Only a few hundred miles, and a few spots in the college football rankings, separate Alabama and Clemson.
But the highly ranked teams might as well be on opposite ends of the map when it comes to the NCAA’s new redshirt rule and its unexpected repercussions.
No. 4 Clemson has been left perilously thin at quarterback and are faced with the possibility of using a receiver as an emergency backup.
“Welcome to 2018,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “You’ve just got to deal with it the best you can.”
In a peculiar turn of events, the No. 1 Crimson Tide have lucked out, with their starter remaining healthy and his backup opting not to invoke the rule change to transfer.
Still, the uncertainty of the last month appears to have left coach Nick Saban feeling uneasy.
“This is not a good rule,” he said. “This has turned into something that I think is less than what we all desired it to be.”
The issue involves a long-time practice by which coaches “redshirt” freshmen, keeping them under wraps for a season — practicing with the team but not playing — to let them mature before their eligibility clock starts ticking.
Merely stepping onto the field used to burn an entire season. Now, players can appear in as many as four games and still be a redshirt.
At first blush, coaches loved the idea of giving underclassmen three or four games’ experience, then sitting them the remainder of the season. But they now worry about the “unintended consequences.”
Older players can utilize the rule to jump ship at midseason if they are unhappy with their situation on the team.
“I don’t like having to worry about that,” said Hunter Renfrow, the Clemson receiver who found himself practicing at quarterback this week. “It seems like now Week 4 every year is going to be the trade deadline.”
The Tigers approached this season with established starter Kelly Bryant fighting freshman Trevor Lawrence for the quarterback job. Bryant kept his job for the first month — in title, at least — while splitting time with Lawrence.
The game last Saturday against Syracuse would have been Bryant’s fifth appearance — his coach could have kept quiet and put him on the field, thereby ending the graduate student’s chances of being a redshirt.
“I would never even entertain something like that,” Swinney said. “We’re going to do what’s right.”
Lawrence was selected the starter beforehand, opening the door for Bryant to quit the team and announce that, with a season of eligibility remaining, he would search for another school.
“I feel like it’s what’s best for me and my future,” Bryant told the Greenville News.
For Clemson, the consequences were immediate and nearly calamitous. In the first half against Syracuse, a scrambling Lawrence collided head-first with a tackler and strained his neck or, as Swinney put it, “got the crap knocked out of him.”
With third-stringer Chase Brice at the helm the rest of the way, the Tigers barely avoided an upset loss.
“It’s been a long week,” Swinney said. “It’s been a very tough week.”
In Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide’s depth at quarterback has been a hot topic through much of spring and summer.
Jalen Hurts started the last two seasons, amassing a 26-2 record, but was pulled at halftime of the 2018 national championship game, replaced by freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who led the team to victory with a long touchdown pass in overtime.
As the quarterbacks battled through training camp, outsiders wondered whether Hurts might transfer. The speculation continued after Saban selected Tagovailoa as the starter before the second game.
The sophomore has responded brilliantly, ranking as the nation’s most-efficient quarterback, passing for 14 touchdowns without an interception. But Hurts hasn’t budged.
Continuing to get snaps in every game, he chose to play in Week 5 against Louisiana and no longer can be a redshirt this season.
“It shows that he’s professional,” receiver Henry Ruggs III said Saturday. “He’s about his business, he has a plan on what he wants to do.”
That plan might involve quarterbacks coach Dan Enos, hired away from Michigan in the offseason. Enos has worked with Hurts — always considered more of a runner than a passer — on reading coverages and staying in the pocket.
Expected to earn his degree by year’s end, Hurts could leave in the spring and, under the NCAA’s graduate transfer rules, be immediately eligible to play his final season for another school. In the meantime, his presence on the roster gives Alabama insurance against a Tagovailoa injury.
Saban should be happy, right?
“The timing of guys being able to say ‘I want to get redshirted’ is not good,” the coach said. “We gave them a scholarship, so I don’t think it’s fair to their teammates to have the option not to continue to play.”
The funny thing is, Swinney — who has reason to be upset — still counts himself among the coaches who support the new rule.
Asked about upperclassmen using the four-game redshirt to exit at midseason, he said: “Maybe this becomes something people do all the time. I doubt it.”
Even if it does become more common, Swinney insisted that players should have options when it comes to managing their college careers.
“How can you be against that?” he said.
There were no signs that Bryant, who has yet to officially transfer, will change his mind.
As for Lawrence, he has recovered quickly and is expected to play Saturday against Wake Forest. Still, the Tigers will spend the rest of the season only one big hit away from serious trouble.
Freshman Ben Batson, a walk-on recently put on scholarship, has been taking snaps in practice the last two days. So has Renfrow, who, other than a trick play against Texas A&M, has not thrown a pass since high school.