ATLANTA — Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts is 26-2 as a starter and is playing in the College Football Playoff championship for the second straight season. He’ll get another chance to win the title game at 8 p.m. Monday, versus Georgia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium here in Atlanta.
The Crimson Tide’s sophomore quarterback spent Saturday’s media session answering questions about all the pressure points of playing signal caller for a school with national-championship-or-bust expectations. And he remembers one simple, unfair lesson he learned from last year’s title game loss to Clemson.
“Don’t lose,” Hurts said. “That’s it.”
MORE: Saban, Belichick and dynasties that just won’t stop
That’s how Hurts bears those expectations at Alabama, where even winning is no longer enough. Consider the fan-sided interpretation of “The Process,” which Nick Saban has patented into four national championships with the Tide.
“Don’t lose. Win. Dominate while you’re doing it. Roll Tide. 17.”
Hurts said he deals with those expectations with the “short-term memory” necessary for that kind of job, but he’s still by far the most critiqued player on the Tide’s roster. The only time the even-keeled quarterback came close to raising his voice on Saturday was in response to a question about the Iron Bowl, which Alabama lost 26-14.
“With all due respect, I don’t want to talk about Auburn,” Hurts said. “We’re in the national championship game. If you want to talk, let’s talk about Georgia.”
Let’s talk about that. Hurts doesn’t have to stray too far from the formula that put Alabama in this position. He has thrown just one interception this season while learning under new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, Hurts’ third offensive coordinator in two seasons. Daboll remains impressed with his quarterback’s maturity and knack for taking care of the football.
“Every play has a risk and a reward to it,” Daboll said. “What am I going to gain vs. what is it going to cost us? I think he did a good job as a risk-reward manager with the football.”
Hurts finished with a season-high 16 completions on 24 attempts for 120 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Alabama’s 24-6 victory against Clemson on Jan. 1, hours after reports leaked that backup Tua Tagovailoa would see action against the Tigers. Whether that was gamesmanship or not is immaterial: It’s another layer to the pressure Hurts will face in the offseason. Hurts isn’t losing at Alabama, but sometimes that isn’t enough: Every fan base is looking for the next quarterback.
MORE: Alabama vs. Georgia: SN picks the championship game
While Hurts manned the podium for an hour on Saturday, Tagovailoa’s media opportunities were hit-and-miss. When Tagovailoa did speak, he backed up Hurts.
“If he makes a mistake, in the back of his head he’s not worried about, ‘Oh am I going to be replaced or not,'” Tagovailoa said. “That’s the best thing you can do is be supportive. If the roles were reversed, I would want the same thing.”
Daboll sees the same dynamic between Hurts and Tagovailoa.
“Those guys are great in the meeting room together,” Daboll said. “We work every day to improve. That’s our mantra. The roles haven’t been reversed — even if that competition will heat up again in spring football. In this spot, Hurts simply needs to execute all those risk-reward points.”
It’s easy to forget Hurts led the would-be game-winning drive against Clemson last season, too. On the flip side, in those two career losses, Hurts had a 47.1 completion percentage. He’ll need to make enough plays in the passing game to offset a physical Georgia defense, led by Butkus Award winner Roquan Smith.
Hurts isn’t worried about anything else at this point, including the distractions. He doesn’t shut himself off to outside noise; he just knows how to deal with it after two seasons in the spotlight.
“Everybody knows what’s going on inside the building,” Hurts said. “That’s all that matters.”
MORE: Five numbers that make Playoff title game
In other words, don’t lose. That worked for Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron and Jake Coker en route to national championships under Saban. It’s a unique opportunity for Hurts to make it five for Saban at Alabama, and six overall. There isn’t a better way to endear yourself to a fan base with those expectations.
“Don’t lose. Win. Another national championship. Dominate if possible. Roll Tide. 17.”
Hurts says he’ll handle that pressure the only way he knows how.
“Just me being the person I am,” Hurts said. “Don’t let change bother me. It’s easy for me to brush things off. Just go out and do my job.”