TUSCALOOSA — The outpouring of support flowed across Mac Jones’ Twitter timeline almost as quickly as the Auburn fans descended on Pat Dye Field after Alabama’s 48-45 loss Saturday night.
“So Proud of you @MacJones_10,” former Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, a backup with the NFL's Houston Texans, posted on the Twitter social media platform. “Hold your head high brother. One hell of a game! Super proud that you’re rocking that 10 for the BEST damn school in the Nation. #RTR4LIFE”
Added former Alabama quarterback Jake Coker: “Proud of you @MacJones_10, you played your (butt) off tonight and made a lot of people proud! Looking forward to watching you over the next couple of years buddy! Keep it up!”
As costly as his two interception returns for touchdowns were in Alabama’s second straight loss inside Jordan-Hare Stadium — “Those two turnovers ended up being pretty big, and that’s on me,” Jones said after the game — neither dampened or overshadowed the overall positive perception of Jones’ Iron Bowl performance.
In his first road start and just third career start overall, Jones answered a lot of questions Saturday and, in doing so, just may have positioned himself well heading into the offseason competition to be the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback next season.
Since taking over for an injured Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama’s strong-armed junior quarterback many expect will still leave for the NFL early despite his recent hip surgery, Jones has been a model of efficiency, combining for 845 yards and 10 touchdowns to two interceptions on 54-of-73 (74 percent) passing in his three starts.
While Jones’ stats against a stout Auburn defense were impressive in of themselves — throwing for a career-high 335 yards and four touchdowns, three to fellow sophomore Jaylen Waddle — it was his ability to deftly navigate the offense to a pair of touchdown drives following each of his interceptions that really turned heads Saturday.
“I thought Mac played really well,” head coach Nick Saban said Saturday. “We had (515) yards of offense, the offensive line did a great job of blocking, we had great balance, we were able to run the ball effectively in the game. (Jones) threw it and made some big plays. We struggled in the red zone a bit, and I think that was the difference in the game. But the two picks for touchdowns, those are the kind of plays you never want to happen and I’m sure Mac wishes he had those back. … But I thought overall he did a really, really good job in the game.”
After his first pick-six gave the rival Tigers a 17-10 advantage, Jones capitalized off a fumble recovery to lead the Tide offense on a four-play, 37-yard scoring drive that was started by a 33-yard strike to an in-stride DeVonta Smith down the left sideline. Three plays later, Jones expertly avoided heavy Auburn pressure by stepping up in the pocket and found Henry Ruggs III in the back of the end zone to retake the lead 24-17 less than a minute and a half later (1:24).
“That’s just who Mac is,” Waddle said Saturday. “Maybe the media or outside people don’t know that, but that’s the kind of character he has. Like at practice, he’s got poise. That’s him.”
But arguably the biggest development was Jones’ apparent connection with Waddle, who is expected to be Alabama’s top receiver next season after the projected junior class exodus to the NFL. The pair showed great timing and on-field familiarity Saturday, hooking up four times for 98 yards and three touchdowns, including a beautiful over-the-shoulder catch on Jones’ 28-yard scoring strike to go ahead 45-40 a little more than a minute into the fourth quarter.
Trailing again 48-45 with 8:03 remaining, Jones once again led Alabama down the field, immediately moving across midfield with a 28-yard pass to Ruggs on first-and-15 after the first of three costly false starts on the Tide's final offensive possession. Jones also scrambled for a pair of first downs, the first going for 18 yards on fourth-and-7 to get into the red zone, but the drive stalled after his third-and-goal pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage before a 30-yard field goal try clanked off the left upright for no points.
Although there are no runner-up ribbons in football, Jones showed flashes of star potential not many expected from the former three-star product when he signed with Alabama in the same class as eventual Heisman Trophy contender Tua Tagovailoa.
That said, it could be another five-star sensation that gives Jones his biggest competition for next year’s starting quarterback job.
Highly-touted California product Bryce Young, rated the nation’s No. 6 overall player according to 247Sports.com’s composite rankings, is viewed by many talent evaluators as the next Tagovailoa given his undersized 5-foot-11 frame and elite-level arm talent that has drawn early comparisons to Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray. Leading one of the nation’s premier programs, Young has combined for 62 total touchdowns and more than 4,500 total yards this season for Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif., including 4,123 passing yards and 52 scores while completing 73 percent of his passes.
Of course, those are prep numbers, and won’t account for much at all on Alabama’s Thomas-Drew practice fields.
The Tide also has two talented true freshmen who will factor into next season’s quarterback race in Taulia Tagovailoa — the younger brother of Alabama’s former starter — and fellow legacy Paul Tyson, the great-grandson of legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
But while the field to be next year's starter at quarterback could get a bit crowded, Jones is the only one capable of further aiding his own stake in the matter.
It's in Alabama's upcoming bowl game, wherever it is, where Jones' ability to be next season's No. 1 quarterback will be tested most as he attempts to lead a disappointed and downtrodden two-loss Crimson Tide to one final win in 2019.
"I think we have a lot of fight, and we’ll bounce back,” Jones said Saturday. “We’ll practice hard and we’ll learn from this. I think (the loss) will be good for us in that matter, and we’ll see what we’re made of when we play that bowl game.”
Alex Byington in the Montgomery Advertiser's Alabama beat reporter. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @_AlexByington.