Playoff contenders need top QBs, and Tide may have the best one

An 11 a.m. kickoff has its pluses and minuses, but one positive is the creation of a window in which one can see other college football teams, gauging just where Alabama stands in relation to the other teams that are legitimate contenders for the College Football Playoff.

That’s not a goal Nick Saban mentions — he understands the necessity of concentrating on Ole Miss, not an unnamed (or purple-and-gold-clad) opponent down the road. It doesn’t mean jumping to conclusions before September is over, or handing out Heismans before the kids even get their Halloween candy.

One thing looks certain, though — the teams that have a chance also have a quarterback. Without trying to settle a debate that will settle itself as the season progresses, Alabama may have the best one.

Tua Tagovailoa wasn’t perfect in the Crimson Tide’s 49-7 win over Southern Miss. He himself grumbled about taking a sack that scuttled an Alabama drive late in the second quarter and had more to say about a couple of throws that he’d like to have back than he did about a dozen or so that were perfectly placed.

That doesn’t mean other quarterbacks elsewhere aren’t doing great things but clearly Tagovailoa and his lethal set of receivers put tremendous pressure on every opposing defense (and, in turn, on every offense that has to keep pace). Most teams are carried, in their way, by one unit or another — a punishing defense (see Alabama 1992 or 2011) or a powerful rushing attack (see Alabama 1979 in the wishbone, or 2015 in the Derrick Henry zone) while counting on the other areas to do their share.

To this point in 2019 — and, again, it’s an early point — the offense has had to carry the load while the defense has been taking a crash course in Sabanomics, learning to be frugal with yards and first downs. That’s not because the defense is sub-par. For most of Saturday, Alabama played without five — five! — of the starting front seven that it expected to have at the start of August: no Dylan Moses, no Josh McMillon, no Terrell Lewis, no LaBryan Ray and for much of the time, no DJ Dale (who is only a freshman himself). And still, they allowed only seven points and one long drive. Southern Miss isn’t a great offensive team, to be fair. Those tests remain. But Alabama appears likely to get to November with a chance.

That’s when the teams with a quarterback who can carry them distance will sort themselves out: Alabama with Tua, Oklahoma with Jalen Hurts, Clemson with Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State with Justin Fields, Georgia with Jake Fromm, maybe Washington with Jake Eason (although how did they lose focus against Cal?) and, demanding attention, LSU with Joe Burrow and Auburn with Bo Nix. Burrow has exploded, while Nix has been more subtle. Also, for about the 20th year in a row, Michigan’s invitation to the party seems to have gotten lost in the mail.

But they are the difference in their team having a chance and others who are just going to have a hard time sustaining the necessary 12-0 or 11-1 record to play for the title. Wisconsin may get there on pure beef but can they get past Ohio State? (This was written before Notre Dame, also a possible outlier, faced Georgia on Saturday night.) The best teams aren’t quarterbacks with nothing else, of course. They are teams with talent around those quarterbacks.

We don’t know yet where Alabama will finish. What we saw on Saturday, even on an easy afternoon by his standards, was that Tagovailoa gives the Crimson Tide that hope.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt.

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