What does Tua Tagovailoa have in store for an encore? Is Jalen Hurts 2.0 ready to take over college football? And what are the must-see games of September? Adam Kramer takes on those questions and more in a quarterback-heavy first installment of the 2019 college football notebook.
It's only been 18 months, but he looks different.
His smile isn't as bright as it was when we met him in January 2018, when he won the national championship on a single throw. His eyes aren't wide like they were back then, when an undersized true freshman was thrown into the fire to face the biggest moment of his life.
He looks bigger. Stronger. Like a man built to withstand a full season of college football, something he struggled with last season as he battled a knee injury.
He sounds different, too. Trained. Humbled. Speaking to reporters at Alabama's media day in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, his cadence is slower, his answers softer.
Tua Tagovailoa has changed. Grown. Matured.
He has only been at Alabama for two full seasons and has only been the starter for one, but the magnitude of his college career can make it seem like it's been an eternity. So much has gone right for Tagovailoa over the past two years. But also, what's clear right away is that the shock and disappointment of one of the few failures—last season's national championship loss—has undoubtedly had as great an impact as anything.
"It was a good experience," he says of the 44-16 loss to Clemson. "Because a lot of us have come back, and it is something that we don't take for granted now."
"Winning isn't something that you should take for granted."
Consider all that has transpired in the 21-year-old quarterback's college career so far: a historic national championship, one of the most publicized quarterback battles in the history of the sport, an overflow of touchdowns and production, a Heisman campaign that was undone by a bad game in the SEC Championship (still a win) and finally the shocking title-game defeat.
That can't help but change a player, even if it would be foolish for this one to change much of anything after he threw 43 touchdowns and only six interceptions last season.
But a refinement after one of the greatest seasons a quarterback has ever produced—albeit through injuries and a disappointing finale—was necessary. And coaches and teammates have noticed.
"We're happy to have him as a leader of our team," Alabama head coach Nick Saban says. "He's got great character. He's a hard worker. He affects his teammates in a really positive way. I think he's very well respected by his teammates. And, you know, he's obviously been as productive as anybody at that position in the country. So hopefully we can build on that."
His performance to open this season—a surgical 336-yard, four-touchdown masterpiece against Duke—was almost a foregone conclusion. A polite golf clap. This is what many have grown to expect, which speaks volumes about how far Tagovailoa has traveled. Perhaps the most terrifying thought is that the best is still out there.
He is surrounded by the nation's best receiving corps. The wide receivers unquestionably play a significant role in Tagovailoa's success. But they also recognize his influence beyond throwing the football.
"He's the leader, first of all," Alabama wideout Henry Ruggs III says. "He leads his team in exceptional ways. He knows all his players. And he's a guy that's going to always make you better."
Adds fellow wide receiver DeVonta Smith, "He's always going to put the team before himself and always going to do what's best for the team."
In all likelihood, this will be Tagovailoa's final college season. In such quarterback-desperate times, the junior is expected to be in high demand come draft season. What has transpired up until now—the overwhelming positives, the reality checks that came late last season and now a year filled with hope and potential—already feels like a movie script playing out in real time.
And there is still so much out there. A Heisman. Another national championship. A potential rematch against Clemson. Revenge. A chance to elevate his legacy to a place few have ever approached.
Free of a quarterback battle and the national championship madness and the mania that has followed his very existence, the proper encore is still out there.
Speaking of That Quarterback Battle...
The player on the losing side of it, Jalen Hurts, looked angry after his performance Saturday, which is a terrifying thought. Hurts' Oklahoma debut was so unbelievably good that he became a co-favorite to win the Heisman—an honor he shares with his former teammate—in 60 minutes.
It wasn't just the numbers, although let's get those out of the way: 20-of-23 passing for 332 yards with 16 carries for 176 yards and six total touchdowns.
The part that was most unbelievable about watching Hurts at Oklahoma—something that will take some getting used to—was just how easy it looked. The athletic gifts have always been there, but to see them harnessed and developed and put to use was truly remarkable.
Yes, it was against Houston. But there are few teams on Oklahoma's schedule that will have a counter for Hurts and the pieces around him if they can work together like this.
And on a more personal level, what a moment. It's hard not to overreact here after all Hurts has been through. He waited for his second chance at football stardom and appears to have found it instantly.
What Are Realistic Expectations for Trevor Lawrence?
This season's first sampling of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence was perfectly imperfect. The nation's most magnificently groomed quarterback threw two interceptions, completed less than 60 percent of his throws and scored two touchdowns—one on the ground and one through the air.
It's also worth noting that Clemson still obliterated Georgia Tech, 52-14, thanks in large part to Travis Etienne's 205-yard rushing performance on only 12 carries, a reminder of just how good the Tigers are in so many areas.
Still, Lawrence was certifiably "meh." That means very little in the grand scheme of his sophomore campaign, but considering his current standing in college football has reached almost a mythical threshold, and given how last season ended—specifically the unlikely demolition of Nick Saban and Alabama—anything short of perfection will likely be received with skepticism.
No matter the physical gifts and talent around him, Lawrence likely won't be able to satisfy the overhyped appetites of so many throughout the slog of the season. That's not to say he can't win the Heisman or Clemson won't be as good as advertised, but more of a polite reminder that it's perfectly reasonable to let young players, even the best of young players, grow accordingly.
It's a reasonable ask during unreasonable times. Regardless, Clemson is already a monster. If Lawrence approaches the supersonic hype bestowed upon him, it will be something more.
