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How Trevor Lawrence is a new and scary kind of Bama-beating QB

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We’ve seen guys play out of their minds in wins against the Tide, but that was a regular day for Clemson’s freshman.

Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Trevor Lawrence and Clemson just beat Alabama’s ass. In some ways, it’s unlike any Bama loss since even before Nick Saban inherited the Tide in 2007 and got the machine rolling in 2008. By scoring margin, it was Bama’s worst loss since 1998 and Saban’s worst since 2006 with the Dolphins.

But when we’re talking about the quarterback play that has beaten Saban, we’re talking about different types of winning performances.

Think about all the classic tropes about what a team supposedly needs out of its QB in order to beat Saban. You have to have a guy scrambling around, getting lucky bounces, and playing the best game of his life out of nowhere.

Lawrence did it his way. All of the following are true about his play on Monday night:

  • He’s an established, good quarterback with a previous body of work.
  • He didn’t have an out-of-his-mind performance or get tons of breaks, other than his insanely athletic teammates making plays similar to ones they’d made all year.
  • He didn’t have to put the entire team on his back.
  • He’s not a true dual threat.

That puts Lawrence’s win in rarified air among the QBs who’ve beaten Saban from 2008 onward.

It was a great performance, but within the context of lots of great performances by him and his team all year.

Just being straight up good isn’t supposed to be enough to beat Alabama, much less by four touchdowns. A walk down memory lane shows what it usually requires.

Bama-beating QBs who, out of nowhere, played the game of their lives

Career 58 percent passer Stephen Garcia (South Carolina, 2010) had an 85 percent mark on a day when his team woulda beaten the damn Patriots. The 72 percent completion rate by Trevor Knight (Oklahoma, 2013’s Sugar Bowl) also remains stunning.

Each showed a level of promise that would never be realized again. Knight ended up being benched and transferring. Garcia ended up getting benched and kicked off the team. Perhaps each had to make one-day deals with the devil in order to vanquish the Tide.

Perhaps that’s how Future Mr. Irrelevant Chad Kelly (Ole Miss, 2015) was able to pull off Pure Chad Kelly Shit in his first road game as a starter.

His predecessor, Bo Wallace (Ole Miss, 2014), can relate.

Wallace in 2014 threw for three touchdowns and no interceptions. All three of his touchdowns came in the second half. Per ESPN, Wallace is also just one of just five players to throw three touchdowns without a pick against Alabama in the last 10 seasons.

It was Dr. Bo’s third crack at the Tide, but the first time he’d had a QB rating over 97 (158) against them.

And then there’s Cardale Jones (Ohio State, 2014 Playoff), who beat the Tide in his second start ever (!) en route to a national championship in his third (!!) ... as one does. Jones didn’t initially come to Ohio State to play school, but he did come to play a fleetingly elite brand of quarterbacking. And just like Knight, it was impossible to deliver on the inevitable hype that followed.

The transcendent players who had to carry an entire team

Cam Newton (Auburn, 2010) and Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M, 2012) had their Heisman Moments against Alabama. Newton led a tremendous, 24-point comeback on the road, back when it wasn’t yet the norm for a QB to have 55 touches in a game with about half of them as a runner. Manziel backed up his 2012 showing with even gaudier stats in the next year’s loss to Alabama, but the 2012 game featured a QB rating of 167.3. That’s the highest any Bama beater would have until Lawrence’s 184.5.

And Deshaun Watson (Clemson, 2016 title game)? Despite Bama’s best efforts to literally break him ...

... Watson executed a last-second, go-ahead score. It took the second-most passes of his entire career and the third-most passing yards. But damnit, he got the job done.

The Voltron

Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, LSU, 2010
Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, LSU, 2011

Wanna know what it takes to be the only quarterback to beat Saban’s Alabama two years in a row? You have to be two people. It is clearly too great a task for any one mortal man.

LSU used a QB semi-rotation, and it worked great for a while. Guess what happened when they went back to just one in the third meeting against Alabama with a national title on the line?

23: Length of LSU’s longest drive. Nineteen of those yards came on a pass to Odell Beckham, Jr. The next three plays produced four yards, and LSU punted.

22.7: Percentage of LSU’s snaps that went for a loss.

1.3: Average gain on Jordan Jefferson’s 21 pass attempts. It was just brutal to watch after a while.

800: Days since a team had failed to conclude a single drive in their opponent’s territory.

The guy who got the help of the Kick Six

Sometimes you need an act of God. Nick Marshall (Auburn, 2013) certainly fit the frequently discussed role of Multi-Talented QB Who Frustrates Nick Saban’s Orderly Defense ...

... but there’s a good chance his performance only mattered because of this:

The most Lawrence-like performance, sort of

In one way, Tim Tebow (Florida, 2008)’s SEC title game win was similar to Lawrence’s win. He played a decent game by his lofty standards, and had tons of talent all around him that also played well in a multi-score win.

But his rushing ability (17 attempts) gave Florida’s offense a dimension unlike 2018 Clemson’s. Tebow in 2008 was the first in a long line of evidence that you had to have a true running QB to beat Saban.

Two guys who beat a Bama team that folks will swear just wasn’t ready to play, for various reasons

Brian Johnson (Utah, 2008’s Sugar Bowl) sprinted to a 21-0 lead. He played well, and Utah coasted to a 31-17 win. But remember, it’s because Bama didn’t care, according to what we’re required to say when a non-power beats a power. We know Johnson and Utah did, though.

Following that first loss, Saban noted that his club still was the only team to have an undefeated regular season in a “real BCS conference.”

The comment wasn’t aimed specifically at the Utes, but it clearly motivated them.

”From my perspective, I was angry, not just because of what Saban said but everything that was out there,” Johnson said. “I just felt like we were being completely disrespected.”

And then there’s Jarrett Stidham (Auburn, 2017), who beat a Bama defense hobbled by injury and put the score out of reach with one of the longest rushes of his career. You’ll understand why that matters when you see this:

Bama supporters can’t exactly claim “we just didn’t care enough” or “that average QB only had a good game because we were hurt” about a 28-point loss to an excellent QB, though.

And then there’s Trevor Lawrence: a good quarterback who barely had to break a sweat.

A slick 20 of 32, 347 yards, three TDs, no picks, no sacks, and only a handful of rushing yards, all behind an astounding job by his offensive line and complemented by a defense that matched his clutch play.

That’s a stat line on par with almost all his other games — if you ignore the name of the opponent for a moment.

Yeah, he got the bonkers catch from Justyn Ross. But Lawrence was already making these types of throws (his ball placement is immaculate):

Lawrence didn’t need out-of-nowhere heroics. He didn’t need to try things he’d never done before. He didn’t put together a box score that’ll stand out like a sore thumb on his career game log. Clemson didn’t need to run him into the ground. It never felt like he was Clemson’s only hope.

The Tigers beat a supposedly bulletproof Bama team in part because he, like the rest of his team, was perfectly competent. There are five-stars who have realized their potential and been good enough to beat Alabama. But Newton, Tebow, and Watson weren’t able to do it as true freshmen.

It should scare you that that’s all this team needed to assert its will over the Tide. Their good is currently better than everyone else’s great, and Lawrence expertly manned the controls with his sophomore and junior years still to go.