ATLANTA – You’re not supposed to do this, you know.
You’re not supposed to steamroll through 13 games in some of college football’s toughest environments without a loss and contend for another national championship with a true freshman playing quarterback.
Yet, here Alabama is, preparing to play Washington in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl Saturday for a berth in the national championship game, with a quarterback who this time last year was just learning a college playbook.
Even Jameis Winston was afforded a redshirt season behind EJ Manuel at Florida State before leading the Seminoles to a national championship.
Even Deshaun Watson needed a year of seasoning in 2014 before leading Clemson to the national championship game against Alabama last season.
Only one freshman quarterback ever led his team to a national championship, and that was Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway. The Sooners ran the wishbone. Holieway completed a grand total of 24 passes for the season.
This, what Alabama has done, is just not supposed to happen.
Apparently no one told Jalen Hurts. Or if they did, Hurts gave it about as much thought as he did an interception he threw in a scrimmage in preseason practice. That was when senior tight end O.J. Howard realized Hurts was no ordinary freshman. Howard witnessed a conversation between Hurts and a strength coach, who thought Hurts might need some reassurance. Turns out it was Hurts who did the reassuring. Hurts was still locked in a battle – and supposedly the underdog – for the starting job with Cooper Bateman and Blake Barnett
“That’s when we found out he was just so composed, he didn’t let it rattle him or anything,” Howard said. “He said, ‘I’m going to bounce back. I’m good.’ He said, ‘I’m going to be all right, Coach.’ Jalen went out the next drive and he threw us a touchdown with the first-team offense, and that’s when I knew that Jalen was like the guy. This kid don’t get rattled. He settled down easily. That’s when I thought I knew he was going to be the quarterback.
Alabama’s quest for a fifth national championship in eight seasons hinges largely on how Hurts plays.
Sure, defense is the reason the Crimson Tide is here this week. Defense is what has separated Alabama from the rest of college football since Nick Saban’s arrived in Tuscaloosa almost exactly 10 years ago.
Well, defense, depth of talent and special teams are the reasons, and Saban himself is the reason for all of that.
Even so, the Crimson Tide’s chances rest in the hands of the offense — and on the shoulders of Hurts.
It’s virtually a given that the defense will play well, and probably even exceptionally well. This just might be Saban’s best defense ever.
The biggest variable is Alabama’s offense. The Tide can’t count on scoring on defense and special teams, even though they lead college football in that department with 14 non-offensive touchdowns. They can’t expect a repeat of the SEC Championship Game against Florida, when the scored 16 points in the first quarter despite minus-7 yards of total offense. Washington leads all FBS teams with a plus-21 turnover margin. That’s largely because the Huskies’ defense leads the FBS with 33 takeaways.
“They’re ballhawks,” Hurts said. “They play fast. They’re smart and they do what they do well. So we just have to come out and execute our game plan, play our game, and see what happens.”
Ordinarily, sending a freshman quarterback against one of the most opportunistic defenses on such an enormous stage wouldn’t be a comforting though. Especially when that freshman can be erratic with his passes, as Hurts is at times.
But if any freshman can handle the big stage, or even a critical mistake in the game, it’s Hurts. His personality has rubbed off on the upper classmen, most of whom are playing in the College Football Playoff for the third time.
“Jalen, he does a great job, when he comes to the sideline, if things aren’t going as well as they need to be going,” said offensive tackle Cam Robinson. “He does a great job just making sure we stay calm and just stay the course.”
That course could lead to Tampa and the national championship game. Even if that’s not supposed to happen.