Alabama has not shown many chinks in what has been college football’s toughest armor during the 2016 season. In the midst of a 9-0 season, the Crimson Tide have repeatedly showcased their depth and talent at virtually all positions.
For opposing coaches and coordinators, the search for a true weakness on this Alabama team is ongoing. While the Tide defense has actually looked mortal at certain times in the season, no team has been able to exploit a weakness enough to upset the No. 1-ranked team in the country.
Early in the season, Alabama’s secondary raised eyebrows after allowing more than 400 passing yards in wins over Ole Miss and Arkansas. However, since that Arkansas game, the Crimson Tide have surrendered only 129 passing yards per game in their last three contests. The Crimson Tide also won’t face another dynamic passing attack for the remainder of the regular season.
Alabama is as sound a team as there is in college football, but a recent trend in the Alabama offense shows that deficiencies in the passing game are Alabama’s closest thing to an Achilles’ heel at the moment.
Jalen Hurts has dazzled with his legs as a true freshman this season. His mobility and athleticism have given the Alabama offense a completely different dimension that ultimately broke the scoreless tie against LSU in the fourth quarter. Hurts carried the ball 28 yards off a bootleg to give the Tide their first lead on the way to a 10-0 victory in Baton Rouge.
As electrifying as Hurts as been running the football, he hasn’t been able to make the same impact with his arm. Understandably, Hurts’ inexperience has emerged when he’s been asked to drop back and deliver from the pocket. The true freshman clearly has room for improvement in reading defenses and delivering passes on time and with accuracy.
After throwing for over 200 yards in five of Alabama’s first six games, Hurts’ passing yards have dipped from 185 to 164 to 107 in the Tide’s past three games against the Vols, Aggies and Tigers, respectively. He’s also completed just 59 percent of his passes during that stretch.
For most of the LSU game, the Tigers brought pressure off the edges in an attempt to keep Hurts in the pocket and force him to make plays with his arm rather than allow him to use his athleticism to get to the edges. That strategy kept Alabama scoreless in the first half for the first time since Nick Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa. In wasn’t until the fourth quarter that Hurts was able to break free and take over the game with his legs.
Luckily for Hurts, the Alabama defense didn’t give an inch to the Tigers and even bailed him out on the two occasions he turned the ball over inside Alabama’s 40-yard line.
Even if LSU’s inept offense robbed the team of an opportunity to pull off an epic upset, the defense may have provided upcoming Alabama opponents with a blueprint for attacking the Crimson Tide offense.
The expectation was that Hurts would improve his passing as the season went on and become more comfortable with the speed of college football, but that progression has yet to materialize and time is running out.
Alabama has just two games left against Mississippi State and UT-Chattanooga before an end-of-the-year gauntlet that could potentially include an SEC West-deciding Iron Bowl and a run through the postseason.
Up until now, Lane Kiffin has designed an offense around Hurts that has allowed him to use his mobility to create easy throws off simple reads. Against the Bulldogs and Mocs, Kiffin might be inclined to test the abilities of his signal-caller and force Hurts to work through progressions and deliver on-point passes to receivers. Having a defense that rarely surrenders points gives the Crimson Tide the luxury of doing so without risking a loss.
Hurts’ poise and dynamic running ability have been enough to take Alabama to a 9-0 start, but expanding his passing arsenal could be the last piece in leading the Tide to their ultimate goal.