This was exactly the type of situation Alabama's coaching staff feared. On the road, playing for the first time against archrival Auburn with their postseason lives in the balance, the quarterback who too often let his emotions get the best of him was teetering on the edge. With the score tied and halftime approaching, Mac Jones sailed a pass well over his intended receiver's head and into the waiting arms of the defense, resulting in a pick-six.
Jordan-Hare Stadium shook as a stone-faced Jones made his way to the sideline. Tua Tagovailoa was over there somewhere, but he couldn't play the role of hero in street clothes; a dislocated hip he'd suffered weeks earlier meant it was Jones' show and no one else's. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian put both hands on Jones' shoulders and tried to calm him down. Jones said, "I'm good" and walked off.
It wasn't very believable in the moment.
Jones' brief run as Alabama's starting quarterback -- just a couple of starts in three seasons of primarily mop-up duty -- looked to be on the verge of falling apart, sending his name onto the long list of prospects who never panned out.
Who was that other QB in the same class as Tua? The guy with the funny nickname? Yeah, the Joker. I heard he once trash-talked Nick Saban in practice. The skinny kid with a decent arm. He spoke Mandarin or something, didn't he? Smart guy but he struggled with consistency. Won a few games when Tua was injured and was never heard from again.
Mac Jones could have become the answer to an obscure trivia question -- Who was the QB who backed up two Heisman finalists at Alabama? -- but instead he got right back to work against Auburn. His next throw was a textbook 33-yard strike to DeVonta Smith. Less than a minute later, he threw a touchdown to Henry Ruggs. And four minutes after that, a 58-yard touchdown pass to Jaylen Waddle.
Fast-forward to the third quarter and a great drive that ended inexplicably at the goal line when Jones threw a pass directly into the back of Najee Harris. The ball bounced off Harris' shoulder pads and right into the hands of an Auburn defender, who raced 100 yards the other way for a touchdown. But, again, Jones didn't give in to the wild swing of momentum. Instead, he marched the offense back down the field, completing 4-of-5 passes for 63 yards and a touchdown to retake the lead.
In the end, Alabama lost a 48-45 shootout, but Jones proved something in the process. Call it confidence, moxie, fortitude. He definitely showed maturity. Any illusions about his ability were swept away each time he clawed his way back from a mistake. And his next time out, when he threw for 327 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a dominant win over Michigan in the Citrus Bowl, he hammered the point home that, yes, he belonged.
"I learned a lot from Tua," Jones told reporters after putting an exclamation point on his season. "He still helps us out. But it is my team."
That sounds like a great first chapter to a storybook career, right? The underrated benchwarmer is thrust into the spotlight and becomes a star. The problem? When Jones and Alabama made the return trip to campus, a precocious young quarterback was waiting. Bryce Young, a five-star phenom with Tua-level hype, had enrolled in school weeks earlier with no intention of waiting his turn.
Bruce Rollinson is a Southern California institution. In his 31 years as head coach at powerhouse Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, nearly all of his starting quarterbacks have gone on to play high-level college ball and a few -- Matt Barkley, Colt Brennan and Matt Leinart among them -- have become bona fide stars.
So, before you ask, no, Rollinson is not prone to exaggeration when he says he has never coached a talent like Bryce Young.
"I've had so many great ones," he said, "but arguably he could be the greatest we've had."
Young was named Gatorade Player of the Year in California and the Maxwell Football Club's National Offensive Player of the Year as a senior, a year when he scored 68 total touchdowns (58 passing, 10 rushing) and led the Monarchs to a state title for the second straight season. But the numbers don't really tell Young's story, not to those who have seen him.
The kid throws "rocket ships," Rollinson said, and has the quickest release the coach has ever seen. His accuracy is off the charts. He has this "crazy touch" Rollinson said can't be explained. And, oh yeah, he also runs like a tailback.
Young has that nebulous "it" factor as well. Case in point: the IMG game his junior year. A sellout crowd of some 10,000 fans packed the Santa Ana Bowl and watched anxiously as Mater Dei got the ball back, trailing by four with less than two minutes to go. Rollinson was nervous, too. It was his bright idea to invite a loaded IMG team from Florida out to the West Coast, so he had no one to blame for this soon-to-be loss but himself.
