BATON ROUGE, La. — Alabama‘s defensive dominance carries an air of inevitably over this college football season. Do we already know who the national champion will be?
Alabama 10, LSU 0 suggests yes based on defense. But Alabama 10, LSU 0 still raises a question mark at quarterback. Nick Saban knows this about Jalen Hurts and sounds like an anxious parent trying to move his prodigy child along without screwing him up in the process.
“We made some errors early in the game that were costly and we made some plays in the end that his athleticism allowed him to make,” Saban said Saturday night. “I think that as we grow with him, we’re going to have to live with both. I like the second part better than the first.”
Alabama is headed on a collision course for another CFP championship. The defense is ridiculously fast and scary good. LSU star running back Leonard Fournette was held to 35 yards on 17 carries, meaning he finishes his career against Alabama with a 2.5-yard per carry average.
After a week of talk out of LSU about this year being different, it was more of the same. Fournette had nowhere to run. “We have some pretty hateful guys that play defense around here that are pretty good competitors, and when they get challenged, they usually respond,” Saban said.
Let’s be honest: There are very few teams that can beat Alabama. Most of those teams require them having a great day and Alabama being slightly off.
Clemson might be the only team that can compete with Alabama straight up. Clemson has the defensive linemen. Clemson has the confidence from competing with Alabama in the past CFP title game. And most importantly, Clemson has the quarterback in Deshaun Watson, assuming his shoulder injury sustained Saturday isn’t serious.
That’s where the development of Hurts, a true freshman with remarkable poise, factors into the rest of this season for Alabama. The moment isn’t too big for him.
On a night with no points through three quarters, when every yard felt contested, Hurts scored the game’s only touchdown by improvising. Hurts rolled right on a designed sprint out — yes, he got help with a missed holding call on Alabama — and cut back against LSU’s contain defender to easily jog into the end zone for a 21-yard score. It was brilliant.
Later, Hurts essentially iced the game with a 23-yard scamper on third-and-15 when LSU failed to finish a tackle near the sideline. And yes, it’s quite possible LSU was afraid to sneeze near Hurts along the sidelines because of a highly questionable late hit earlier in the game.
“The guy does not get affected,” Saban said. “We’ve got to do a better job of executing on a consistent basis.”
That’s the rub of a true freshman quarterback in a national championship race. No true freshman quarterback has won the SEC in its 83-year history. No true freshman quarterback has won a national championship since Jamelle Holieway with Oklahoma in 1985.
For all of the impactful plays Hurts makes (114 rushing yards on 20 carries vs. LSU), there are mistakes he makes in the passing game (10 of 19, 107 yards, one interception, one lost fumble). Despite its inspired defense, LSU simply doesn’t have the passing game or the scheme right now to take advantage of Hurts’ turnovers no matter the great field position.
Not against this Alabama defense. Not with Danny Etling at quarterback. Not with that LSU offense line losing one-on-one battles all night. When LSU’s last hopes faded, Tigers wide receiver Travin Dural came to the sideline and slammed his helmet to the ground in frustration.
In reality, that frustration could have been Alabama’s skill players. Calvin Ridley had 89 catches for 1,045 yards in 2015; he’s at 44 catches for 497 yards in 2016 and has made only 15 catches in the past four games. O.J. Howard was the star of last year’s national championship game with five catches for 208 yards; he had one catch for minus-3 yards against LSU and has been AWOL for most of the season as a receiver.
Hurts’ mistakes can be impactful ones. That might be costly one game.
But he rarely gets flustered. That might be a sign of hope.
“I think he does a great job of not letting the same thing happen twice. That’s good for a young guy,” Howard said. “I wouldn’t say it’s frustrating. Like coach said, we’ve just got to deal with it. He’s our quarterback, and we’ve just got to go with it. Everybody makes mistakes.”
In this season when Alabama seems headed for a national title, Hurts is the fascinating X-factor. Saban knows Alabama has skill players on the perimeter who need to be greater threats. He knows there’s going to be a game at some point where Hurts will need to be a more consistent passer. He knows the designed runs with Hurt won’t always work, but it’s sure nice to have his athleticism to lean on as a crutch.
The question is whether Hurts can improve enough as a passer by the end of this season. Inevitably, the Crimson Tide will face an opponent with a quarterback and a defense capable of beating them.
“I think it’s day to day,” Saban said of Hurts’ development. “I think we make improvements day by day. I think he wants to improve. I think he wants to do the right things. I think he has great poise. I don’t think the stage is too big for him at all. I guess he expects a lot of himself and we expect a lot of him because he’s in a role with tremendous responsibility, and he’s handled that very, very well. But we have some really good skill guys outside that we need to have more involved in the game.”
If this sounds like nit-picking, well, it sort of is. The reality is Hurts still made some crucial plays in a loud and hostile environment that helped Alabama beat LSU for the sixth consecutive year.
But that’s not the standard at Alabama. National titles are the standard.
The race is on to see how quickly Alabama can correct Hurts’ mistakes without losing what makes him so special already.