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To win a 6th title, Nick Saban had to take the risks he’s been so good at avoiding

The most controlling coach in college football took the reins from his cautious veteran QB and handed them to a volatile freshman. It worked.

NCAA Football: CFP National Champions-Press Conference Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

The source of your biggest personal strength is probably also the source of your biggest weakness. Acknowledging this means entering the gray area. There is no true good and evil, no good and bad, only a tenuous balance. The ratio of strength to weakness can change. The existence of both never does.

Case in point: Jalen Hurts. In so many ways, he has been the perfect Alabama quarterback. He is allergic to crippling mistakes. He throws the ball away instead of taking risks. He is an excellent third-down scrambler, which moves the chains, which furthers Bama’s baked-in field position advantage. He cut his fumble rate by nearly two-thirds this season. He threw a single interception. He is the logical extreme to everything we’ve come to expect from a Saban quarterback.

The first goal of the Alabama offense is to avoid screwing over Bama’s brilliant defense. If you can’t score, just set up your awesome punter to flip the field, then let your defense go to work.

The proof is in Alabama’s gaudy record.

With Hurts behind center as a true freshman, the Crimson Tide made the national title game. The next year, with a new offensive coordinator, they did it again.

On the rare occasion that the defense suffered glitches, Hurts raised his game. Ole Miss scored 43 on Bama (with help from return scores), so Bama scored 48 (ditto). Arkansas scored 30, and the Tide scored 49. Hell, even in last year’s national title game, with the offense struggling for much of the game, Hurts ripped off a beautiful touchdown run to give Bama a 31-28 lead in the closing minutes.

But the offense did struggle against Clemson in much of last year’s title game, just as it had, relatively speaking, against Washington (5.1 yards per play) and LSU (4.6). And while the marriage of Hurts and coordinator Brian Daboll worked well enough to torch iffy defenses in 2017 — 8.2 yards per play and 66 points against Ole Miss, 7.8 and 41 against Arkansas, 7.3 and 59 against Vanderbilt — it again labored against the best defenses on the schedule.

In the two games leading to Monday night’s national title battle against Georgia, Alabama took on two tremendous defenses (Auburn’s and Clemson’s), averaged 4.5 yards per play, and scored 31 combined offensive points. Terrible? No. Title-worthy? Perhaps not. The Tide lost their composure in the second half against Auburn, fell by 12, and barely eked out a Playoff bid because of it. And while the defense controlled Clemson in the Sugar Bowl semifinal ... well, it’s a good thing the defense controlled Clemson.

Everybody does better against bad defenses than good ones. But Hurts’ risk-free tendencies backfired when Bama needed risks. There’s minimal overlap on the Venn diagram of things Daboll seems to want to call and things Hurts is really good at.

With Georgia controlling Alabama’s banged-up offensive line, and with Hurts’ more horizontal passing tendencies — not to mention his one-read-and-run style that Georgia was mostly prepared for — Daboll had to start making calls that Hurts couldn’t execute.

Down 13-0 at halftime, Alabama had no choice but to take the kind of risks Saban has based his career around avoiding.

Two years ago, when Saban called an onside kick in the fourth quarter of the title game, it blew people’s minds. But it was a calculated risk — the coaches saw a potential weakness and attempted to exploit it. Removing Hurts from the game and putting in freshman backup Tua Tagovailoa required a whole different kind of leap of faith.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Tagovailoa’s title-winning comeback performance was that he so frequently looked like a little-used true freshman.

  • On his first drive, he was slow to react to a nice Georgia blitz and got sacked by Roquan Smith.
  • On his third drive, he threw one of the worst interceptions he’ll ever throw, forcing a ball into coverage when his intended receiver was blocking and not looking for the ball.
  • On the second-to-last play of the season, he took probably the worst sack he’ll ever take, freezing up and pulling an anti-Hurts — backtracking and losing huge yardage instead of throwing the ball away.

He also threw for 166 yards and three touchdowns.

  • He bounced off of a sack attempt, scrambled for a first down, and hit fellow freshman Henry Ruggs III for a touchdown to make it 13-7.
  • On a fourth down with under four minutes left in regulation, he hit Calvin Ridley, at best a tertiary read, for the game-tying touchdown. (He might have been aiming for Najee Harris instead of Ridley, actually, but hey, Ridley caught it.)
  • On the play following the nearly unforgivable sack, he looked off an experienced safety, then hit another freshman, DeVonta Smith, for the title-winning 41-yard touchdown.

This was the roller coaster that Saban has spent most of his coaching life trying to avoid.

It wasn’t hard to find real-time critics online, slamming Saban for making a panic move and turning his back on the QB who got him to the title game in the first place.

It wasn’t hard to see what Saban saw, though.

Hurts was lab-engineered to be a Saban QB, but he wasn’t going to make the plays Alabama needed. The Tide needed to scare Georgia vertically. They needed to spread the ball around, not just to a well-covered, frustrated Ridley. They needed to break well-established tendencies.

They needed a blank slate. And Tagovailoa, the dual-threat blue-chipper from Honolulu, provided one.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Alabama vs Clemson
Hurts (2) and Tagovailoa (13)
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

It was easy to see the future in the present.

No matter what kind of open battle Saban promises heading into spring ball, the odds are quite high that Tagovailoa is now Alabama’s quarterback.

Hurts will likely have to decide between a position change, a backup role, or a transfer. He is such a great athlete that he could be awesome in a Braxton Miller-style H-back role and/or situational wildcat quarterback. But he’s also talented enough to run the show for an offense that better fits his skill set.

Hurts earned his share of a championship ring, and you can easily make the case that his reliability helped Alabama avoid upset bids.

But ultimate reward so often requires risk. And to win a sixth national title and tie Bear Bryant’s list of claims, Saban took one of the biggest risks of his career.