This story appears in the December 15, 2016, special College Football Playoff preview issue of Sports Illustrated. To get your copy, click here.
GAME ONE: DROPPING THE BALL, THEN DROPPING HINTS
Some Alabama players smiled as they filed into their locker room beneath AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Some laughed. Some pantomimed their personal highlights from the Crimson Tide's season-opening 52–6 annihilation of USC on Sept. 3. Jalen Hurts did none of those things.
The freshman quarterback had entered in relief of starter Blake Barnett and lost a fumble on his first collegiate snap. But in the offensive series that followed, Hurts had settled down and offered glimpses of what Alabama's offense could be with a quarterback who combined a pro-style arm with read-option legs and instincts. He had scored two touchdowns on the ground and thrown for two more. He had also thrown an interception, and there was the not-insignificant matter of the fumble—which certainly must have displeased Alabama coach Nick Saban. In the aftermath was Hurts overwhelmed? Exhilarated? He offered no clues as he walked toward the locker room. He looked like Tony Romo probably looked in this hallway after a random October game in his fifth year as the Cowboys' starter: just another day at the office.
It wasn't just another day, of course. Hurts had made clear that afternoon that he was Alabama's best quarterback. Barnett, a redshirt freshman himself, had been the rawest Crimson Tide quarterback to start for Saban at that point. The past two Alabama starters had been fifth-year seniors. AJ McCarron held the job for three seasons before that, but he sat for two seasons before starting a game. Given Alabama's ferocious defense and diverse offensive skill players, Barnett could no doubt win plenty of games for the Tide. But Hurts brought something different to the table—something Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin had sought for two seasons. He could turn Alabama's offense into the kind of up-tempo, wide-open outfit that had frustrated Alabama's defense in recent years. Except instead of using that scheme to close a talent gap, this one would employ Alabama's usual array of former five-star recruits.
That possibility had danced through the minds of everyone watching in the second quarter, when Hurts dodged tacklers to make a first down on the ground and then, a few possessions later, on third-and-six, rolled right, set his feet and fired a 39-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver ArDarius Stewart. At the time it remained unclear whether Saban would be willing to hand over the offense to a guy who had started the previous year at Channelview (Texas) High. "Jalen, each series that he played, got more and more comfortable," Saban said afterward. "He adds a dimension with his athleticism and his ability to run that I think is very effective, and I think that actually opened up the running game." Saban's analysis offered only one logical conclusion, but he wanted the mystery to linger. "I made a decision for this game that whatever we did at quarterback was for now," Saban said. "Did you ever make a 'for-now' decision? So we made a decision today—for now. That's the only decision we made. So I'm not speculating on what we're going to do in the future. And everybody here wanted to know who the quarterback was going to be, all right? But did anybody write when one of the Southern Cal players said, 'I wish we knew who was going to play quarterback for them?' And isn't that the object—to make it hard for the other team? Or is it to make it good for you guys to write about? I'm wondering. I don't know. It's one of those hypothetical questions that you always ask me."
We know now that Saban would go with Hurts the following week against Western Kentucky, making Hurts the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Alabama since Ray Perkins started Vince Sutton in five games in 1984. We know that Hurts would outduel Barnett, who also played in that Week 2 game, to erase any doubt as to who would start for the remainder of the season.
On that night in AT&T, Saban enjoyed toying with reporters and opponents, but he had seen the same thing everyone else had: Hurts was the future.
GAME THREE: THE SCARE
No one blocked Marquis Haynes. No one. Senior right guard Alphonse Taylor and freshman right tackle Jonah Williams were supposed to block Haynes and John Youngblood, two of Ole Miss's best pass rushers, but a miscommunication turned Haynes into a missile locked onto Hurts. When Haynes blew up Hurts, the ball popped free, and Youngblood picked it up and raced 44 yards for a touchdown.
So did Hurts crumble after getting clobbered and coughing up the fumble that led to the score that put his team down 24–3 in the second quarter of his first SEC game? Of course not. He had built himself to withstand a hit. Those YouTube clips of Hurts squatting 500 pounds and deadlifting 565 as a high school junior had fascinated the Alabama fan base during the off-season, but now they took on new significance. A quarterback who could lift like a defensive end could take a lick from a defensive end and bounce back.
On his next play Hurts hit sophomore receiver Calvin Ridley over the middle for a 22-yard gain. After that he ran up the middle for 22 more yards. Ridley took a direct snap and scored on the next play. The Tide would storm back to take a 34–30 lead in the third quarter and then hold on in the fourth for a 48–43 win. Hurts threw for 158 yards and ran for 146. More important, Alabama escaped Oxford and snapped a two-game losing streak against the Rebels. Afterward Tide veterans noted that their young quarterback had helped to keep everyone calm even when Ole Miss looked ready to run away with the game.