Then his 17-year-old quarterback winked at him, said, "We're going to go win it" and trotted onto the field.
Young drove the offense the length of the field, completing 6-of-6 passes before keeping a zone-read and diving into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
Rollinson calls it the "convergence moment," the point when he knew that Young was different, that he had that rare mixture of ability and belief. He's a kid, Rollinson said, "who walks with a spring in his step and he knows where he's going. And he walks with a purpose."
That's when Rollinson understood that wherever Young went after Mater Dei, it was only a matter of time before he became a star.
Daxx Garman ran up to Joe Dickinson during a quarterback camp in Jacksonville, Florida, and said there was a quarterback he needed to see. Mac Jones was only 11 years old at the time, but Garman told Dickinson, "This kid's a natural passer."
Dickinson, a longtime quarterback coach who began his career working with Troy Aikman at Oklahoma, was doubtful when he sized up the local kid. Jones was better known then as a tennis player, and he looked the part with a thin frame, a flop of blond hair and bright blue eyes.
"And he whipped it around," Dickinson said, "and I was like, 'Yeah, maybe so.'"
There was a fluidity to the young quarterback's throwing motion. It was a little long-winded, granted, but Dickinson could work with that. You couldn't teach the way the ball came out of his hand and spun just so.
Who cares if he was a little light in the britches? Jones was smart and took care of the football. And he was competitive as all get-out, a fact later proven when he ran the Wing-T at The Bolles School and still managed to throw for 29 touchdowns as a senior.
He wasn't some hot-shot recruit, but when Nick Saban landed a helicopter on campus for an in-person visit, it got everyone's attention. Jones didn't care that Jalen Hurts was already at Alabama or that Tua Tagovailoa was on his way.
Jones never even asked about them, which Lane Kiffin thought was unusual.
"It said how confident the kid was," he said.
Kiffin, who was then Alabama's offensive coordinator, compared Jones to former Georgia star Jake Fromm because of his total control of the offense and his leadership skills.
"He came from a very sharp family and they really valued the degree from Alabama and playing quarterback at Alabama regardless of the outcome of how many years he'd start," Kiffin said.
Jones flipped his commitment from Kentucky to Alabama and stuck with it even though, Kiffin said, "He knew going in it would be a while before he became the starter."
Dickinson and Jones stayed in touch through those early years in Tuscaloosa, and he's proud of how his former protégé has stayed the course. He calls Jones a throwback in that way, not entering the transfer portal as so many others would have.
Who cares that he isn't flashy? Jones is faster and more athletic than you might think, Dickinson said, adding that he runs the 40-yard dash in around 4.7 seconds. His arm might not be the caliber of Tua's, but whose is? It's more than capable, as he completed 68.8% of his passes last season.
This picture right here says who Mac Jones is. I have thrown with him for a long time, and seen him battle through tons of adversity. He's going to lead this Bama team to a special season next year. Mac Jones is a Warrior... pic.twitter.com/qtHhFxU6PF— Mac Hereford (@Mac_Hereford) February 22, 2020
Dickinson points to a photo that made the rounds online during Alabama's offseason conditioning program earlier this year. In it, Jones is bleeding from the nose and mouth, red splotches covering his white shirt. Jones, who has said he incurred the injury while doing a somersault during a conditioning drill, is looking directly into the camera with an intense focus.
"He's that guy, don't kid yourself," Dickinson said. "A silent assassin."
There are shades of Tua vs. Jalen 2.0 if you're looking for them. Jones and Hurts were both sought after four-star prospects but neither cracked the ESPN 300. Tagovailoa and Young were five-stars and the No. 1-rated dual-threat QBs in their respective signing classes. Hurts was already established when Tagovailoa arrived, coming off a freshman season in which he won SEC Offensive Player of the Year, while Jones returns after posting the second-highest QBR (92.7) in the country after Oct. 25, trailing only Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 pick Joe Burrow.
