Going into 2017’s Playoff, Nick Saban was facing a new challenge. Beyond the fact that his defense was dealing with a seemingly endless run of injures at linebacker, the team was also facing issues at QB. Alabama’s relatively easy schedule had hidden the fact that new OC Brian Daboll’s more pro-style approach was not as suited to Jalen Hurts’ skill set as had been the option-heavy style under Lane Kiffin. This came out in a major way when Hurts threw for 5.1 yards per attempt in a 26-14 loss to Auburn.
Kiffin, freed from the constraints of Saban’s tight-lipped management, would later let slip that freshman backup Tua Tagovailoa was ready to transfer if he didn’t get to replace Hurts. As it happened, Saban did give the five-star from Hawaii his big chance when down at the half against Georgia, and a couple big throws later, the rest was national title history.
Now Saban is facing a 2018 in which Tagovailoa seems the obvious choice at starter, with the 26-2 Hurts due to potentially grad transfer and both QBs listed as co-starters. Here’s how things look for the Tide as they try to sort this out and defend their title.
These two QBs aren’t similar, which complicates matters.
The best version of the Jalen Hurts offense was the shotgun option we saw in 2016, when he ran for 1,068 yards (after removing sack yardage) while passing for 2,780 and narrowly missing out on a national title, when his limited passing ability prevented the Tide from winning a shootout with Clemson.
2017 Hurts still ran for 981 yards, largely on scrambles, but threw for only 2,081 as the Alabama offense slipped from ninth in S&P+ to 23rd. Daboll’s vision was one in which Hurts grew toward involving the talented WR corps, which included Calvin Ridley and Robert Foster, rather than operating the option with Bama’s talented backs.
When Tagovailoa came into the title game, it finally became possible to maximize the WRs, with the freshman throwing for 166 yards and three scores at 6.9 per throw to Hurts’ 2.6 against Georgia.
That was particularly evident in his mastery of the RPO game, like on this play in which he hit a glance route down the field after the Georgia safety snuck down to stop an inside run.
For the first time in two years, Alabama could punish teams for single-covering athletes like Ridley while devoting numbers to stopping the run. In the first half, with Hurts behind center, the Tide handed off nine times, netting three yards per carry. In the second half, with Tag boosting the passing threat, they ran nine more times for 8.2 per carry.
(Sure, UGA was leading for most of the second half and thus a little less concerned with the run, but Bama was simply getting nothing going in the first half.)
There’s not really any doubt that Hurts can operate an offense that’s built around the QB run game, but to leverage the receivers, Tag is the superior choice.
While it seems like Tagovailoa is the obvious choice, it’s worth noting Ridley and Foster are gone.
The next generation of Tide receivers is led by sophomores Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy, and Devonta Smith. What’s more, Smith split time working with the DBs in spring, to help Saban have workable depth as he replaces all six starters from Alabama’s exceptional dime package.
These are all talented young players, and Smith caught the game-winning pass against Georgia, but it’s now a little less obvious that the best strategy for building off the run game is via RPOs and passing, rather than QB keeper options.
The one sure feature either way: the run game is going to be particularly lethal. Damien Harris returns at the top and will likely split carries with sophomore Najee Harris ...
... who appears to be the next Alabama Heisman candidate RB, and plenty more blue-chips await their turns. These backs will work behind an OL that includes four returning starters, two All-SEC OL (C Ross Pierschbacher and LT Jonah Williams), and 103 total starts. On the play above, Tag reads the backside end for a keeper option, but the QB run is much less of a focus here than Hurts was in 2016.
There’s not any doubt what the path to elite Bama offense is: running the ball.
The question is how to keep opponents from devoting absurd numbers to stopping the run.
Via Tagovailoa and the passing game? Or via Hurts with the option?
It seems the Tide will roll with Tag, develop the wide receivers, and accept the outcome, if that means a Hurts transfer at the end of the year, knowing that at least they’ll have one more year of Tagovailoa and more QBs on campus that have some offseasons in the system.
As always seems to be the case with new rules, the rule that now allows players to appear in four games of their redshirt seasons has come along at the perfect time for Saban.
The two-year starter who led Alabama to back-to-back national championship games is due to graduate in December, meaning he can then transfer out without penalty. And he has yet to take a redshirt, since he started as a true freshman back in 2016.
If Hurts and Alabama come to an understanding that he wants to redshirt if at all possible, so he can transfer if he’s not going to be the starter, it leaves open some intriguing possibilities.
The Tide could proceed along the following plan:
- Play Tagovailoa as the starter.
- Insert fellow sophomore Mac Jones as the backup in mop-up duty, to get him snaps while continuing to give Hurts practice snaps as well.
- Preserve Hurts’ four games of eligibility for the event of Tagovailoa sustaining an injury, or, even scarier for Bama opponents ...
- Unleash the Hurts option from the Iron Bowl onward, forcing up to four opponents to prepare for both offenses at once. Hurts could thus compete in his third straight Playoff while still giving himself two more years to play, perhaps both of them as a starter at another school.
Would that benefit Bama? Well, the Tide did witness the power of saving a fresh QB run game for the end of the year — that’s what Clemson did in two Playoff years with Deshaun Watson.
There’s no reason Alabama couldn’t build an option-first package for Hurts, then save it for the Iron Bowl, potential SEC title game, and as many as two Playoff games.
Whether they really try to maximize the package or not, opposing defenses would be hard pressed to go into the Playoff with no recent Hurts film and no idea about his development as a QB or the concepts the Tide might have stored up ... all while also having to prepare for Tagovailoa.
An offense built around Tagovailoa will force defenses to make sure they have their bases covered against the passing attack before committing numbers to the Tide run game. But everything would change once Hurts took the field, and perhaps the two could even appear in the same lineup at some point. (Penn State demonstrates.)
To what degree Saban and his staff will make the most of this situation and work with Hurts’ preferences for his eligibility remain to be seen.
At his opening week press conference Saban noted that both Tua Tagovailoa AND Jalen Hurts would see the field, suggesting either that Hurts isn’t ready to transfer or that Alabama isn’t interested in using his redshirt.
However, the emergence of Tagovailoa has created the possibility that Alabama could be the team in the country with the most to gain from a new rule. So typical.