"He showed that he's not your typical freshman," junior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said as Tide players boarded their buses. "First SEC game. On the road. We were down, and he led the team. He just came in the locker room [at halftime] and just was talking. He really grew up this game."
GAME NINE: SINE QUA NON
"Silly question," Aaron Suttles of The Tuscaloosa News said to Saban before asking a question that wasn't silly at all. "Do you win that game without Jalen?"
Alabama had just beaten LSU 10–0 in a game that was scoreless after three quarters. Hurts had been, in several ways, the difference on a night when each defense seemed impenetrable. Late in the third the young quarterback took a snap on a second-and-15 play and dropped back into his own end zone. On this night, when every yard mattered, he had to get the Tide out of the shadow of the goalpost. So he rifled a pass to freshman tight end Miller Forristall, who had popped open on a wheel route. That 22-yard gain gave Alabama room to breathe, but the Tide still needed to find a way to score. From there Hurts and sophomore tailback Bo Scarbrough helped the Tide venture deep into LSU territory. But the drive appeared to be stalled when Alabama faced a third-and-nine from the LSU 21-yard line. Hurts took the snap and rolled right. He saw no receivers open. Multiple LSU defenders had shed their blocks and were closing in. With time running out, Hurts spotted an opening. He tucked the ball and ran straight up the middle. LSU linebacker Duke Riley dived and grabbed only air. Ditto for fellow linebacker Kendell Beckwith. With LSU's two best defenders on the ground and Ridley blocking the last would-be tackler, Hurts coasted into the end zone. His celebration of what might have been the nation's hardest earned touchdown this season? He tried to hand the ball to an official. When that official didn't take it, Hurts threw it to another.
A 23-yard run by Hurts on third-and-15 during Alabama's next possession set up the field goal that gave the Tide an insurmountable lead. But Hurts also lost a third-quarter fumble because of poor ball security. If LSU had a better quarterback than junior Danny Etling, that gaffe might have cost the Tide the game and much, much more. But that's the thing. LSU didn't have a better quarterback. Alabama did. If that game did anything, it reinforced the notion that there is a baseline level of quarterback play required to lead a team to the College Football Playoff. Not every signal-caller has to be an All-America, but the ones who don't meet that threshold can't lead their teams into the playoff. After that night in Baton Rouge, the Tide knew their quarterback could, even if he still made the occasional freshman mistake. That's why Saban gave a nuanced answer to that not-so-silly question. "There are things that we need to do better at the quarterback position," Saban said. "We made some errors early in the game that were costly. We made some plays later in the game that his athleticism allowed him to make. As we grow with him, we're going to have to live with both. I like the second part better than the first. He's a great competitor. He never loses his poise, but we need to execute better."
A few minutes before Saban made that statement, Hurts had run off the field, arms raised. But he didn't go into the locker room. He waited in the tunnel. When Saban left the field following an interview with CBS, Hurts was waiting there with a handshake and a hug.
GAME 13: HE SPEAKS
Saban doesn't allow freshmen to give interviews, and unlike many in his generation, Hurts doesn't give away much on social media. As of early December, his Twitter account, created in 2012, had only 35 posts. But the SEC requires participants in its championship game to make every player available for interviews in the locker room after the game, so Hurts offered his first public comments in 10 months after the Tide's 54–16 win over Florida had solidified Alabama's top seed in the College Football Playoff.
Hurts explained that much of his attitude comes from his father, Averion, the coach at Channelview High. "It's a mind-set. I grew up as a coach's kid, so I was around the game often," Hurts told reporters. "So it's kind of natural for me to be stoic and calm. Because that's who I am." Hurts also explained how he figured things out by watching, citing the example of his older brother Averion Jr., who just finished his career as a quarterback at Texas Southern. "All the butt chewings he got, I learned from those," Jalen said.
This led to an obvious question. Which coach is the better posterior masticator? Averion Hurts Sr. or Nick Saban? "Better at butt-chewings?" Hurts said. "Ain't nothing like getting a butt-chewing from your blood."
All those paternal lessons have Hurts quoting Channelview's coach frequently, but at times Hurts sounds exactly like Alabama's coach. Consider his answer to a question about his development. "It's a process," he said. "Here, you just have to trust the process and keep progressing as a player." Somewhere Saban probably smiled that same grin he gave when the onside kick worked in Alabama's national title game win against Clemson last January.
After beating Florida and winning the SEC, Hurts was thrilled to finally celebrate a title again. "This is my first championship since the East Houston Aggies as an eight-year-old," he said. "It's a good feeling." The next step in this freshman's progression is the preparation for a semifinal matchup against Washington in the Peach Bowl on Saturday. Asked to choose the most special moment of an unusually special freshman season, Hurts opted to live in the moment. "I'd say now," he said. Then he paused. "But I'm not done."