If they do that, I don't see a situation where they can't continue to play as we go."

Historically, that's seldom happened in a championship chase. The best recent comparison might be 2006 at Florida. Freshman Tim Tebow backed up starter Chris Leak.

While Leak ran the show as an imperfect quarterback for Urban Meyer's offensive system, Tebow was the X-factor with his left-handed jump passes and running-back-playing-quarterback ability between the tackles.

Other combos to consider: Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell at LSU in 2005, Joe Germaine and Stanley Jackson during Ohio State's 1997 Rose Bowl season. 

Then there is the increasingly complicated process of staggering quarterbacks on the roster. Coaches have to keep the pipeline filled so the next quarterback is indeed The Next One.

 "I think, for the most part, it's about depth chart integrity and -- to some degree -- loyalty," said Barton Simmons, 247Sports director of scouting. "If Jalen Hurts was the freshman and Tua was the sophomore last year … you can't convince me that Tua wouldn't have started.

"If Tua was the upperclassmen this year, I'd be dumbfounded if Hurts was getting significant playing time. So I really think it's about keeping the depth chart intact for Alabama."

If Hurts would have transferred in the offseason -- he still can to some schools, by the way -- Tua's backup would have been redshirt freshman Mac Jones. That would have put Bama one tweaked knee away from starting a third-stringer who'd never taken a snap. You can see, then, why this balanced act has been so important.

Hurts' dad said during the offseason his son would be "the biggest free agent in college football history" if he transferred.

If Tua hadn't gotten what is now the unofficial starting job, he might have transferred. That wouldn't have left Alabama exactly short, but it would have denied the Tide of seeing the Hawaiian native's ceiling.

Through two games as a starter, Tua has become a Heisman Trophy candidate.

Usage breakdown through two games in 2018

PlayerTeamPossessionsPlays

Tua Tagovailoa

Alabama

13

76

Jalen Hurts

Alabama

8

56

Kelly Bryant

Clemson

14

76

Trevor Lawrence

Clemson

11

44

Jake Fromm

Georgia

14

79

Justin Fields

Georgia

6

40

The consequences of not filling that pipeline are dire. Check out the situations at Florida and Texas. Neither has kept a difference-making quarterback in almost a decade.

It's complicated everywhere at the top. Jake Fromm did nothing wrong at Georgia except become a teammate of Fields' once he joined the program. Fromm was top 10 in pass efficiency last year. If not for Tua's miracle pass, Fromm would have been the first freshman quarterback to win a national championship as a starter since Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway in 1985.

Then along came Fields. Fromm's emergence already had caused Jacob Eason to transfer. Fromm has stayed -- for now -- despite Fields' sizzle and upside.

Clemson lost a pair of quarterback prospects in five-star Hunter Johnson (transfer to Utah) and four-star Zerrick Cooper (transfer to Jacksonville State) when those two saw the Bryant-Lawrence combo shaping up.

That left Clemson with only two five-star quarterbacks. Pity.

"For a guy like Justin Fields, it's about keeping him satisfied," Simmons said. "For Trevor Lawrence, it's about easing him into the job.

"All three [situations] are unique, but all three I think are more about keeping a roster happy and the quarterback room competitive than about just playing the best player."

Hurt(s) feelings be damned.

"I think Georgia, Clemson and Alabama are process-oriented enough that they're more focused on that internal competitive aspect," Simmons concluded.

"The more good players that are on your roster, the better you are -- at every position -- because of the competition it breeds."

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories