I would be remiss to not mention the performance of a player who became an instant hero during the recent SEC Championship game in Atlanta. I know you know who this player is and how exciting it was to see him do what he did in the game.
He is a player who former Auburn defensive tackle Sen’derrick Marks said of on Twitter, “Now the whole Bama nation has to trust Hurts, the same guy they called every name but child of God.” Most of the responses to Marks’ tweet were critical, saying Hurts had been given nothing but respect from Alabama fans. Yes, when Jalen Hurts — yes, he is the player I am writing about – burned his red shirt, the Alabama fans cheered loudly and gave the junior second string quarterback a standing ovation. He could have transferred to another college football team and become its starting quarterback and had two years of eligibility remaining. Once he burned that red shirt, Hurts was stuck at Alabama behind sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa—the hero of last year’s National Championship game.
The majority of the Bama nation quickly decided Tagovailoa should be the starting quarterback. The media was just as adamant and made a player who had played one half of a game the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy. Hurts heard the cries for a change at quarterback. The Bama nation wanted to remove the guy who had won 26 of 28 starts and led the team to two National Championship games, a guy whose two loses were to Auburn—his team’s in-state rival—and to Clemson in the 2016 Nation Championship game — a game Alabama should have won after Hurts scored a late touchdown to give the Crimson Tide the lead with a little over a minute to play and that its defense failed to secure.
Hurts stayed silent for a while. When he finally spoke, he said he had never indicated he was transferring. He decided to keep his thoughts to himself. Many encouraged him to leave —feeling he was going to be a distraction for the team. That did not happen.
Instead, Hurts turned to his parents and cried in their arms after being benched in the 2017 National Championship game that the Crimson Tide had rallied to win behind Tagovailoa over Georgia in overtime, 26-23. He asked them what he should do. His father said they were not going to give up. Hurts decided not to give up on Alabama and put everything in the “hands of the Lord.” A very devout Christian, Hurts often sees interviews take a quick turn when he speaks of his faith. The same may be said of his friend, teammate and rival for the starting quarterback slot in the Alabama offense—Tagovailoa.
The Crimson Tide hit a few bumps along the way, but Tagovailoa took the team to a 12-0 record for the regular season. He helped his team claim a spot in the SEC Championship game. He wanted to lead Alabama to win No. 13. It was not to be. After pulling the Tide to within a touchdown of catching up with Georgia in that game, he had to leave after being stepped on by one of his own offensive linemen. Hurts was called in to replace him—just like Tagovailoa was asked to replace Hurts in the 2017 National Championship game. A miracle was needed. A collective moan filled the Bama nation fans at the game.
Hurts guided Alabama on an 80-yard drive of 16 plays to tie the game at 28-28. Suddenly, Bama nation was cheering. When he led Alabama on a touchdown drive on its next possession, he gave the Bama nation fans more to cheer about— especially when they saw what Hurts saw as he called his own number at the Georgia 15. With each step toward the end zone Hurts made, the Bama nation grew louder. When he scored what would be the winning touchdown, he was their hero once more — at least for the night. Alabama won 35-28 and Hurts made his mark in Alabama football lore. Perhaps Daniel Moore will paint a picture of Hurts to help remember the moment.
Now if Alabama should reach the 2018 National Championship game, you can thank Hurts for the opportunity. Who knows what the College Football Playoffs Selection Committee would have done had Alabama lost. Georgia, Clemson and Notre Dame would have had a lock on the playoffs. Alabama would have had to compete for the final spot against Oklahoma and Ohio State and both of them were conference champions. The committee might have viewed Alabama as it viewed Georgia —without the two losses of course—and chose Oklahoma as it did over the Bulldogs. Or, perhaps the Tide could have been the No. 4 team and Oklahoma could have come in at No. 3, thus removing Notre Dame from the mix. That is doubtful, but a reasonable possibility had Alabama lost. Anyway, just thank Jalen Hurts for his decision to stay at Alabama. It meant more to Alabama this season than anyone ever expected.
Now, on to the Bowls involving SEC teams. . .
Count them. There are 11 SEC teams in postseason bowl games this year – the most ever I am sure. No other conference has as many teams in bowls and four of them are playing in Jan. 1 bowls. LSU faces UCF in the Fiesta Bowl, Georgia plays Texas in the Sugar Bowl, Kentucky will take on Penn State in the Citrus Bowl and Mississippi State will be in the Outback Bowl against Iowa. On Dec. 31 will be the day Texas A&M will play NC State in the Gator Bowl and Missouri will play Oklahoma State in the Liberty Bowl. On Dec. 29, Alabama will play Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl which is a playoff semifinal game. Also on that day, South Carolina will play in the Belk Bowl against Virginia and Florida will take on Michigan in the Peach Bowl. Auburn will face Purdue in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 28 and Vanderbilt will take on Baylor in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 27. Only Arkansas, Tennessee and Ole Miss are not in a bowl game. Ole Miss is on NCAA probation is not bowl eligible. So, 11 of 13 eligible teams from the league were selected for bowls. Great year, SEC.
Oh, I think LSU, Georgia, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Alabama and Auburn will be winners, I hope the rest of the SEC teams are as well.
Mark Clark is a local sports writer for The Citizen of East Alabama.