Alabama’s football challenge in 2018 is going to be very different from any season in the last decade. That fact means all the speculation about the future of quarterback Jalen Hurts is premature.
Since Nick Saban’s second season in Tuscaloosa, the Tide has always entered spring practice and off-season workouts with the idea that there was an immediate and major challenge on the schedule.
That knowledge served as both motivation for the players during the dog days of summer and an increasingly loud ticking clock for the coaches to make sure they quickly identified the players who would give them the best chance to beat a stout opponent.
Starting in 2008, Alabama opened the season against Clemson, then began its 2009 national championship run against Virginia Tech. In both 2010 and 2011 the Tide faced Penn State in Week 2, then returned to the neutral-site openers against Michigan in 2012, Virginia Tech in 2013, West Virginia in 2014, Wisconsin in 2015, Southern Cal in 2016 and Florida State last season.
While it’s true Alabama won all 10 of those games, usually by wide margins, it didn’t change the fact that a strong championship contender was there to test Tide players and their coaches’ personnel decisions early in the season.
Now consider who the Tide faces in 2018.
There was an effort to schedule a strong opponent to open the season. But Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson left early for the NFL and has taken with him any hope that Louisville could beat Alabama.
That’s not just my opinion. The folks in Las Vegas have installed Alabama as a 29.5-point favorite to win the opener in Orlando. In other words, the actual season opener is not going to be much different from the spring game. It will be a chance for coaches to continue to evaluate and analyze their players, most notably Hurts and sophomore challenger Tua Tagovailoa.
Beyond the Louisville game, if I had to guess at a betting line for Alabama’s games for the rest of the regular season, I’d say Arkansas State -41, at Ole Miss -24, Texas A&M -21, Louisiana-Lafayette -41, at Arkansas -24, Missouri -23, at Tennessee -23, at LSU -21, Mississippi State -24, The Citadel -49 and Auburn -10.
While these are just estimates that will undoubtedly change as the season progresses, the overall assessment is worth considering. Until the regular-season finale against Auburn there may not be a single game in which the Tide is favored by less than three touchdowns.
So, what does this have to do with the quarterback battle between Hurts and Tagovailoa? Everything.
It means anyone who is looking for any sort of pecking order during spring practice is going to be disappointed. The same is true for updates on the battle during summer workouts and even into fall camp.
My guess is that a week before the Louisville game Saban will announce both players will play, but Tagovailoa will take the first series. Or Hurts will take the first series. The point is, it doesn’t matter.
In one expected blowout after another against a historically weak schedule, both Hurts and Tagovailoa will have every opportunity to prove he provides the best chance for the Tide to win the Iron Bowl and compete in the postseason for a sixth national championship in the last 10 years.
The decision is going to be made clear to everyone based on how the two competitors actually perform in the games.
It’s the approach Saban took during the 2010 season when AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims were competing for the job. Even though most everyone agreed McCarron was the better option, Sims was still listed as the co-starter and announced on the Bryant-Denny Stadium scoreboard as a starter well beyond the midway point of the season.
Just like in 2010, Alabama is painfully thin at the position beyond the two competitors at the top of the depth chart.
It should be noted McCarron went on to win two national championships as Alabama’s starting quarterback and finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Sims eventually transferred, but not before providing depth at the position through the 2010 season.
As it turns out, it wasn’t that the two players were close in talent. But there was no competitive advantage in telling one guy he was no longer in the hunt to be the starting quarterback.
So, for anyone eagerly awaiting a grand announcement about Alabama’s starting quarterback in 2018, don’t get your hopes up.
Hurts and Tagovailoa aren’t going anywhere and they aren’t going to a new position. A schedule that allows the competition to continue well into the regular season will make that decision clear.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday, 3-6 p.m., on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.