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Seven-Step Drop: Welcome to the Dawn of the Two-QB Era

Dwayne Haskins, Tate Martell Ohio State Buckeyes College Football

Dwayne Haskins, Tate Martell Ohio State Buckeyes College Football

That old adage of having two quarterbacks meaning you don’t have one at all? You can throw that out the window completely this season. With precious few exceptions, if you’re a College Football Playoff favorite in 2018, it seems that you have not one quarterback to play, but two.

And two pretty good ones at that. There’s no quarterback controversy at these places so as much as there’s quarterback management.

You can start with the most-discussed of these so-called battles on the defending champions. All offseason long we discussed what Nick Saban was going to do and how he would utilize Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts. Now we know.

Tagovailoa is firmly the starter and he looks even better than the flashes we saw in 2017. He’s thrown six touchdowns in limited work and is averaging more than 13 yards per attempt. The Crimson Tide’s wide receiving corps is as deep as ever and it’s readily apparent that the ceiling with Tagovailoa slinging passes around is about as high as ever — perhaps the best offense Saban has ever had even.

The bigger takeaway from Alabama’s destruction of a quality Arkansas State side was we have a firm role for Hurts going forward too. He’ll come on in relief at some point in the first half and the offense will take advantage of his running ability to add another dimension, especially down in the red zone. His package of plays will probably vary at times but safe to say he’s looking at a minimum of 15-20 snaps each week that will scale up depending on the score.

More important: He’s almost assuredly not going to redshirt. Yes, Hurts still has two games left if he wanted to be held out and not have a year of eligibility taken away but he would not have trotted out onto the field in a game that was already a rout if he was going to redshirt. He’s playing and, by the judge of it, he’s going to have a role against every opponent. It works for the team, it works for Hurts.

"I think that both guys did a really good job," Saban said afterwards. "I think both guys played well. We made some big plays in the passing game, were pretty efficient."

The team right behind Saban’s in the polls also has a quarterback system and a clear idea as to how to manage it. Like the Tide, there’s a lot more upside with talented freshman Trevor Lawrence for Clemson but also a lower floor. Dabo Swinney understands that and through two games we also have a sense of how things are playing out for the Tigers.

Reliable veteran Kelly Bryant will start, Lawrence will come on and play most of the second quarter. It’s almost like an NFL preseason game setup. Whoever’s the hot hand will then get an increasing number of snaps depending on how the game plays out after halftime.

In their thrilling victory over Texas A&M, Lawrence showed why so many think he’s the future for the team by lofting a perfectly placed ball in the air for Tee Higgins to snag and promptly scoot 64 yards for a touchdown. That extended Clemson’s lead but the offense did not seem to click in Lawrence’s ensuing drives.

Enter Bryant, who came on after a turnover and threw a strike to Diondre Overton in tight coverage and then used his arms and legs to lead another long touchdown drive on the next possession. In a very hostile and loud environment at Kyle Field, the senior looked inordinately calm and composed. The moment wasn’t too big for him because he’d been in these kinds of situations.

Though it wasn’t pretty in the fourth quarter on both sides of the ball for Clemson, the Tigers wound up surviving their biggest test of the season. The ACC remains unlikely to test this group and the only tricky game on the upcoming slate might be that trip to Boston College. Swinney and company are still bringing this team — and especially the two quarterbacks — along with the idea of peaking in late December and early January. After a scare from the Aggies, they’re still on track to do so.

Things are a bit different at Georgia. Jake Fromm remains the steady hand under center and Kirby Smart shows no signs of going away from him at quarterback even if he is struggling at times. Fromm eventually righted the ship after a few early misfires as the Bulldogs put their foot down on South Carolina and pulled away to dispatch their biggest threat for the division title.

Though fans may clamor for Justin Fields at every opportunity, it’s pretty clear the offensive staff has a firm plan to bring along the freshman slowly. He got a taste of a road game in the SEC on Saturday but that’s about all it was. He’ll still have a package of plays that takes advantage of his ability to get outside the pocket but the aim is very much to make him a weapon to use against the Auburn’s and Alabama’s of the world when they need a spark much more than just getting reps for the sake of getting reps. Smart likes what he has in the quarterback room and has a good enough team that playing things conservative won’t wind up hurting them in the short term.

