When is a season opener in which neither team is favored to sniff at winning a division title important?
How about this coming Sunday? In Foxborough, Mass.
The New England Patriots versus the Miami Dolphins has a lot at stake beyond the get-off-to-a-good-start or beat-a-division-rival, etc., etc.
That’s because it features Alabama quarterbacks Mac Jones for the Patriots versus Tua Tagovailoa for the Dolphins
This game, early as it is, could help make or break either team, or, more specifically, either young quarterback.
This will be the Alabama Bowl with the last two starting quarterbacks for the college football dynasty.
Both had slightly differing, yet successful runs at the top job.
Tua stepped in as a freshman to play the second half of national championship game to beat Georgia. As a sophomore, Alabama lost in the championship game to Clemson and, as a junior, his season ended in November after a hip injury.
Tua’s completion percent was 70 percent over his last two seasons (he missed six games with a hip injury in his final season) as the No. 1 guy, with 43 TD passes versus only 6 interceptions as a sophomore, and 33 TD passes and 3 interceptions as a junior.
Jones basically handed off the ball when he replaced the injured Tua in 2019, going 2-1 with wins over West Carolina and Michigan (Citrus Bowl), and a tough, 48-45 loss to Auburn.
With Tua in the NFL last year, Jones was even more impressive than his predecessor ever was, completing 77.4 percent of his passes with 41 TDs and four interceptions. In three college playoffs games, he completed 80 percent of his passes with 14 TDs and 1 interception. Alabama won that championship game over Ohio State, 52-24.
As professionals coming out of Alabama, Tua was the more respected. The Dolphins chose him fifth overall in 2020, one pick ahead of Justin Herbert.
How’d that decision go?
Not great. As Herbert, chosen sixth overall by the L.A. Chargers, won AFC Rookie of the Year. Tua started the year on the bench, before taking over the job, going back to the bench, and then returning as the starter.
As for Jones, he entered his last year at Alabama as seventh round pick according to prognosticators before having one of the greatest collegiate seasons ever.
But he ended up being the fifth quarterback taken — No. 1 Trevor Lawrence (Jaguars), No. 2 Zach Wilson (Jets), No. 3 Trey Lance (49ers) and No. 10 Justin Fields (Bears) — at No. 15 by the Patriots.
Las Vegas prognosticators, thanks to some nice work during meaningless August games, were so impressed with Jones’ work that he is the betting favorite to be NFL Rookie of the Year.
They always have been different.
Tua, more of a Steve Young, roll-out quarterback who could run when needed. He seems to fit the new-wave QBs, as in mobile and creative.
Jones was a straight drop-back guy. Period.
While there is debate, now, as to which QB is better or has a better shelf life as a franchise QB in the NFL, two wide receivers — who caught passes from both — expressed their opinions before Jones was even drafted.
First round picks DeVonta Smith (eighth to the Eagles) and Jaylen Waddle (sixth to the Dolphins) made their choice to the national media.
“The question was barely finished before Smith answered: Mac Jones,” Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer wrote.
“I like Mac Jones,” Waddle told NFL Network’s Andrew Siciliano. “Both are great quarterbacks. I love Mac. He was a guy I came in with from Day 1. We were on the third team together and worked our way up.”
But that was then, and this is now.
Remember, the Dolphins finished a not-too-shabby 10-6 last season, with Tua going 6-3 in his nine starts.
We’re assuming the best of Mac Jones is a few months away. The Patriots seem to be built on owning the line of scrimmage on both sides, with a potentially explosive defense and running game.
Jones probably won’t be asked to “win” games just yet, unless the Patriots are trailing late in the fourth quarter.
Tua can pick up some big support, particularly from his own team, with a convincing performance in Foxborough on Sunday.
The funny thing, the Alabama Bowl won’t be just Tua vs. Mac. The Dolphins have two other ex-‘Bama stars in Waddle and defensive tackle Raekwon Davis. The Patriots boast three others, including running back Damien Harris, veteran linebacker Dont’a Hightower and rookie defensive tackle Christian Barmore.
But when everything is said and done, around 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, the Alabama guys we will be talking about will be guys behind center.
Let the game within a game begin.