This is a tale of two quarterbacks, one from the fancy Alabama Crimson Tide, the other from the lower profile Hokies of Virginia Tech.
Both Jalen Hurts of Alabama and Ryan Willis of Virginia Tech began this season on the bench, afterthoughts behind more glamorous signal callers.
Hurts took the Tide into the national championship game a year ago but when he struggled in that contest, he was lifted for freshman backup Tua Tagovailon. Alabama won that game and Tagovailon kept the job and emerged this season as a favorite for the Heisman Trophy.
Willis, who transferred from Kansas after losing 10 straight starts there, expected to spend this season sitting behind Josh Jackson, one of the country’s highest profile quarterbacks.
But football is often unpredictable with twists and turns along the way and when the season reached its conclusion, the two backups turned out to be pivotal in the success of their teams.
Alabama was locked in a life-and-death battle with Georgia for the SEC championship and this time it was Tagovailon’s turn to struggle. Alabama was trailing by a touchdown in the fourth quarter when their quarterback’s foot was stepped on by a teammate. Tagovailon had to be helped off the field.
After a season on the sideline, Hurts had his chance to save Alabama’s season and he delivered. First, he directed a 69-yard drive, capping it with a touchdown pass to tie the game. Then he brought the Tide right back down the field, scampering 15 yards into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
The 35-28 victory clinched the conference title for Alabama and insured the No. 1 ranked Tide a spot in the college playoffs semifinals. Virginia Tech had more modest ambitions but achieving them was just as satisfying.
The Hokies’ season was rocked when Jackson, their star quarterback, went down with a broken leg in the season’s third game, a disheartening loss to Old Dominion.
That turned the team over to Willis, whose resume was not exactly inspiring. A three-star prospect out of high school, Willis signed on with Kansas but struggled badly there. The Jayhawks never won a game with him and after two years, he chose to transfer to Virginia Tech, where he was a walk-on with no guarantees.
After a redshirt season on the sidelines, Willis started this season as Jackson’s backup but was thrust into action. The Hokies struggled to a 4-6 record after 10 games and seemed doomed to end the country’s longest bowl-game streak at 25.
Then Willis directed a dramatic comeback victory over longtime rival Virginia. Needing one more win to be bowl-eligible, the Hokies added a game against Marshall. Both teams had lost scheduled September games against Carolina rivals because of Hurricane Florence.
With Willis throwing four touchdown passes in the first half, giving him 22 for the season, Virginia Tech cruised to a 41-20 victory and reached the six-win minimum for bowl eligibility.
Next for the Crimson Tide and the Hokies are bowl games, Alabama in the high-profile Orange Bowl, Virginia Tech in the less prestigious Military Bowl. Both schools can thank a couple of unlikely heroes, backup quarterbacks Jalen Hurts and Ryan Willis, for their good fortune.