Things are a bit more muddled at Ohio State for reasons having more to do with the team’s lackluster schedule and less with the two players behind center. Dwayne Haskins has been impressive against two bad defenses and certainly gives the Buckeyes' offense the ability to beat just about any team in the country. It’s rapidly become clear why Joe Burrow transferred to LSU and despite all of the news out of the program last month, the team on the field has looked even better than many expected.

We’ll get a much better idea in Week 3 as to just how good this team will be when the Buckeyes take on a solid TCU team that has one of the best defensive minds in the game at head coach in Gary Patterson. As fun as it will be to see what the Horned Frogs have saved for Haskins and his talented backfield, it will be equally interesting to see how interim head coach Ryan Day utilizes backup Tate Martell down at JerryWorld.

In mop-up duty, the freshman from Las Vegas has flashed plenty of potential. He’s only thrown one incompletion this season and sliced up the Rutgers secondary on Saturday with a perfect 10-for-10 line for 121 yards and a touchdown. The added dimension he brings as a runner though — evidenced by that zagging 47-yard touchdown — really has a chance to bring a jolt off the bench.

It’s still very clearly Haskins’ team going forward but how Day (and when he returns, Urban Meyer) utilize Martell will be interesting to track. Will he be a change-of-pace guy going forward with a set package? Or is he simply the backup who comes on in blowouts? We don’t quite know yet but the speedy dual threat has certainly shown enough to get some run at OSU going forward. Two options are, of course, better than one for an elite roster like this and if nothing else makes opponents game plan for multiple looks.

Amid all these signal-caller situations, the one thing that has also struck me (at least, this early in the year) is how all the head coaches involved are... well, not botching things. By all accounts, from Alabama to Clemson, all the QBs involved are getting along and helping each other. We’ll see if that changes as we move through the season but it’s in stark contrast to a few years ago when Meyer opted to go with Cardale Jones before finally giving way to J.T. Barrett in 2015. That Buckeyes team remains one of the most talented ever to not win the national title and was a good example of waffling when making a plan to play both guys.

It seems everybody has lived and learned based on what went on in Columbus that season. In the process, utilizing two quarterbacks is now a feature and not a bug in the 2018 season among the elite national title contenders.

Six other takeaways from the first full weekend of college football:

2. Lackluster slate always produces some gems

If you were eyeing the schedule after opening week, the Week 2 games were... disappointing. A lot of FBS-vs-FCS matchups, a lot of bodybag games, a lot of unappealing matchups. If there’s anything we’ve come to figure out in this sport though, it’s that a lackluster slate on paper always gives us some unexpected thrillers. It’s like clockwork.

Georgia Tech and USF combined for 10 lead changes, had two kick returns for touchdowns and managed six scores of 15-plus yards. Navy and Memphis combined for a sneaky fun one in the rain. Kansas won — on the road! — for the first time in a decade. Kentucky ended decades of misery at the Swamp and didn’t collapse in the end either. UCLA and Oklahoma was much more interesting for a half than expected. Ball State gave Notre Dame four quarters of trouble. Kylin Hilll dazzled in the Little Apple and Eastern Michigan upset another Big Ten team. There was a classic in Lincoln, plus some remarkable comebacks by Colorado State and another that came up just short by Air Force.

Week 3 doesn’t light a fire much either in terms of the depth of appealing matchups so we can probably expect more of the same kind of fun again on Saturday.

3. Colorado-Nebraska was great. More please.

The Cornhuskers and Buffaloes staged one of the best games of the day in a matchup that had just a bit of everything. There was already intense interest in this one as the Scott Frost era got underway but for many of us, the nostalgia evoked by seeing those two iconic jerseys go at it again was so welcome in today’s age of rivalry games falling by the wayside.

Then to follow that up with a great performance from both Adrian Martinez (before getting injured) and Steven Montez, a number of impressive defensive plays and just an all-around fun back-and-forth affair? Well sign us up for more. Not just between these two old Big 8/Big 12 sides, but from rivals in new conferences across the sport.

Athletic directors take note, that atmosphere and game at Memorial Stadium was what college football is about no matter if you win or lose. Fans and neutral observers want more of these games, so it’s time to stop dragging feet (looking especially at you Texas/Texas A&M) and start scheduling more of these — hopefully not 15 years in the future but soon enough to keep that nostalgia strong among those going to the stadium itself.

