Opinion: Move aside, Oklahoma. With Bryce Young's Heisman, Alabama football is QBU

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

Alabama’s football program is so accomplished that it’s not easy making history.

But Bryce Young makes everything look easy.

A quick release. Mobility. Arm talent. Alabama’s sophomore quarterback possesses each of those qualities. But when we reflect on Young’s 2021 season, one trait rises above the rest.

He’s utterly unflappable.

That’s how he made history.

Young became the first Alabama quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy, presented Saturday in New York.

Move aside, Oklahoma. Alabama is now Quarterback U.

When Nick Saban launched this Alabama dynasty more than a decade ago, Crimson Tide quarterbacks weren’t asked to carry the team. Alabama won its first few titles under Saban on the backs of unyielding defenses, relentless ground games and quarterbacks who – if unspectacular – limited mistakes.

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A.J. McCarron was the best from this mold, and by the end of his career, the term “game manager” provided insufficient praise to McCarron’s passing ability. In 2013, he became Alabama’s first quarterback to finish as a Heisman runner-up.

But Alabama’s evolution into a quarterback-driven offense didn’t begin in earnest until Jalen Hurts became a freshman starter in 2016. A dual threat, Hurts possessed abilities his predecessors didn’t. Then five-star Tua Tagovailoa arrived and became a passer unlike any Alabama had seen. He was so good he pulled the starting job away from Hurts, and in 2018, Tagovailoa compiled the best season ever by an Alabama quarterback and placed second for the Heisman.

Tagovailoa’s 2018 season lasted atop Alabama’s chart for all of two seasons before Mac Jones rewrote the record books last season.

Hurts became a second-round NFL Draft pick, while Tagovailoa and Jones were first-round selections. Each is now starting in the NFL.

As good as those three were for Alabama, none meant as much to the Crimson Tide offense as Young does. Alabama is on pace to finish a season with more passing attempts than rushes for the first time ever. With at least one game remaining, Young already has broken Alabama’s single-season record for completions and tied its season record for passing attempts.

But Young didn’t seize college football’s top individual award on stats alone.

Heisman voters are swayed by late-season performances and Heisman moments, and Young combined his unflappability with highlight plays throughout November and December to pull away from a crowded pack of contenders.

Alabama’s program has boasted dominant offensive lines throughout Saban’s tenure, but that dominance has been replaced by inconsistency this season. And the Crimson Tide does not have its usual depth of load-shouldering running backs. Alabama’s ground attack served as little more than window dressing in its past four games against SEC foes.

Those issues came to a head in the Iron Bowl. Alabama’s offensive line kept getting whipped, the Tide run game was ineffective and reduced to one healthy scholarship running back in the fourth quarter. Young didn’t play particularly well for much of the game – but that could be forgiven after he orchestrated a 97-yard scoring drive late in the fourth quarter to force overtime, then dazzled in the extra periods.

"That last drive, Bryce had a smile on his face,” wide receiver Jameson Williams said. “I would never say I’ve seen him rattled or intimidated by anything.”

A 24-22 Iron Bowl victory in four overtimes pushed Young to the head of the Heisman pack. Young sealed the award in last week’s 41-24 SEC Championship victory over Georgia. Young passed, pitched and scrambled to make the Bulldogs’ No. 1-ranked defense look like a bunch of nobodies.

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A few days after the SEC championship, I asked Young to point to the play he made this season stood out to him most.

For me, it’s his unscripted option pitch against Georgia. The play was supposed to be a pass, but protection broke down. Young showed poise under pressure and wriggled away from three pass rushers. After Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean left Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. to close in on Young, he flicked the ball Robinson, who gained 13 yards.

Young didn’t mention that play or any of the beautiful deep passes he’s thrown this season. The unflappability he shows in games carries over to the interview room, where he persistently avoids discussing his exploits no matter the question and uses his answers to praise his teammates.

Fine.

Then allow one of Young’s teammates, star linebacker Will Anderson Jr., explain why his quarterback is a Heisman winner.

“Bryce is very smart, very instinctive," Anderson said this week. "He can make plays even in the toughest situations.”

The first Heisman winner Young can recall is former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. Young was a 10-year-old California kid when Griffin accepted the award while wearing Superman socks.

Another Superman won the Heisman on Saturday, and this one wears Alabama crimson.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.