'Thank God Jalen stayed:' Hurts earns ultimate redemption in leading Alabama back from the brink
Jalen Hurts lost his job, gained more of his teammates' respect and repaid them with a heroic effort
ATLANTA -- As Nick Saban walked off the Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf on Saturday night, the irony hit him like a forearm to the jaw.
"It's amazing, this team," Alabama's coach said. "Last year, Tua [Tagovailoa] comes in and does it. This year, Jalen [Hurts] does. Same building. Same team."
Unbelievably enough, same result.
Alabama is headed back to the College Football Playoff because of irony so thick you needed a machete to hack through it.
Jalen Hurts is the quarterback who wasn't supposed to be here. Tua Tagovailoa was the rock-star quarterback who wasn't supposed to be beat.
They literally changed roles from last year's CFP National Championship when Tagovailoa was injured early in the third quarter on Saturday.
This time, Hurts was the hero throwing the game-tying touchdown and running for the winner helping beat Georgia, 35-28. That was only after Tagovailoa had limped off 2 ½ minutes into the second half with an apparent right ankle injury.
You may recall it was Hurts' sub-standard play in January's title game that got him benched at halftime here in January. That's when the Legend of Tua was born.
On Saturday, Hurts was reborn. Try to wrap your mind around that.
Georgia could not do just that in what has to qualify as one of the most painful kicks to the nether regions in SEC history. The Dawgs have now played Alabama to its knees in consecutive postseasons with championships at stake and been beaten by backup quarterbacks asked to perform in emergency situations.
"You're part of history," Alabama center Ross Pierschbacher said. "People are going to be talking about this. I'm just so happy for the guy. All the things he did this season. "
Hurts was the quarterback who (supposedly) had one foot out the door the moment Tagovailoa won the national championship last year.
In the offseason, Hurts's father even called him college football's most valuable free agent. Then Hurts did something … by doing nothing. He stayed to serve as a backup despite a 26-2 record as a starter.
A season's worth of (mostly) sitting on the bench paid off with the promise Saban had given him: the experience of being around a championship program, if not starting for it.
"It's unprecedented to have a guy that won as many games as he's won … over a two-year period," Saban said. "Start as a freshman, only lose a couple of games this whole time that he was a starter, and then all the sudden he's not the quarterback.
"How do you manage that? How do you handle that?"
We still don't fully know the answer. It finally dawned on everyone that Hurts was actually staying when he took the field to mop up against Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 29. New NCAA rules allow players to participate in up to four games and still retain that year of eligibility. The Louisiana-Lafayette contest was Game 5.
"It sent a message to us," Pierschbacher said. "He's team-first."
It also gave Alabama one of the deepest quarterback rooms in the country. But that only meant something if Hurts actually had to play. In 10 games before Saturday, he had thrown 58 passes.
In the third quarter, he was asked to win the game. What followed after he entered was the completion of an 18-play drive that tied it 28-28. And with 64 seconds left, Hurts burst up the middle for 15 yards on a quarterback draw that won it. Hurts was responsible for all five of Alabama's third-down conversions on the night, four of them on the game-tying drive after he entered the game.
"We know what adversity looks like," Hurts said. "Sometimes we're going to get hit in the mouth, but we know we're going to be fine."
But who, why, how? The way Tagovailoa was playing this season, the two had swapped identities. Tagovailoa became the record setter, the Heisman Trophy favorite over a benched teammate who had been the SEC's offensive player of the year as a freshman.
"It feels like I'm breaking my silence," Hurts said. "I haven't said anything all year."
What was there to talk about until Georgia took a 28-14 lead making Tagovailoa look shaky in the process? The three worst college football things ever to happen in succession to Tagovailoa occurred on the first possession.
--An 11-yard sack in the red zone while driving on Georgia.
--Followed by a what-was-he-doing? pick thrown to Georgia defensive back Richard LeCounte.
--That was followed by a trip to the mysterious medical tent.
Tagovailoa emerged seemingly OK, but he never seemed quite right -- whether it was his right knee, some other body part, the Georgia defense or a combination of all three.
And that was before Tagovailoa injured the ankle after stepping on the leg of left tackle Jonah Williams.
It was easily the quarterback's worst game of his career -- 10-of-25 passing for 164 yards and two interceptions. Those picks equaled his season total.
"Everybody said they were unbeatable," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "We knew we've got a good football team. We've got a really physical football team."
Those traits allowed the Dawgs to take 21-7 and 28-14 leads. Alabama had trailed for 70 seconds all season. On Saturday, it had to prove it could rally from by far its biggest deficits.
"We're built for this," tailback Damien Harris said. "We're built for these challenges, coaches throwing adversity at us every single day in practice. No matter what the circumstances in the game, there is no scoreboard. It doesn't matter how much we are up or down."
The assumption is that Alabama routinely practiced being down by two touchdowns minus their starting quarterback with the clock slowly counting down to the end of an undefeated season.
That would be impossible. When you're winning by three touchdowns a game and suddenly you're pushed, familiarity is not the default.
There is a bit of desperation.
"Things weren't looking good for us," Pierschbacher said.
Alabama found out that Hurts can still play. On the 10-yard pass to Jerry Jeudy that tied it, Hurts might have pulled it down and run it last year. Instead, he fit a laser into a tight window.
"Everyone on the team noticed that Jalen made huge strides this year," Pierschbacher said. "I think the quarterback battle brought the best out of both of them. For him to stick around and not redshirt … it speaks of his character. I think we gained a lot of respect for him as a man. He didn't turn his back on us."
In the moments that led to Alabama's first comeback win since the last time they played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium 10 months ago, that was the revelation.
"Jalen's one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Tua's one of the best quarterbacks in the country," nose guard Quinnen Williams said. "I believe in both of them.
"I thank God Jalen stayed."
Georgia thought it was breaking through. Instead, Hurts broke the Bulldogs' hearts. The still-No. 1 Crimson Tide can have one heck of a watch party Sunday when the College Football Playoff bracket is revealed.
Jalen Hurts should have a seat in the first row.
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