We’ll address the elephant in the room first (the non-Alabama elephant, that is)
A few hours after it sounded like Florida State's stop returning tackler's status for Alabama was a mystery, a resolution appears to have been reached.
Multiple outlets in Tallahassee are reporting linebacker Matthew Thomas was cleared to play Saturday against the Crimson Tide.
Coach Jimbo Fisher on Wednesday morning said he was unsure when the senior would be back on the practice field. He hasn't been on the field for three weeks with an eligibility concern.
Thomas was a FSU’s top linebacker last year, but has been a bit of a mystery the last few weeks. He just got cleared yesterday to get to play, but he’s now missed three weeks of practice, including all the game planning. It might even be a bonus to Alabama if he ends up playing rusty.
If not, his backup is 210 pounds. Bo Scarbrough will feast.
Asked this week about whether he feels more comfortable going through his progressions and operating within the pocket, Hurts replied, "It's a little different coming from a maturity aspect and being coached by Coach Daboll and all that. I think a lot of stuff has gotten better."
But seconds later, Hurts made it clear he hasn't completely eschewed his approach from last season, when he was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year.
"If [the read is] not there and you have the ability to take off and make a play, then you do that," he asserted.
Hurts' versatile skill-set gives Alabama flexibility, which is one of the reasons he won the starting job as a freshman after his very first game and has had a stranglehold over it ever since. But Saban doesn't want the Tide to rely on Hurts' athleticism as much as it did in 2016.
"I think his ability to scramble is still a tremendous asset for him," Saban said. "I think he's learned how to use that a little bit better and be an effective passer. I think systematically we're better in that regard."
The quandary of the dual-threat QB. On one hand, the ability to pass or run on any given play puts so much stress on a defense that he can be the most dangerous weapon on the field.
On the other hand, it can be extremely easy to forego looking for better passing options and take off for an easy 3 yards... when someone was wide open downfield.
Being able to balance that and still be an exceptional passing QB while also being a running threat is extremely difficult- which is why there are so few successful dual-threat QBs.
Jalen Hurts will not be Tom Brady 2.0 as a 19 year-old sophomore with a few months of tutelage under Brian Daboll. And expecting him to be an NFL-starter quality passer RIGHT NOW is placing a lot on him.
But I do expect to see more of a focus on tiered routes-- looking deep first, then to a shorter crossing or RB curl route. If neither is there, then let him run. No matter what the traditionalists say, I’ll take an 8-yard scramble over a 2-yard completion in the flats as the third option any day.
"I don't think there's any question of the fact that he's done an outstanding job in his development here through spring practice and also fall camp," coach Nick Saban said of the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Harris during the SEC coaches teleconference on Wednesday. "Right now, he is going to have an opportunity to play in this game, and I think he'll make a significant contribution to our team throughout the season. We're very excited that he's here and sort of trying to encourage his development in every way that we can so that he can be a very positive performer for us."
All the talk about Najee Harris and his likelihood of getting playing time in game one reminds me a lot of 2009 when Trent Richardson was a true freshman and playing backup to Mark Ingram.
If that’s the case, here’s to hoping that Damien Harris or Bo Scarbrough (Or both!?!) win the Heisman this year along with a National Championship, and Najee become a #3 overall pick in the NFL Draft in a few years.
Roll Tide to that.
The second reason was the late-season inconsistency of quarterback Jalen Hurts—and the changing staff responsible for coaching him. Hurts won SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors after racking up 3,734 total yards in 2016, a remarkable feat for a true freshman, but had his two worst performances of the season in the two all-important playoff games. His shaky effort in a win over Washington hastened the departure of offensive coordinator turned Florida Atlantic head coach Lane Kiffin. His 13-of-31 passing showing against Clemson meant that Alabama had only two drives of longer than two minutes—this is how Clemson ran 99 plays—and turned out to be the only game Steve Sarkisian served as Alabama’s play caller. Experience alone would explain a 2017 improvement for Hurts, who was already really good last year. And new coordinator Brian Daboll should provide more stability and less tomfoolery than Kiffin. (Daboll comes from the New England Patriots. If you’re a college football fan and somehow know the Patriots only from money-and-failure magnet Charlie Weis, let me assure you: They often have good coaches.)
Alabama barely faltered last season, and we have reason to believe it should patch the few gaps that it had. The Tide will replace their departing stars with other stars. They will be the smartest national championship pick for the foreseeable future. Perhaps the 65-year-old Saban will even defeat aging and keep Alabama in permanent championship contention. He has to hope that Deshaun Watson doesn’t play for Aging.
Give this article a click if you have a few minutes to read. Rodger Sherman from The Ringer breaks down the 10 teams that he sees as perennial National Championship contenders, and it’s solid, funny writing, if not the most stat-based.
In regard to Alabama, he mentions that there are only two reasons Alabama lost that game, and we shouldn’t have to worry about either in 2017. The first was that DeShaun Watson was ridiculous and went for 99 plays, getting better every single play despite the ragdoll beating he took from the Bama pass rush. He’s in the NFL now.
The other was that Hurts struggled as a passer. But hopefully the arrival of Daboll will help to alleviate that ailment, as will Hurts having a year of experience under his belt now.
If all of that comes together, watch out.
You can point to all the defensive talent Saban has to replace from last year's generational unit if you want to. Then there's the argument that nobody knows how Daboll's scheme is going to play out on the field.
But the bottom line is the Crimson Tide still have the league's best defense, and they should have the best offense, too.
They have four running backs who could get viable playing time at any SEC school, and though Jalen Hurts struggled throwing the ball downfield late last year, people forget he was a true freshman. He's one of the most talented dual-threat signal-callers in college ball.
Alabama isn't struggling, and while it is possible somebody will knock off the Tide, they're still the safe pick to win the league.
Bleacher Report put out a decent article capping the state of the SEC and some of the major storylines and players coming into the season. Give it a read if you’re like me and ignore pretty much any football news outside of Alabama all offseason.
Meanwhile, we have two days left until its game time. Hold onto your butts. We’re almost there.