Clemson and Alabama’s quarterback battles will tip balance of power

Clemson-Alabama is college football’s Cleveland-Golden State. But if we’re going to see a third straight national title showdown between these storied programs, it will hinge on the quarterback position.

The Crimson Tide entered each of the last three seasons with questions under center, but like clockwork — a quarterback would eventually take the reins.

In 2014, Blake Sims surprised many with his big-play ability. The following year, Jake Coker played the role of steady veteran, but this time the Florida State transfer would lead Alabama to its fourth national championship in seven seasons. Last September, true freshman Jalen Hurts was a revelation for Nick Saban, as the Channelview, Texas, native wowed the legendary coach with his maturity and leadership.

Under most circumstances, Hurts would be the obvious pick to start the first game of the season Sept. 2 against the Seminoles, but Saban’s recruiting wizardry netted the Tide another gritty gunslinger.

Tua Tagovailoa was quickly deemed the next Marcus Mariota coming out of Honolulu’s St. Louis High School, and for good reason. The U.S. Army All-American southpaw floored scouts with his arm talent and intangibles during the recruiting process, earning Elite 11 MVP at Nike’s The Opening last summer. He’s one of an unprecedented 16 early enrollees currently going through spring practice in Tuscaloosa.

If he turns in a strong performance at Alabama’s spring game this Saturday at 3 p.m. on ESPN, Tagovailoa could absolutely keep his name in the competition with Hurts heading into training camp.

Clemson, on the other hand, is retooling its offense without Deshaun Watson, who leaves Death Valley for the NFL Draft after a sterling three-year career. Watson’s last game as a Tiger couldn’t have been more special, as he delivered an emphatic 35-31 win over Alabama in the national championship.

Now, Dabo Swinney has three quarterbacks vying for the starting job, with each bringing a different skill set and experience level to the position.

Junior Kelly Bryant, Watson’s backup the past two seasons, is the early front runner through the team’s spring game last weekend. Redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper boasts the best arm on the roster, though, so he could certainly impress Swinney enough to take control. Then there’s touted freshman Hunter Johnson. The Indianapolis standout enrolled for the spring semester, and the multi-talented athlete has been slowly adjusting to the offense.

There’s plenty of time left in Clemson’s race to name a starting signal caller. If someone doesn’t take charge by mid-August, we could see Bryant and Cooper splitting reps against Kent State in the season opener. Or maybe Swinney stakes the team’s future on Johnson.

Either way, the quarterback battles at Clemson and Alabama will have long-reaching effects on the college football landscape.

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