TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — One can almost picture it happening.
Alabama senior center Ross Pierschbacher finally got a chance to visit home and took advantage of the opportunity. Like how a popular airline advertises, “Want to get away?” he did, not only from football and school, but the question he’s been continually asked this offseason.
Eager for a brief escape he flew back to Iowa. There aren’t commercial flights to Cedar Falls so a little extra traveling was required. The drive behind him, he finally settled in only to have the illusion of a break shattered.
“What’s going on at quarterback?” asked someone who should have known better.
“If I had a dollar for every time I heard it I would be a rich man,” said Pierschbacher, who can laugh about it, but shakes his head at all the times he’s been asked, even by his family.
“You guys probably know better than me,” has been his standard response.
“Fall camp will tell a lot. There’s a lot of football left to be played and trust the coaching staff. There’s always been a quarterback battle since I’ve been here whether it be [Jake] Coker and Blake Sims and all that stuff. It’s nothing new.”
In that respect, Pierschbacher’s right. Last year was the first fall since the offensive lineman arrived in 2014 that Alabama didn’t have a quarterback competition.
After Jalen Hurts won the job as a true freshman everyone else on the roster bolted. Blake Barnett’s at his third school after transferring from Arizona State to South Florida, while the playing careers of Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell fizzled out.
But this competition is different.
It’s between two quarterbacks who have already had a lot of success.
One got Alabama to two national championship games. The other won one.
Hurts has experience on his side and is 26-2 as a starter. He was ranked third in the SEC in total offensive yards (2,936) and was 20th in the nation in passing efficiency with a 150.7 rating last season. He was the 2016 SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a freshman.
Tua Tagovailoa was named the Offensive Most Valuable Player of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. He completed only three percent more of his attempts than Hurts, but his passer efficiency rating of 175.0 topped the conference and would have been third nationally had he had enough attempts to qualify.
Both could start nearly anywhere.
Both have been put in an almost impossible situation especially considering their age. Even with an extra year of eligibility Tagovailoa just turned 20 in March. Hurts will do so on Tuesday.
Both had a parent say something to a reporter during the offseason that he wishes could be taken back. Otherwise, the coaches, teammates and the quarterbacks have talked about it as little as possible.
“You wouldn’t even know there’s a quarterback competition going on,” senior running back Damien Harris said.
“You would be expecting guys to be butting heads, or trash-talking , kind of little petty things, but it’s been good,” Pierschbacher said. “They’ve both been very mature about it, may the best man win. I think that’s the right approach to take, and take the high road.
“I think it’s better for the team to have a competition, and for both of them, regardless of what happens they’re both going to be better quarterbacks because of it.”
That’s the key to the whole situation because in the big picture nothing has really changed over the last six months.
Tagovailoa’s hand fracture sidelined him for a lot of the spring, but Hurts wasn’t able to take advantage. He was 19-for-37 for 195 yards with no touchdowns and an interception on A-Day, when third-string quarterback Mac Jones won co-MVP honors.
More telling was that the first-team offense didn’t score a touchdown and tallied just two explosive plays. It looked like it was still in the same rut as the first half against Georgia.
As we all learned last season, Tagovailoa has the bigger upside in the passing game, but he also had more big plays going the other way as well, including a pick-six against Tennessee. That’s a huge factor with Saban, especially since Hurts had only one pass picked off in 2017.
The coach has said all along that one of the players has to win the team over, just like he’s said with every other quarterback competition at Alabama dating back to AJ McCarron vs. Phillip Sims in 2011. That’s why all the talk and speculation since the last title game haven’t amounted to anything.
It’s something that has to be won on the field.
Hurts would be the quarterback if Alabama played today.
Tagovailoa has to beat him out.
It’s really that simple.
But it hasn’t happened yet. Tagovailoa will have to do it in practice, not once or twice but consistently, every day, and then in games.
That’s why a final decision won’t be coming in the near future, and why Pierschbacher really couldn’t tell anyone back home anything that they didn’t already know.
Alabama feels like it could win with either quarterback.
The competition begins in earnest on Friday with the first fall practice.
“I know I wouldn’t want to be in the room when they’re making the decision,” Pierschbacher said. “But they’re both going to get equal opportunities. Let’s see what they do with it.”