It's early November, 2016. An undefeated Alabama, Clemson, Washington (?!) and Michigan (?!?!) stand atop the Week 10 AP Poll -- those second-ranked Wolverines are about to waltz into Kinnick Stadium and get ground out by the unranked Hawkeyes; the third-ranked Tigers foolishly decided to play a football game against NFL Draft sleeper QB Nate Peterman and the Pitt Panthers, who will hit a game-winner in South Carolina; the fourth-ranked Huskies will catch a surging USC Trojans team, led by redshirt freshman QB Sam Darnold, right in the jaw, losing 26-13.
In a November mock draft, Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer will go second overall; Michigan S Jabrill Peppers will go third, and QB Patrick Mahomes will go outside the Top-80.
It's early November, 2017. The turnover chain is resurrected in South Florida; never more fervently than in a 41-8 throat kicking of the undefeated Notre Dame Fighting Irish on National Television. Auburn and 2018 NFL Draft top QB Jarrett Stidham pile drive an undefeated, top-ranked Georgia squad led by QB Jake Fromm, who has officially wrested the starting job from incumbent QB Jacob Eason. UCF is quietly (loudly) in the midst of a national title season.
In a November mock draft, four QBs will go in the first round -- ACC Offensive Player of the Year, Lamar Jackson, will not be one of them; Heisman-winning Baker Mayfield will go 28th overall. This mock is distilled from NFL executive and scout input -- it is not written from third-party expertise.
It's early November, 2018. 8 Top-25 teams just lost to unranked squads, and Purdue and Tyler Trent had recently dropped the hammer on Dwayne Haskins' undefeated Buckeyes in one of the most memorable and emotional college football games of recent memory. Future Oakland Athletic outfield Kyler Murray has just scored 24 total touchdowns and accumulated almost 2,000 all-purpose yards in a five-games stretch of Heisman-worthy dominance.
In a November mock draft (this one is mine), Murray won't even be mentioned. Neither will Daniel Jones, a future Top-10 pick at quarterback. Mack Wilson, Kelvin Harmon, Amani Oruwariye, and David Edwards were all first-rounders -- none would even go on Day 2 of the 2019 NFL Draft in April. (I'll be meanest to myself, after unfairly picking on some others' mocks in the previous years.)
If history tells us anything, it tells us that we're wrong. We've failed to get the first QB off the board correct in the last three years, assuming these mocks reflect a general consensus expectation -- never has the position been more volatile. The landscape is shifting rapidly, to include athletes with running ability previously undervalued and untapped by the NFL; to eschew robotic pocket passers whose greatest strength is avoiding turnovers at the cost of explosive plays and scoring drives. The league is getting better at sculpting offenses around passers, and that's thrusting more signal-callers into the first round, spurring on the hiring of younger and innovative offensive minds at head coach; shortening the developmental time frame as owners rush to get the next leg up in the weapons race to the Super Bowl.
And as scheme goes, as player valuation goes, so must the NFL Draft -- the market for that desperately needed, extremely valuable young talent -- must go. Everything is more volatile, more variable, further up in the air. And that's fun, but that also brings doubt to our narrow focus on this week's game in Tuscaloosa: No. 3 Alabama hosting No. 2 LSU in the biggest regular-season college football game of recent memory. Playoff hopes are on the line, the SEC championship is on the line, uproarious bragging rights, recruiting battles, and an unmatched blaze of victory and glory.
And for Tua and Burrow, QB1 may hang in the balance as well. At this stage, those are the two leaders in the clubhouse for the honor of being the first passer -- and very likely the first player -- off the board come April, with Oregon senior Justin Herbert now in a forgotten and distant third. For Tua, it has been a story of consistency, of known excellence and cathedral expectations -- which may prove a disservice to him in the end. For Burrow, it has been a story of combustion, of unknown excellence and uninhibited growth from the pit of a 29-0 faceplant against Alabama last season. They arrived in wildly different ways, which is why the results of Saturday's game seem so impactful: because of the storylines a victory will perpetrate.
Tua, who suffered his first and only loss at the hands of a Top-10 opponent last year in the National title game, will seem the big brother who can still smack little bro around, even if he finally started passing the football down the field, even if a new offensive coordinator has opened up the playbook and given him space to sling it. LSU's defensive secondary, captained by senior CB Kristian Fulton and junior S Grant Delpit, is the best Tua and his cadre of NFL receivers has and likely will face this season -- the perennial Alabama doubts of beating up on inferior competition will be laid to rest with a classic Tagovailoa performance.
Joe, who suffered his first and only loss at the hands of a Top-10 opponent last year against Alabama, will seem the undaunted, the frontiersman who finally broke the unbreakable in slaying Alabama; what is to this point a meteoric rise will become intergalactic. Alabama's defensive secondary, captained by senior CB Trevon Diggs and junior S Xavier McKinney, is the best Burrow and his cadre of NFL receivers has and likely will face this season, though strong Burrow games against a healthy Texas and stingy Florida should not be ignored. The hype train with Burrow is already begging to jump off the rails and into the stratosphere, and he brings all the momentum into Alabama on Saturday.
If Burrow wins, how could he not be QB1? And if Tua wins, how did we ever think that anyone but Tua was going to be QB1?
These are the questions, and as previous Novembers have taught us, they're likely the wrong ones. In November, in the season, we're wrapped up in narratives -- by January and February, we'll have extricated ourselves from the swells of college football, the magnetism of belief and participation in the impossible, and we'll have nothing but cold, hard film to grind. That film, as always, will determine where these players go -- at least, to some degree. Narrative has a place, as it sculpts the opinions of those coaches and executives and teammates that the league seems to value; and narrative helps build good play, as confident QBs play loose and aggressive and fun.
So QB1 doesn't really hang in the balance of Saturday's game, while I'm sure the winner will be exalted to that status. But even if the scoreboard doesn't reflect it, the reality of the film will likely fall somewhere on a more nuanced, multipolar spectrum: both can play well, both can play poorly, both can be somewhere in between. This game matters in that top-flight NFL QB prospects are playing top-flight NFL-loaded secondaries, and this game matters because offensive captains are stepping onto huge stages with emotions running rampant.
It is not the end-all, be-all. But when it comes to stock-defining games, they really don't get much bigger than this.