When Tua Tagovailoa rolled his ankle during the first half of Saturday's game against Tennessee, a shudder went through college football. Unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Alabama was suddenly without its superstar quarterback and the heartbeat of the team, who led the nation in Total QBR and had thrown for a sparkling 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions through seven games.
Out trotted Mac Jones and a tidal wave of doubt. Would Tagovailoa return? And if he didn't, how vulnerable would the Crimson Tide be in his absence? As Jones, a career backup, worked his way through some early-game jitters, throwing off his back foot and short-arming some of his first pass attempts, there was nothing but the unknown to dwell upon.
Jones would settle in, completing 6 of 11 passes for 72 yards, as Alabama leaned more on its running game and defense to beat rival Tennessee, 35-13. The next morning, Tagovailoa went under the knife for tightrope surgery to repair a high-ankle sprain. The prognosis, according to a news release from coach Nick Saban, was relatively positive: Tagovailoa would miss next weekend's game against Arkansas (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN), but a "full and speedy recovery" was expected.
With a bye week between the Arkansas game and a pivotal home game against No. 2 LSU, there's time for Tagovailoa to work his way back onto the field. It won't be easy, though. This same surgery, albeit on his other ankle, sidelined him four weeks -- not three -- last season. And by his own admission, he wasn't the same for several months afterward.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying it's time to get to know previously unknown Mac Jones. Last week, the most interesting note about the redshirt sophomore from Florida was that he once coached a sorority flag football team to a championship, whereas now he's the starter at Alabama and perhaps the most important Plan B in college football.
The good news, if you're Alabama, is that Jones is on campus at all. The two quarterbacks behind him might have famous relatives -- Taulia Tagovailoa is the younger brother of Tua, and Paul Tyson is the great-grandson of Paul "Bear" Bryant -- but they're nonetheless true freshmen with exactly one pass attempt between them. You wouldn't be wrong to take one look at Jones and wonder: In the age of the transfer portal, how many other former four-star quarterbacks would be willing to sit and wait their turn?
At this, FAU coach and former Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin chuckles knowingly.
"So many places now don't have quality backups, especially at the major places, because people assume since you're not the starter you should take your ball and go home," he told ESPN.
But Jones, Kiffin said, is different. It's what made him so refreshing to recruit out of high school. Not only was he bright and funny but he never once made a big deal about starting right away.
Kiffin thinks about the absurdity of it -- how Alabama once had the commitment of Georgia star quarterback Jake Fromm and how, when Fromm decommitted, it opened the door for Tagovailoa to commit. A month later, Jones gave his pledge as well and suddenly the Tide were flush with quarterbacks.
Remember, this was at a time when Alabama already had a QB who was on his way to becoming the first true freshman to win SEC Offensive Player of the Year since Herschel Walker rumbled between the hedges at Georgia in 1980. His name was Jalen Hurts.
"I've always thought of it as pretty cool that in one calendar year we had the three of them: Tua and Jalen -- two guys who are probably going to the Heisman ceremony -- and Mac," Kiffin said. "Obviously the other two got more publicity being the starter, but I always thought it said a lot about Mac.
"It says a lot that both came -- that Tua would first come to follow Jalen, and then, knowing Tua was committed, Mac would come also. It speaks to how competitive those two are when they'd come when everyone else was saying, 'Oh, don't go there.'"
Tua leaves game after apparent ankle injury
Tua Tagovailoa heads to the locker room in the second quarter after a Tennessee defender falls on his right ankle.
The truth, Kiffin said, is that Jones never asked about what the QB room would look like once he arrived at Alabama or where he'd fall on the depth chart. Kiffin assumes that Jones saw the success Hurts was having and was happy to wait his turn.
Make no mistake, though, Jones is a competitor.
Kiffin said that as a recruit Jones compared most closely with Fromm, who has gone on to start 35 games and throw for 63 touchdowns at Georgia.
"Very similar," Kiffin said of the two QBs. "Really good academic. Really sharp kids. Team leaders."
Asked for his scouting report, Kiffin said this: "Game manager in a good way. Some people say that in a bad way. When I say game manager, I mean a guy who's really sharp, can control everything, can get things right, protections right. That's what I felt like visiting and recruiting Jake was like, and when we got to Mac, I felt Mac was very similar to that -- all about football, just obsessed with the position and on top of that a really good player."
It just so happens that we haven't seen enough of Jones to know how accurate that assessment is yet. He redshirted his first season when Hurts and Tagovailoa were battling behind the scenes. Then he won MVP of Alabama's spring game as a redshirt freshman only to trade sitting behind Hurts for sitting behind Tagovailoa.
Saban has described Jones as a "bright guy" who has the attitude to "play winning football at the position." But whatever progress he has made in practice hasn't been evident to the public. All 20 of his appearances have been in mop-up duty. He has taken 157 snaps and attempted only 45 passes, 25 of which he has completed, for 360 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Saturday will mark Jones' first career start. And who knows? Maybe it will be his last. Maybe this will be his one shining moment at Alabama.
Lord knows Tide fans want to see Tagovailoa back in a uniform against LSU on Nov. 9 and then the rest of the way this season. Should Tua Tagovailoa leave early for the NFL when the year is over, it's not guaranteed that Jones would beat out Taulia Tagovailoa or Tyson or even Bryce Young, the No. 1 QB prospect in the country who flipped his commitment from USC to Alabama and is expected to enroll early in January.
But for now, the uncertainty of Tagovailoa's recovery and the development of famous teenage quarterbacks doesn't matter. This is Jones' time to show what he has learned waiting behind two Heisman Trophy candidates. It's his time to show whether the wait has been worth it.