Cancel Your Plans for These 5 Games This Month
To be clear, the first full month of the college football season has a "clear my calendar" vibe to it. And there are some absolute doozies on the horizon. But these five, in particular, will require your utmost attention:
1. LSU at Texas, Sept. 7: The college football gods have blessed us with a joyous out-of-conference gift. The best part? It won't be played in Dallas or Atlanta or New Orleans. Those are all fine cities and glorious football venues, but a game like this deserves the college football environment, and it will get that and more in Austin.
For those who have wondered whether Texas is indeed "back," this will serve as the most important thermometer to date. LSU, meanwhile, might have an offense that can finally take advantage of its stocked cupboard of superb athletes.
Narrative-heavy. Wildly important. Playoff and Heisman implications. Hook this up to my arm and serve it into my veins.
2. Notre Dame at Georgia, Sept. 21: One could make a reasonable argument that this is actually the most important game of September. It has all the necessary ingredients: two historically excellent programs, two demanding fanbases with immense expectations, two rosters ripe with talent.
And, most importantly, it's a matchup in Athens—one of the best game-day environments in the nation. Seriously. Let's play all our games on college campuses and be done with everything else.
Had it not been for three or four bad minutes, Georgia might have a national championship or two under Kirby Smart. Notre Dame, meanwhile, is trying to validate its playoff cameo with a trademark road win. It will not be easy.
3. Texas A&M at Clemson, Sept. 7: If last year's game was any indication, this should be a delight. One could argue that no programs have more long-term momentum than these two, and they will meet at Clemson after dazzling last year in College Station.
The difference? For starters, the venue will not be nearly as kind to A&M. That and Trevor Lawrence, who looked somewhat overwhelmed in the moment, will be far less incredulous. He will also be allowed to throw more than nine passes this time around.
Texas A&M should also be improved. Kellen Mond absolutely demolished Clemson's defense last season and is a more refined quarterback a year later. Whether A&M can keep up throughout is another story entirely, one you should glue yourself to the flat screen to watch unfold.
4. Michigan at Wisconsin, Sept. 21: Big Ten intrigue. Massive Jim Harbaugh message board potential. Jonathan Taylor Heisman campaign checkpoint. This one has a bit of everything, and it feels like a significant moment for two programs hoping to get into the College Football Playoff picture.
Also, while there are plenty of quality tailgating options on the September docket, don't sleep on this game. The weather should be superb. The food will be outstanding. The stakes will be high. From a user-experience standpoint, this has everything.
5. Auburn at Texas A&M, Sept. 21: The Tigers' late-game heroics against Oregon vault this game into the top five ahead of a few others. (Feel free to douse this list in gasoline, dear reader. I have faith you will.) In terms of importance and program momentum, this one is massive.
Bo Nix's development over the coming weeks will be critical, although games against Tulane and Kent State won't exactly be the best measuring sticks. College Station will be an overwhelming test for the true freshman quarterback, and I cannot wait to take this in live. More on that in a bit.
Final Takeaways: Football, Food and Other Randomness
1. I've been all over the country at various venues for games and stories, but I've never been to Texas A&M and College Station. That changes this month, as I plan to attend Auburn-A&M, reporting a story I'll be putting together. I'm not sure I can put into words how excited I am about this: the culture, the fans and the passion of a place I have long admired from afar. Food and other recommendations are always appreciated.
2. Chip Kelly is broken, and I wish I felt better about the long-term prospects at UCLA. There's no shame in losing to Cincinnati, a quality team enjoying a nice stretch. But it's hard to watch his teams and not at least wonder how we arrived here. In four years at Oregon, Kelly lost seven games. In one year and one week, he's lost 10.
3. On the topic of broken: I'm so sorry, Tennessee fans. This is the part where I'm supposed to tell you it'll get better. And I'm sure at some point it actually will. But right now, it's hard to see when.
4. Here's to you, Brandon Talton. A true freshman uncorking a 56-yard game-winning field goal for Nevada against Purdue. Oh, and how about winning a scholarship with the boot, as well. This is why we watch college football.
5. The Popeyes chicken sandwich is delicious. Many times, I find the internet's hype to be misguided or overstated. But not for this. I could eat this sandwich every day. That would be a terrible idea for my heart, but I love this sandwich more than some family members.
6. Lincoln Riley is a beautiful quarterback whisperer. I know we've said that an awful lot over the past few years, but let's continue to say it. The most impressive part? He's taken three vastly different quarterbacks with unique skill sets and allowed them to blossom. Just remarkable.
7. The Righteous Gemstones on HBO. Watch this. Weird. Twisted. Moments of true laughter. A bizarre and wonderful television experience.
8. I spent a day last week with Lane Kiffin at FAU. I was embedded for meetings and got a behind-the-scenes look during game week, which is rare. I know the Ohio State game didn't go particularly well, but I cannot say enough how much I enjoyed the visit. Incredible honesty. Humility. I can't wait to start putting this story together. I think those who don't know the person will come away with a much different perspective.
9. Travis Etienne. Whoa. We spent an offseason talking about other running backs who could win the Heisman. I cannot wait to see what happens with this next month.
10. This offseason, I finally invested in an ideal college football-watching setup. I had an 80-inch television already, but I bought two 43-inch televisions—one for each side. I cannot tell you how much this has changed my Saturday experience. I still had my computer and two iPads, but having three televisions is a game-changer. If you've thought about beefing up your setup, don't wait. Televisions are cheap. Plus, you work hard. Change the way you experience the greatest 15 Saturdays moving forward. You deserve it.
Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.