ATLANTA – If Alabama beats Georgia on Monday night, Jalen Hurts will have earned himself a new distinction: worst national champion quarterback of the College Football Playoff Era. And possibly the worst of the 21st century.
There have been 11 CFP games to date. If you rank the winning quarterbacks in those games by total offense, Hurts has the two lowest – 160 yards running and passing against Clemson this year, and 107 against Washington last year. If you rank them by pass efficiency, Hurts has the seventh-best game (136.2 against Clemson last week) and the worst (84.2 against Washington).
Of all the unspectacular quarterbacks who have won titles under Nick Saban, Hurts arguably is the least spectacular. He’s a good player, a smart young man and a competitive leader. But to date his primary quarterbacking attribute is avoiding major mistakes (just one interception this season).
“You got to be a good decision-maker,” Saban said of quarterbacks in general. “Every play has a risk and reward to it, right? So, you know, what am I going to gain from this play versus what can it cost us? [Hurts] is a good risk-reward manager with the football.”
That would qualify as fairly faint praise. Thus Hurts provides further evidence that Saban might be the greatest college coach of all time.
In an era where high-powered quarterback play is deemed increasingly important, it remains well down Saban’s championship checklist. Turnover margin, defense, running game, Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies … oh, there’s quarterback performance.
He doesn’t need a superstar at the game’s centerpiece position. From Matt Mauck at LSU in 2003 to Hurts this year, Saban’s great teams have rarely had great quarterbacks.
In the past decade, Clemson, Florida State, Auburn and Florida all won national titles with quarterbacks who were picked in the first round of the NFL draft: Deshaun Watson, Jameis Winston, Cam Newton and Tim Tebow. All four were the undisputed hub of their teams’ offenses. Three of them won the Heisman Trophy, and Watson perhaps should have as well.
None of them played for Saban.
And then there are the other guys who quarterbacked title teams: Jake Coker, Cardale Jones, AJ McCarron, Greg McElroy and Matt Flynn. Jones was the highest draft pick, going in the fourth round, and thus far only Flynn has ever been a sought-after quarterback at the NFL level. (Briefly and erroneously, as it turned out.)
Three of those five – Coker, McCarron and McElroy – played for Saban. Mostly, they spent time handing off to future NFL backs like Derrick Henry, Eddie Lacy, Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram. Occasionally, they were called on to do something with their arms.
Coker, in fact, played the best games of his life in the 2015 College Football Playoff. He owns the two highest pass efficiency ratings for winning QBs in the Playoff Era, a 203 in the title game against Clemson and a 185 in the semifinal against Michigan State.
McCarron was the best of the ‘Bama bunch during this decade of Saban dominance. A three-year starter, he is the school’s all-time leader in passing yards, touchdowns and completions (with plenty of help from Alabama’s all-time leader in receptions, Amari Cooper). McCarron was a fifth-round pick who has managed to stick in the NFL, as Andy Dalton’s backup in Cincinnati. But he hasn’t had the opportunity to prove he’s a franchise quarterback.
McElroy was a caretaker QB along the lines of Hurts, only without the running ability. He was little more than a hood ornament on ‘Bama’s powerhouse 2009 national championship team, never throwing for 300 yards in a game and only once completing more than 19 passes in a game. In the championship matchup against Texas, McElroy was 6 of 11 for 58 yards, and lost 27 yards in sacks.
Like Hurts, McElroy’s primary virtue was avoiding the kind of mistakes that lose games. He threw just four interceptions in 2009, none in the final five games of the season.
But even McElroy threw it around more than Hurts has this year. If Hurts throws it 70 times Monday for 449 yards – a completely laughable premise – he would surpass McElroy’s season totals from ’09.
Hurts’ season high in attempts is 24, and his season high in passing yards is 248. His overall numbers are down appreciably from last season, when Hurts had more experienced receivers and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin aired it out more. But one thing is the same: Alabama is in the national championship game.
“Everybody is going to say what they want, everybody is going to have the opinion that they want to have,” Hurts said. “That’s fine with me. At the end of the day the sun will still rise in the morning and, for me, I have to go out there and go to work every day, go to work with my team, lead my team and try and win games.”
Jalen Hurts has won 26 of them in two seasons as Alabama’s starting quarterback, with just two losses. That’s the latest and strongest evidence yet that Nick Saban can somehow dominate college football while needing nothing spectacular at the sport’s most important position.
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