Speaking of the Buffs, that was a huge win for Mike MacIntyre in what was shaping up to be a make-or-break season for him in Boulder. The offense always figured to be pretty good but the strides made on defense have really made this a much improved side that could be aiming higher than just making a bowl game in 2018. That wide-open Pac-12 South? Well, it looks even more open after this weekend. Speaking of which...

4. Herm!

Count me among the legions who scratched their heads over the hire of Herm Edwards at Arizona State. An NFL-lifer who hasn’t coached in over a decade would be key to reawakening a program that has been middling at best? Sure.

Well, Herm got an early laugh as the Sun Devils upset Michigan State in a surprisingly entertaining game given the 16-13 final score. The jury will remain out for Edwards long-term in Tempe given we still don’t know how consistently he’ll be able to recruit at a high level and the roster is largely stocked with Todd Graham recruits from a team that finished second in the division last year. A 2-0 start and an upset of a top-15 team bodes well though.

In fact, that result on Saturday night probably makes ASU the favorite in the division. Manny Wilkins to N’Keal Harry might be the most dangerous combo on the West Coast and that defense is for real. Edwards’ hire of Danny Gonzales as defensive coordinator was sneaky good at the time. The veteran coach is a riser to keep an eye on and his freshman linebacker Merlin Robertson already looks like a future star. That was an all-around effort to gut out a win against a good team with a lot of experience on both sides of the ball.

It also doesn’t hurt that the Pac-12 South has been thoroughly unimpressive so far in 2018. Utah struggled to put away an overmatched Northern Illinois team on Saturday and their crossover slate is difficult to say the least. Arizona is a hot mess at 0-2, USC is far from a solid football team despite their talent level (with questionable coaching) and UCLA is very much in a rebuilding mode. Colorado has been solid so far but there’s still some hesitation in fully trusting them to have a season like they did two years ago.

So to the surprise of everybody outside of Arizona State, Herm not only has his Sun Devils ready to play, but in a position to do big things sooner than expected.

5. AAC off to a great start

Nobody was smiling on Saturday more than Mike Aresco. The American had a heck of an afternoon as they took down not one but three Power 5 teams — all in impressive fashion. Houston continues to showcase the best player in the country in Ed Oliver and demolished Khalil Tate and Arizona while USF got contributions from all three phases to beat a pesky Georgia Tech team. Even East Carolina, which seemed left for dead after losing to NC A&T last week, beat an awful North Carolina that at last check still belonged to the ACC. Add in Cincinnati’s win at UCLA and the AAC is doing the job in the non-conference slate for the most part.

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Maybe even more important? The Mountain West fell to 1-9 vs. the Power 5 this season and the gap between the two leagues remains wide in terms of overall strength. Boise State still gets the slight nod as being better than UCF in the race for the Group of 5 bid but if that gap narrows any more, the Knights will certainly be able to claim superiority based on a slightly stronger conference schedule.

It’s still early in the year but it seems like we’ll be hearing more and more about the so-called “Power Six” moving forward.

6. The SEC East still runs through Georgia, ditto the Big Ten West with Wisconsin

We’re not ready to crown the Bulldogs just yet in the SEC East two weeks into the season — given how injuries can always pop up — but... it’s a safe assumption at this point. Not only did they run over the division’s second-best team, the rest of the league looks like they’ll hardly put up a fight at this point. Bring on Auburn and Alabama sure, but that might be the extent of truly tough tests the national runners-up face until the postseason.

Dan Mullen’s rebuilding job at Florida is off to a shaky start with a roster that was already behind the eight ball. Even with Kentucky ending three decades of misery at the Swamp, the Wildcats still don’t quite have the weapons, Benny Snell Jr. aside, to strike fear in you. Vanderbilt is off to another good start but one bad game sent them spiraling last year and Tennessee has a host of issues to sort out even if they look far more competent and ready to play under Jeremy Pruitt. Missouri has not yet been tested but nobody is going to bet on a Derek Dooley offense to come through against top-notch opponents.

