On its opening drive of the college football season, the Alabama Crimson Tide offense sputtered to a three-and-out, with quarterback Mac Jones misfiring twice. But that failure wasn’t a harbinger of things to come: Jones and the Tide responded with three consecutive touchdown drives in a blowout win over Missouri. That exact cadence — a three-and-out on the opening drive followed by three consecutive touchdown drives — played out two months later in the Iron Bowl. Those are the only two instances1 of Alabama first-quarter three-and-outs this season. And all each did was momentarily delay an onslaught.
Not even a pandemic could disrupt the fall tradition of Alabama lounging atop the AP Top 25 poll. The same team whose offense accounted for four of the top 15 picks in the most recent NFL draft once again boasts the most efficient (97.7 out of a possible 100) and highest scoring (48.5 points per game) offense in the Power Five conferences. This is further evidence that the Tide, which recaptured its juggernaut status under coach Nick Saban’s backbreaking defenses, has evolved with the landscape to prioritize high-volume scoring.
The linchpin has been Michael McCorkle Jones, a redshirt junior whose No. 1 spot on the depth chart was not at all certain entering the season. In a matter of months, Jones not only fought off blue-chip, early-enrollee Bryce Young for the starting job, but he also emerged as one of the favorites to hoist the Heisman Trophy and could be one of the first quarterbacks taken in the 2021 NFL draft. This is a man who entered last season with 13 career pass attempts.
“Some people would come straight up to me and say, ‘You’re never going to play at Alabama,’” Jones recalled of his college recruitment.
Jones faced the ambitious task of succeeding Tua Tagovailoa, one of the greatest and most popular players in school history.2 Suffice it to say, Jones has exceeded every expectation imaginable: He leads the nation in Total QBR (95.5, on track to be the highest single-season mark since at least 2004) and ranks second among all Power Five quarterbacks in that period in QBR against a five-man pass rush. He ranks a milder second in yards per attempt (12.02) and catchable attempt rate (85.0 percent).
Mac Jones is having a season for the ages
Top player seasons by Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) since at least 2004
|5||Justin Fields||Ohio State||2020||94.4|
Most recently, Jones responded to being called a “game manager” by Auburn QB Bo Nix with a career high five passing touchdowns in a 42-13 victory over the Tigers. It marked the seventh conference game in which Jones produced a QBR exceeding 95,3 giving him seven of Alabama’s top 25 quarterback performances in conference play since at least 2004. As ESPN’s Brad Edwards noted, only 15 players in the QBR era even have seven career games with a QBR that high.
If Tagovailoa’s most memorable moment is any indication, Alabama lost arguably its best-ever deep-threat marksman when Tua left for the NFL. What’s startling, then, is that Jones has exceeded Tagovailoa’s production on those throws. Just over 16 percent of Jones’s passing attempts have sailed at least 20 yards downfield, which tracks to be the largest share by any starting Alabama QB4 for which data is available.
“I think he’s done a good job of it,” Saban said of Jones’s deep-ball proficiency, which in Saban speak is akin to presenting a lifetime achievement award.
Jones has attempted 28 passes in which the ball traveled at least 30 yards through the air. That’s more than Tagovailoa attempted over any single season. And Jones has completed 18 of them, the most of any FBS player this season and already the most by any Alabama QB since at least 2011, the first year for which data is available. Arm strength and aggressive decision-making is one thing, precision is most certainly another. And Jones can certainly spin it, completing 64 percent of those throws.
It’s all enough to wonder whether Alabama’s 2009 subscription to the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust philosophy was in actuality 100 years ago. It’s also enough to wonder if Joe Burrow’s storyline has found a new host in Tuscaloosa.
Behind the arm of Jones, the Tide have rolled to the third-most-efficient offensive performance by any team through eight games in the playoff era.5 Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt, a man who knows Alabama offenses well, called this year’s group the best offense he’d seen. No Power Five team this season produces more points per drive (3.87) or expected points added per play (0.38). By successful play rate,6 Alabama is on pace to tie LSU’s 2019 national title team for the best offense by an SEC team in at least the past 17 seasons.
It would be remarkable if Jones brought home the Heisman, seeing as he’s part of an offense with two other candidates in DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris. But he has one of the more remarkable stories in college football, one of a player in transition from afterthought to preeminent force, from backup to Heisman contender. And in a season in which Alabama fans dreaded the loss of Tagovailoa, Jones has proved capable of guiding the Tide to the highest echelon of the sport.