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  • Alabama's delicate quarterback situation and propensity for blowout wins puts the Crimson Tide's breakout star QB in a fascinating spot in the eyes of Heisman voters. Plus, the utility of a Big 12 title game, David Cutcliffe's fit at Duke and the rest of this week's mailbag.
By Andy Staples
September 19, 2018

Alabama’s offense is prolific, but the Crimson Tide have a unique quarterback situation and a team that beats opponents so badly that Tua Tagovailoa’s numbers don’t necessarily quantify how good he is. Naturally, you have questions…

From Gary: Can Tua Tagovailoa win the Heisman with efficiency stats and wins (over raw yardage and TD numbers other QBs will have)?

The Heisman has become an award for the best quarterback or tailback on a team with at least nine wins. By that definition alone, Tagovailoa should be in the mix. But Gary’s question is valid. Alabama is so much better than most of the teams it plays. This is a big reason Tagovailoa isn’t going to get as many snaps as other top QBs, but it isn’t the only one. If Jalen Hurts isn’t going to redshirt this season—he can only play in one more game if he is—then Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban is going to continue to try to get Hurts meaningful or at least semi-meaningful snaps so Hurts will be ready to resume being Alabama’s full-time QB in case something happens to Tagovailoa.

But just for fun, let’s extrapolate what kind of numbers Tagovailoa might have if he played all four quarters in Alabama’s first three games.

In reality, Tagovailoa has completed 36 of 50 passes for 646 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. Now, the goal here is not to have Tagovailoa attempting as many passes as West Virginia’s Will Grier. Alabama is running an entirely different offense. And it’s also not as simple as just multiplying everything by two. Saban isn’t a run-up-the-score kind of coach. Those second halves would feature a lot of handoffs by Tagovailoa. So let’s multiply by 1.5.

So for three games, that would make Tagovailoa 54 of 75 for 969 yards with 12 touchdown passes. You can decide if he threw a pick or two in those second halves.

Assuming Alabama makes the SEC title game, that would put Tagovailoa on pace for an adjusted total of 234 of 325 for 4,199 yards and 52 touchdowns. Games against LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn and possibly Georgia—which have much better defenses than Alabama has faced so far—could cut that total down, but even with 3,600 passing yards and 45 touchdown passes, Tagovailoa would still be very comfortably in the Heisman conversation.

The question is whether we Heisman voters would recognize his efficiency if he keeps splitting snaps with Hurts. I vote, and I would. The way I decide my Heisman ballot is I imagine I’m starting a college football team from scratch and I can only use the current season’s production to evaluate players. The first three players I’d choose (regardless of position) are the three players on the ballot. Voting this way, Tagovailoa absolutely would have a shot.

I’d hope my fellow voters will consider the unique circumstances of each player as well. The award is supposed to go to the most outstanding player, and having talented teammates isn’t supposed to handicap a player.

From Will: Texas over USC ... indicator of things to come or fluke?

That is the $5.5 million-a-year question for Tom Herman, and Saturday’s matchup against TCU could help provide an answer. The way the Longhorns put the hammer down on USC certainly is an encouraging sign for a program that has struggled for five years to win decisively against anyone other than paycheck opponents and the dregs of the Big 12. But is that a sign of things to come, an anomaly or an incorrect evaluation of the opponent’s quality? (Washington State–USC on Friday night should help us clear up that last one.)

The visit from TCU should provide more definitive data. Here are the results of the last four TCU-Texas games.

2014: TCU 48, Texas 10
2015: TCU 50, Texas 7
2016: TCU 31, Texas 9
2017: TCU 24, Texas 7

No team has exposed the Longhorns’ lack of an offensive identity quite like TCU. That makes sense, because TCU has one the most clearly defined defensive identities in the country. When the talent profiles are equal, the team that knows what it is will almost always dominate the team that doesn’t know what it is.

The question now is whether Texas knows what it is. Coordinator Todd Orlando’s defense certainly has an identity (stingy against everyone except—for unknown reasons—Maryland). The Longhorns held the Trojans to minus-5 yards rushing on 16 attempts, and that was the main reason why Texas beat USC so badly. The Longhorns’ offense still only averaged 4.8 yards a play. That must get better to win games where the opposing offense isn’t going to inexplicably abandon the run.

TCU won’t do that. To beat the Horned Frogs, Texas will have to play a complete game. A win would be definitive proof that Tom Herman’s staff has the Longhorns on the correct track. If the Longhorns are a different team, it will show up this week.

From @Sooner_Source: Three years ago, the Big 12 championship game was deemed a “must-have 13th data point” to help ensure the conference has a seat at the playoff table at the end of the year. Since then, however, it seems the committee has placed less emphasis on conference championship games (see Bama last year and Ohio State the year prior). Last year’s Big 12 title game stood a better chance of knocking the conference completely out than getting a team in. So my question is, has the Big 12 championship game become unnecessary (and potentially counterproductive)?

Conference title games are always potentially counterproductive, but they also could provide another quality win that seals a team’s spot in the playoff. What most people miss is that the approval to restart the Big 12 title game had little to do with the playoff. 

Yes, the Big 12 members freaked out when Ohio State was selected over Baylor and TCU in 2014. Yes, the Big 12 wasted money after the ’15 season hiring a consultant to study two years’ worth of a data on a totally new thing (the playoff) to try to figure out why it got left out. (Spoiler alert: It got left out because the selection committee thought Ohio State was better in ’14. Double spoiler alert: The committee was 100% correct. Ohio State was better than everyone in ’14.) And yes, the decision to restart the title game had a little bit to do with getting that precious 13th data point.

But mostly it had to do with free money. Between television rights fees, sponsorship deals and gate receipts, the Big 12 stands to make about $30 million a year from that title game. And while Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU and (possibly someday) Texas may have to regularly deal with the possibility of a title game loss knocking them out of the playoff, the other schools who willinfrequently or never finishing in the league’s top two look at that game and say “WOOOHOOOO, FREE MONEY!”

Imagine you’re Kansas and someone says you can have an extra $3 million a year for doing nothing except casting a yes vote. Of course you’re casting a yes vote. 

Never, ever doubt the power of free money.

From Todd: Is Duke the right place for David Cutcliffe? He gets the most out of what he’s got, but it feels like he could do more—or has he figured out the risk/reward, pay/performance balance in a way that’s right for him?

Duke is absolutely the right place for Cutcliffe. Yes, he could work somewhere with a little better football tradition. But he’s turned down such jobs in recent years. Unlike most coaches, Cutcliffe seems to have learned that when you find your bliss, you don’t give it up to chase something that may never actually be better.

Cutcliffe shouldn’t have been fired from Ole Miss following the 2004 season, but that likely taught him a lot about what happens when you mix money and unreasonable expectations. Duke’s expectations have risen because of him, but they’re still quite manageable. Meanwhile, his career record there of 62–67 with one Coastal Division title seemed impossible before he arrived. In the seasons between Fred Goldsmith taking the Blue Devils to the Hall of Fame Bowl in 1994 and Cutcliffe’s arrival prior to the 2008 season, Duke went 22-125. When you find a coach who can nearly triple your win percentage, you fight to keep him. And when you find a place that appreciates every win you tally, you stay there.

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