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As easy as the path to Atlanta looks for UGA though, Wisconsin might just have them beat in the B1G West. Though the Badgers took their time in putting away New Mexico on Saturday, Purdue lost to a MAC team, Northwestern went on the road and laid an egg at Duke and Nebraska might be starting a walk-on at QB for a few weeks. Illinois and Minnesota are 2-0 but of the pair, only the Gophers can even say they have a chance to be pesky. That trip to Iowa City next week does loom as the most challenging game in the division but nobody who saw the Hawkeyes' offense against Iowa State can have much faith at this moment.

In short, there are more than a few teams around the country that could find their greatest competition this season during practice on Wednesday.

7. Hard to make sense of the ACC

Clemson is also a prohibitive favorite to win the ACC but outside of their win in College Station, it was a rather dim weekend for the league. Georgia Tech lost, North Carolina looks beyond awful, Pitt was plastered by Penn State, Louisville struggled in the weather and Wake gave up 345 yards to a non-elite QB named Flacco. Duke posted a really nice win over Northwestern but got the awful news on Sunday that star corner Mark Gilbert is out for the year and QB Daniel Jones will miss at least a month with a collar bone injury.

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And then there’s Florida State, which garnered national attention late into the night as they battled mighty Samford (not Stanford, Samford) and need a few breaks late to survive. That effort has to put the season-opening win by Virginia Tech into question a little bit too and Miami is no sure thing at Toledo on Saturday either.

It could make for a thrilling season when conference play begins in earnest but will not do wonders to the league’s reputation nationally going forward.

Stat of the Week

Prior to last season, Eastern Michigan was 0-38 against the Big Ten in 126 years of football. They are now on a two-game winning streak after beating Rutgers in 2017 and Purdue on Saturday.

Tweet of the Week

Superlatives of the Week

Best player: Kylin Hill, Mississippi State

Heisman five: 1. Ed Oliver (Houston), 2. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), 3. Kyler Murray (Oklahoma), 4. Will Grier (West Virginia) 5. Dwayne Haskins (Ohio State)

Projected final four: 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Ohio State, 4. Oklahoma

Team(s) of the week: Kentucky, Kansas

Honorary Les Miles Goats of the week: Kevin Sumlin, Dan Mullen, Larry Fedora, Willie Taggart and Chad Morris

Quote of the week: "The only guy I'd say I'm disappointed in is Billy Beane. I wish he'd given the kid more money so he'd come out. If there was a little bit bigger prize, maybe No. 1 (Kyler Murray) wasn't out there." — Chip Kelly

Play of the Week

Bonus Non-Play of the Week

Super 16

I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and will be releasing my ballot here every week. Here’s my ballot heading into Week 3.

1. Alabama

2. Ohio State

3. Auburn

4. Georgia

5. Clemson

6. Oklahoma

7. Wisconsin

8. Washington

9. Mississippi State

10. Notre Dame

11. Boise State

12. Stanford

13. TCU

14. Penn State

15. West Virginia

16. Michigan

Best of the rest: UCF, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, LSU, Arizona State, Oregon, Boston College, Colorado, Duke

Pre-snap Reads

Ohio State vs. TCU (Arlington, Texas)

This is the final game of Urban Meyer’s suspension and also the Buckeyes’ toughest. They’ve not really played anybody and while the same could be said of TCU, the Horned Frogs didn’t quite look ready for an elite team by slogging through a win against SMU. Gary Patterson figures to have something saved for this one but OSU still looks like they’ll roll at JerryWorld.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: TCU
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Ohio State

Washington at Utah

Both teams posted rather unconvincing wins in Week 2 and, given the defenses in this one, yards and points will be hard to come by. You trust the Huskies' offense just a bit more than the Utes at this point so they get the slight edge. Rice-Eccles will be rocking and this one could stay close into the second half before a big play or two helps UW create a bit of distance on the scoreboard.

NCAAF Top 25 Rankings: Utah
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

Boise State at Oklahoma State

The Broncos look as good as anybody in the country save Alabama. The offense is legit with Brett Rypien as sharp as ever and the wide receiving corps really stepping up with big play after big play. OSU is still in a bit of a rebuilding phase but will rise to the occasion in this one and keep it close into the fourth quarter. Boise eventually leaves Stillwater with a win but it will be hard-earned.

College Football Top 25: Oklahoma State
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Boise State

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.