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Making the Case for the 2020 Heisman Trophy: Mac Jones

There is no bigger Mac Jones cheerleader tonight than me.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Notre Dame vs Alabama Robert Franklin-USA TODAY Sports

We use the phrases gritty or scrappy or competitor far too often without ever fully realizing what it means until we actually see them. On December 17, 2016, we were guaranteed by a newly-minted four-star from IMG Academy that he would come to the Capstone and be all of those things:

“You have a freshman who played really well his first year [Eagles starting QB, Jalen Hurt] and you have an incoming player in Tua [Tagovailoa, Dolphins starting QB] who has the potential to be a very good quarterback at Alabama. I’m not scared of competition. It’s a big task ahead of me to think I can go in and play. I know I will have to work and fight my way into the battle.”

That skinny Mac Jones would eventually honor his commitment and come to Alabama, staring down a certain redshirt and an even more certain burial on the depth chart. And indeed, both of things happened. The undersized Jones came to campus and redshirted in 2017, as the world watched in amazement, while Tua Tagovailoa played one of the greatest halves in college football history. The next year, Jones got the redshirt taken off, but he was still relegated to the pine most of the season, as again the world watched in amazement at the special bond that developed between Jalen Hurts and the man who would take his job — culminating in Jalen coming on in relief and pitching one of the most meaningful halves of football the SECCG had produced. Turnabout is fair play.

Yet another season would turn, and once more Jones would be doubted before Spring camp even started. The job was Tua’s sure, but who would be his backup? Hotshot recruit Taulia Tagovailoa, now the starter at Maryland? Perhaps the blue-chip legacy from up the road, Paul Tyson — he of the very famous great grandfather? People overlooked the one player who had any meaningful snaps at the position, instead focusing on the sexy new faces. But, by fall camp, there was no doubt: Jones had seized the backup job and had no intention of relinquishing it. And, god forbid, if No. 13 went down, Mac would get the call to the dugout.

Then the worst did happen, and Tide fans had reasons to doubt that Jones could bear the mantle of leadership.

In fairness, Jones’ spot relief had given plenty of reasons for that doubt. In the 2018 redshirt campaign, Jones was frankly awful. He completed less than 40% of his passes in mop up. Earlier in 2019, Jones was little better. There were times he looked like had even regressed. Jones was missing far too many routine plays, but thriving off of boom-bust plays. His QBR was buoyed by those deep shots and generous YAC the Tide’s transcendent receiving corps earned. But, to Jones credit, he came in against MSU on the road when Tagovailoa went down and steadied a hurting Tide team for the second-half win.

Over the next four games, Jones would face Auburn on the road with a potential playoff bid at stake, and then the vaunted Michigan Wolverines. Jones was competent in that stretch. Though there were some doubts about whether he could be special and be that starter in 2020. Jones was relying on big plays, though not turning it over very much. He would make some outstanding throws, only to get rattled and then throw behind receivers or force passes.

The comparison was “AJ McCarron with an all-world receiving corps.” And that seemed a fair one: A game manager who got the yips early, gave you some big plays, didn’t turn it over much, and let the Tide’s bevvy of surrounding talent notch the wins.

We were wrong, very wrong. And more specifically I was very wrong. Like so many fans and commentators, I was seduced by the potential of Bryce Young rather than the steady producer wearing a Crimson jersey. I was wowed by what Young will eventually do versus giving Jones a fair shot to prove what can already do. In fact,

I said this in September:

Josh likes to compare Jones to A.J. McCarron — he’s a game manager with skills that are good enough to win most games for you. In 2020 is Alabama’s supporting cast at the other positions good to hoist the championship trophy? Sure. But, more importantly, can Jones make those handful of special plays that championship teams must have? Can you run a modern offense where games are played in the 30s and 40s, through a quarterback who’s just pretty good? To borrow a meme from our NFL brethren who bag on Joe Flacco, is Jones elite?

I don’t think so.

I have felt, and continue to feel, that there is one person on the roster who can make those special plays. While Jones may begin the season at QB1, there will come a moment in the season where “pretty good” isn’t good enough. And when Young does get that call, and he will, he’s not coming off the mound again for the rest of his Alabama career.

I have rarely felt such contrition before in almost a decade here at RBR. The man who can make special plays is the starter. It’s not a matter of being wrong that bothers me; it’s that I did not give Jones his shot, one that his tenure and seniority and late season 2019 performance had earned. If you’re reading this Mac, I am sorry.

You earned it, and all you have done with that opportunity is create a season for the ages.

How special has this year been? I could write 3000 words on just how special this year has been, but here are some high points:

  • Mac Jones has obliterated the QB efficiency rating — better than Tua’s, better than Burrow’s, better than Murrays.
  • Jones is on pace to have the highest YPA (11.7) ever attained by a quarterback in the modern era — a school record, obviously, and he leads the nation in 2020.
  • There have been 10 total 400 yard passing games in Alabama’s 130 year history — Jones has 40% of them, the most of any Tide QB.
  • He is set to be the most accurate QB in modern CFB history (and players over 200 attempts), hitting 76.5%, which and is easily the most accurate one in Alabama and SEC history.
  • He is one of two players to throw for 4000 yards in a season at Alabama.
  • Jones is just middling in the nation in attempts (41st), but finished second in the nation in yards — just 80 behind Kyle Trask who has no running game and had 80 more attempts.
  • Against ranked teams, Jones has come up huge. Ignoring last year’s performance, this season, Jones has 23 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions. In fact, he’s only thrown four interceptions all season.

And on, and on, and on. By now, you’ve likely read all of the superlatives imaginable about Jones. They’re earned; every one.

I’ve run out of ways to praise Jones’ 2020 season, but I will give it a shot in summary.

Mac Jones doesn’t have the greatest talent on earth — but he has more than enough to get “it” done, whatever it may be at the moment. Jones doesn’t have Tua’s preternatural field awareness, but he is far less prone to making throws that terrify you. Mac has occasionally forced passes this year. But those come from an overconfidence that he has earned, not from lack of recognition. And, yes, Mac can occasionally get flummoxed early or have a down moment — but those funks last a play or maybe a series, they don’t linger for long stretches, and then the calculating super star takes over.

Questions about his deep ball have been answered time and time again, as we’ve seen Mac drop dimes over the shoulders of tight coverage. His ability to put touch on the ball from all over the field has been answered over and over again, with his surgical precision to the back of the endzone or between defenders. If you challenge Mac man-up, he will go over your head. If you drop safeties against him, he will quickly diagnose the coverage, find the right man, make a big play...or at the least move the chains.

Jones is not McCarron 2.0, and that is no slight to AJ. Nor is Mac a game manager. Far from it; he’s an assassin. And he seemingly possesses a tool for every task that he has faced this season. And he’s done it with deadly, fiery efficiency.

I have said before about Jalen and Tua that character counts. But I did not fairly measure Mac’s. I underestimated the size of the fight in the dog. I overlooked that great players are often made, not borne. I was not patient enough to fairly give him the opportunity as the uncontested claimant to the throne. I was too harsh with criticism of plays that I now realize were borne more of inexperience than a limited talent set. And he’s had no bigger cheerleader than me this season, nor will anyone applaud more loudly if Jones takes home an award that he has earned.

Give ‘em hell, kid.