ATLANTA — The College Football Playoff semifinal between LSU and Oklahoma will match a transfer quarterback unlike any in history against Joe Burrow. The Sooners’ Jalen Hurts is … not the forgotten man, exactly. He was a Heisman finalist, after all. But he is certainly the Other Guy. He usually is. He left Alabama because he was the Other Guy. He will be the Other Guy against Burrow, and if Oklahoma somehow wins, he will be the Other Guy against Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields. It’s all rather incredible, because nobody in college football history has put together a career quite like Jalen Hurts.
Think of how hard it is to lead a team to the College Football playoff in your first year on campus. Hurts has done it twice. But even that undersells his ability to adapt. When he was asked how his experience as a true freshman at Alabama helped him this year, he said, “Having six different coaches in my time has helped me more than anything.”
Six coaches? Yes, Hurts has had six direct superiors: Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, Mike Locksley, Josh Gattis and Brian Daboll at Alabama, and Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma. Hurts does not reveal much in interviews, proof that you can take the quarterback out of Alabama, but Nick Saban still won’t let him talk. So the fact he brought this up on his own tells you something. Hurts understands how hard this has been, even if we don’t.
In a less transactional era in college football, Hurts would spend two hours a day signing autographs for babies who were named after him. Somebody would retire his jersey number. Instead … well, there were uniforms of each of the four playoff teams on display at the College Football Hall of Fame Thursday. Organizers managed to find jerseys for Burrow, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Chase Young … and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield.
It was a minor, perhaps meaningless snub. But Hurts is used to this by now. As a true freshman, he led Alabama to the national title game. As a sophomore, he led the Crimson Tide to the title game again. And now, as a senior, he has led Oklahoma to the playoff. But it is all colored by what happened in between. He was benched twice for Tua Tagovailoa—first in the national title game against Georgia, and then for the 2018 regular season. Even at Oklahoma, it is easy to see him for who he isn’t. After Mayfield and Kyler Murray won Heismans, who is amazed that Hurts finished second?
Tagovailoa, Burrow and Lawrence will probably be better pros. Fields had a preposterous season: 40 touchdowns, one interception. But there has always been a place in college football for guys who were just fantastic at college football—who had the maturity, talent, mental acuity and timing to squeeze a ton of success out of what is always a short career.
Hurts deflected a chance to comment on his place in the sport’s history: “I can’t make that decision for me. Whenever the time is right … make it now, make it in a month, whatever.”
Don’t wait a month. Don’t wait to see if he pulls off one of the biggest upsets in the playoff’s history. Appreciate him now: Jalen Hurts managed to put together a classic career while smoothly handling the sport’s modern turbulence. He was not intimidated when he took over at Alabama. He did not flinch when Tagovailoa replaced him. In arguably Alabama’s biggest win of 2018, the SEC Championship Game, Hurts replaced an injured and struggling Tagavailoa and led the Crimson Tide to victory. Then he went to Norman and, as Riley says, “sped up a relationship that, a lot of times, takes multiple years to build.”
This season Hurts has run for 1,255 yards (5.7 yards per carry) and 18 touchdowns. LSU coach Ed Orgeron says, “That’s a wildcat tailback back there.” Yet Hurts has also completed 71.8% of his passes, and Orgeron is the last person who needs convincing. As he pointed out Thursday, Hurts has beaten his LSU teams twice.
“He’s put their team on his shoulders,” Orgeron says. “They are doing whatever they want to do with him.”
We know Hurts is a very good quarterback, but we don’t seem to think of Hurts this way. We think of him riding other people’s shoulders. We think of him benefiting from Saban’s talent and Riley’s system. Well, sure he did. Nobody wins games alone. But Hurts has led three teams to the playoff. By any reasonable standard, he should be back at the College Football Hall of Fame some day—as an inductee.