Nick Saban laughs in the face of conventional football wisdom, and why not?
He’s won multiple national championships and will go down as one of the best college football coaches of all time, if not the best.
Saban is your favorite coach’s favorite coach, if only because of his legacy of winning and the way he goes about things. He believes in his system. He believes in the process, and doing things the right way — which normally means doing things his way.
He’s an “old-school” coach — he’s not even on Twitter (gasp) — who runs an old-school, smash-mouth football program, all business and results. Things have worked well in Tuscaloosa so far as a result, haven’t they?
That’s what makes Saban’s strategy at quarterback so far this season intriguing, if not confusing.
Freshman Blake Barnett, a former five-star from Corona, California (Santiago), started the game against USC for the Crimson Tide and played the first two series. Saban then called on freshman Jalen Hurts, a former four-star dual-threat quarterback from Channelview, Texas (Channelview), who took over and dominated.
No. 1 Alabama beat USC, 52-6. It was truly a shocking development because USC was and is still expected to be good this season, potentially a contender for the Pac-12 crown. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s offense put up 465 total yards, 223 through the air and 242 via the run — a very balanced attack.
Coming off the bench, Hurts was extremely explosive, which is something most may not be used to seeing out of an Alabama quarterback. He completed 6-of-11 passes for 118 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He also rushed nine times for 32 yards and two touchdowns, living up to his dual-threat tag.
Love the confident flick of the ball from Jalen Hurts on this play. Says a lot without saying a thing. pic.twitter.com/iRKRzWHEdp
— Justin King (@JustinKing) September 5, 2016
He played well enough to get the start against Western Kentucky this past weekend and he rewarded Saban’s faith in him by completing 23-of-36 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns. Alabama won, 38-10.
Curiously though, Saban went to Barnett for two series in the second quarter. Barnett actually closed out halftime for Alabama as the quarterback on the field, though Hurts was back in the game to start the second half.
So for two weeks now, the two quarterback system has lived on for the Crimson Tide. We got a full glimpse of it against USC and it appeared as if Saban was itchy to get Barnett in to try to switch things up for the offense in the second quarter against WKU.
Hurts had thrown two touchdown passes by the time Saban made the call to the bench, so what gives?
Could he be playing with fire? According to old school pundits of the game, it’s a possibility.
The Old Adage
If you hang out around enough coaches or football writers you’ll eventually hear this saying: “If you have two quarterbacks, you actually have none.”
It’s a cliché that’s thrown around a lot in football culture, but there is good reason for it. If a team doesn’t have one quarterback who’s clearly better than his backup, than really that team has two backups. If a team needs to rely on two quarterbacks to get the job of one quarterback done, that team has issues.
It goes deeper than that, though. Football is a rhythm game and that’s especially true for the quarterback. Quarterbacks who start a game and get a chance to play every series have a much better chance of developing a rhythm as a passer. Conversely, quarterbacks who are looking over their shoulder waiting for the call to the bench may suffer from inconsistency. When they’re actually subbed out, that’s where rhythm suffers — for not just the starter but for QB2 as well.
There’s no chance to get into the feel of the game, and that’s generally bad news for quarterbacks.
It’s still early on in the season but Saban doesn’t seem to be worried about that. Again, conventional wisdom would suggest that his best move is figuring out which quarterback is best for his team and riding the hot hand. At this point that would seem to be Hurts, who has been confident and dynamic for the Crimson Tide despite only starting his first college game this past weekend.
Jalen Hurts continued his hot start, tallying 306 total yards in the Crimson Tide's win over WKU! pic.twitter.com/H7viMev4ye
— Campus Insiders (@CampusInsiders) September 11, 2016
But there’s also the reality to consider that Saban is a coach with five national championships to his name. Maybe he doesn’t need conventional wisdom.
Still Not Committing
Alabama now enters the SEC portion of its schedule and even for the Crimson Tide, things are going to get much tougher. Ole Miss bounced back from its loss to Florida State in Week 1 to beat Wofford, 38-13. The Rebels are ranked No. 19 in the latest AP Top 25 poll. Alabama, of course, is still No. 1.
Even though the games will start getting tougher, Saban still isn’t concerned about committing to one quarterback or the other. Here’s what he had to say at his Monday press conference regarding his two quarterback “system”:
“I know you all are going to ask me about the quarterbacks, but we are going to continue to work with both of the quarterbacks. We have and try to get them better. Jalen (Hurts), obviously, played the most in the game and there are things he could do better and there are things he did very well. The emphasis, no matter who is playing, is getting better at getting things more consistent. Let’s try to eliminate some of the other things through better knowledge and experience so that we can again go back to the same thing, which is better execution. I think that is something important to the entire offensive team. If we all do what we are supposed to do better, that is going to take a lot of pressure off whoever is playing quarterback. I think that is the more significant issue for us right now in terms of how we improve on offense.”
If you’re looking for a prediction here, expect Hurts to start against Ole Miss.
He’s a big quarterback at 6-foot-2, 209 pounds and he adds an element to Alabama’s offense that normally hasn’t been there in the past. Generally, Alabama quarterbacks are game-managers, letting the big offensive line, bruising running backs and elite skill players do all the work while simply taking care of the football.
Hurts isn’t in that mold. He was the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 2016 class, according to 247Sports, and he makes Alabama’s offense that much more explosive. He can beat a defense with his arm but also hurt it with his running ability.
It’s no guarantee that Saban will stick with Hurts for the entire game, though. He should, be he’s obviously committed to not being committed. And it’s not as if Barnett is chopped liver, either. He did some good things for the Tide against USC, and if he gets consistent playing time he too can be a great option for Alabama.
45-yard TD pass from Blake Barnett to Gehrig Dieter. 52-6, Alabama pic.twitter.com/ounyPhQrwF
— Matt Zenitz (@mzenitz) September 4, 2016
So again, here we are: Saban’s Crimson Tide are cutting against the grain.
It’s shocking, but again, who’s going to tell him he’s wrong?