Nick Saban previews Tua-Mac Round 1 as Dolphins-Patriots’ rivalry enters new Crimson phase

Former Alabama QBs Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones are set to face off for the first time as pros. Who has the upper hand? Nick Saban weighs in.

Nick Saban knows the precise number — 70 — of how many Alabama players are currently in NFL locker rooms. It is a source of pride. It’s also a great recruiting tool. Certainly, it’s easy to grow numb to the sheer volume of high-level talent the school churns out. But even the most jaded observer will admit that what’s about to happen on Sunday in the matchup featuring Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones in Foxborough, Massachusetts, is special.

Former Alabama quarterbacks set to face off for the first time in the pros

Dolphins-Patriots will provide the ultimate showcase for how far Alabama has come as a quarterback factory when Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones — ‘Bama’s last two quarterbacks — will face off for the first of potentially dozens of times.

“Both guys were great guys,” Saban told Pro Football Network Wednesday. “Both guys did a great job for us here. We’re rooting for both guys. I hope both of them play extremely well. They’re very capable.

“Tua obviously had his year last year to play and develop and learn and grow,” Saban added. “Mac is certainly in that situation now. I wish them both very well. I hope they both do extremely well, both in this game and in their career. But somebody’s going to have to win and somebody’s going to have to lose.”

In that way, it’s different — to a degree. While Tua and Mac meet as opponents for the first time Sunday, it would be wrong to call the divisional showdown the beginning of a new rivalry.

Rather, it’s the extension of one that began in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, four years ago.

Tua, Mac rivalry began as freshmen in 2017 at Alabama

The two quarterbacks arrived at Alabama as four-star freshmen in 2017 with vastly different expectations.

Tua was the golden boy, the one who was destined to replace Jalen Hurts. The question was always when, not if (that baton passed at halftime of the national title game of Tua’s first year). Jones, meanwhile, was the ultimate grinder who only became a first-round consideration after Tua left for the NFL.

Jones was a smart, diligent teammate and backup who kept Alabama in the hunt during Tua’s multiple injuries.

But that doesn’t mean he was some pushover — far from it. The spark that convinced Bill Belichick to take him 15th overall in April was obvious from Day 1 at Alabama.

“Mac is fiercely competitive,” Tua said Wednesday. “Mac is a ‘put my head down, I’m going to work and I’m going to do whatever I can, no matter who is on the other side, I’m going to do whatever I can to beat you’ guys.”

Even if the competition was at a glorified carnival game, they were competing. During lulls in action, the young quarterbacks would have accuracy contests at ‘Bama practice. If Tua put nine out of 10 footballs into the target net, Jones was determined to make all 10.

Fast-forward four years, and Jones is the New England Patriots‘ Week 1 starter for many of the same reasons. He is a quick study who became the best quarterback in a camp that included a former MVP in Cam Newton.

The Patriots have a playoff roster. Belichick wouldn’t waste that on a developmental year for a project quarterback. The expectation is to win — beginning Sunday against Miami.

Expectations are high for young quarterbacks to compete in the AFC East

Together, Tua, Jones, and Hurts did a lot of winning in the two years they spent together at Alabama. It’s nostalgic to go back now and look at pictures of the three of them from 2017 and 2018 — all so much younger, oblivious to what the future would hold.

“It’s pretty cool,” Jones said Wednesday. “We were all pretty close. We were there to help each other. … I learned from them. Hopefully they learned something from me.”

It’s remarkable to consider that that quarterback room produced three of the NFL’s 32 Week 1 starting quarterbacks — particularly since Alabama only recently became a QB hotbed.

“I don’t think it’s just quarterbacks,” Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores said Wednesday. “They have position players throughout — offensive linemen, defensive linemen, linebackers, safeties, corners, receivers, tight ends.

“They do a good job there of recruiting and then coaching the players so they can have success at their level, which gives them an opportunity to play in this league, and they’ve had a lot of success in this league as well,” Flores added. “Coach [Nick] Saban has done a great job. His staff has done a great job. They’ve done a great job recruiting, and we’ve got a few ‘Bama players on our team. We’re pleased and happy with those players.

“They came to us with good fundamentals, good techniques, knowledge of the game, knowledge of situations, and that’s a testament to the program they were at.”

Jones seized his opportunity at Alabama following Tua’s departure to the NFL

Tua was widely viewed as the most naturally gifted of the three. He replaced Hurts as the starter in 2018, prompting Hurts to transfer the following cycle. Jones stuck it out for four seasons, despite throwing just 13 passes his first two falls on campus.

But after Tua jumped to the NFL in 2020, Jones seized the opportunity. He set the NCAA’s single-season record for completion percentage (77.4) and passer rating (203.1) and led the Crimson Tide to their 18th national title.

That means Jones put up better numbers than anyone, even Tua. This raises the obvious question — how much of Tua’s success in college was a result of playing for Alabama?

And might Jones actually be the better talent?

Dolphins WR Jaylen Waddle named Jones his preferred Alabama passer

Wide receiver Jaylen Waddle has caught passes from both, and prior to the draft, named Jones when asked to ID his preferred Alabama passer.

Waddle, like Jones, will make his NFL debut Sunday, he’ll just be playing alongside Tua. It’s an ironic byproduct of the Dolphins’ decision to draft Waddle sixth overall.

Waddle laughed it off when reminded about that faux pas Wednesday: “I mean [you’re] going with someone you played [the most] with,” he said. Make no mistake: Tua and Jones will forever be compared going forward. And given Jones’ fiery streak, it would be foolish to assume Tua will have the better career.

“I think the quarterback gets too much credit when you win,” Saban added. “I think they also get too much criticism when you lose. It’ll certainly be a team effort for both teams, in terms of who has the most success in the game.”

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