Then there's that time Young winked at Rollinson and beat IMG. Remind you of anyone? Think back to the 2017 national championship game against Georgia when Tagovailoa, then a freshman, took an ill-timed sack in overtime, put his arm around Saban and told him not to worry because now he had more room to work. Then, on second-and-26, Tagovailoa won the ballgame.
Want one more? How about the fact that Tagovailoa and Young both chose Alabama over ... drumroll please ... USC.
With all that said, it's still too early to say which version of the Tua-Jalen competition we're looking at in this latest episode of "As the Alabama Quarterback Room Turns." It could be circa 2017 when Hurts was the starter or it could be 2018 when Tagovailoa overtook him, prompting Hurts' transfer to Oklahoma the following offseason.
The coronavirus pandemic robbed both Jones and Young of the chance to create separation during spring practice, and neither has had the benefit of a traditional offseason.
Mac Jones fills in for Tua Tagovailoa nicely with three touchdown passes, two of those to Jerry Jeudy in Alabama's blowout victory over Arkansas.
The feeling coming out of Tuscaloosa is that Jones' experience gives him a significant edge, and that's compounded by the SEC's decision to do away with nonconference games this season. Without the usual runway of Group of 5 and FCS opponents leading into SEC play, the opportunities to try out multiple quarterbacks are no longer available to the coaching staff.
But that doesn't mean the hype around Young has been diminished. If anything, on-the-record reviews -- which at Alabama are about as bland as a pack of reduced-sodium Saltines -- have been overwhelmingly positive. The usually reserved Waddle said that Young has been learning quickly and is "looking really good." Smith, another receiver of very few words, went even further, saying Young is "going to be a great quarterback" and, "He's ready."
Even Sarkisian said he's "really been impressed" with the freshman QB.
"You see the natural passer in him," he said. "You see the natural feel for the game."
Jones, for his part, has been diplomatic about the competition. When asked about coming to Alabama with Tagovailoa and then welcoming in another young star in Bryce Young, Jones gave a 168-word response full of coachspeak and didn't mention his competition by name once.
"Every year, there's going to be great quarterbacks coming in, and every year there's going to be great linebackers and everything," Jones said. "For me, it's just putting my head down and working and trying to lead the team."
There's been no indication of tension between the two quarterbacks. Young's father, Craig, says he thinks the way Alabama handled the competition between Hurts and Tagovailoa was a good model to follow because both quarterbacks were given a fair shake.
"I trust that it will be handled it that way," he said, adding that his son and Jones are teammates and, "Whoever it is, you want them to be successful. ... I don't want [Bryce] to be crushed over the weight of expectations. Just play. He'll get on the field when it's time for him to get on the field."
Saban has been typically coy about the competition.
Early on in preseason camp, Saban went back to his old criticism of the fourth-year quarterback, saying that Jones needed to "play within himself" and "not beat himself up when he makes bad plays."
Then, last Tuesday, he gave Jones a pat on the back, telling reporters that he had a "really good week."
"I think Bryce has shown he's a very talented guy," Saban said. "He's just got to get more knowledge and experience to be able to be a little more consistent in terms of his execution. And [expected No. 3 QB] Paul [Tyson] has made a significant amount of improvement, as well.
"We're gonna keep working with them. If they were where they needed to be, we wouldn't need to practice anymore, and I promise you, we all need to practice."
If you thought Saban was going to come out and name a starter before the last possible moment, you haven't been paying attention. That has never been his move.
But that decision could be coming soon with the season opener against Missouri only eight days away. Or Saban could decide to let it play out during the season.
If and when a starter is named doesn't mean that the competition is over, though. Like Tua and Jalen, we could be in for a battle that plays out behind the scenes in practice every week.
Jones showed last season that he has matured and can be an effective quarterback. And with Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle to get the ball to, he doesn't need to be Superman for Alabama's offense to score a bunch of points.
His biggest competition might not be any one defense in the SEC, but rather a freshman nipping at his heels.
Bryce Young is a rocket ship ready for takeoff, and Mac Jones is the only person capable of grounding him.