NFL

Nick Saban's bold decision to play a true freshman QB backfired at the worst possible time

Before this season, Nick Saban had never played a true freshman quarterback in his long and illustrious head coaching career.

But Jalen Hurts was a different kind of player, and while he didn't start the season as Alabama's starting quarterback, he won the job, fair and square.

Saban looked like a genius for going with the 18-year-old Texan at times this season -- Alabama's offense thrived as it made its final step away from the power game that might as well have been the trademark of a Saban team and fully became a modern, run-first spread attack, the kind that Saban hates to defend.

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The results were undeniable: Hurts became the first Saban quarterback to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 in a game, and Alabama's offense was one of the best and most balanced in college football. Along that all-time defense, you could easily make the argument that the 2016 Tide was Saban's best-ever team.

It didn't matter that Hurts had a poor game in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Washington -- the rest of the Alabama team was so good the contest was never really in question.

But Hurts had a similarly poor performance in Monday's CFP National Championship game, and it's hard to see how it didn't cost Alabama a second-straight national title.

Yes, Hurts had a stellar 30-yard touchdown run to give Alabama a lead with roughly 2 minutes to play, but the best pass of that six-play, 68-yard touchdown drive came from wide receiver ArDarius Stewart on a double-pass play that found O.J. Howard for a 24-yard gain.

Hurts had been so poor passing the ball to that point in the game -- a late point in the fourth quarter -- that offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian -- the element of surprise aside -- trusted a receiver to pass the ball downfield more than his starting quarterback.

Can you blame him? Hurts was 13-of-31 for 131 yards and a touchdown Monday -- good for a quarterback rating of 25.2.

That's not winning football, even for Alabama.

When Bo Scarbrough left the game with a leg injury in the second half, Hurts' inability to effectively pass in the Alabama offense became all the more apparent. Alabama was 2-for-15 on third down Monday after starting the contest by converting 2-of-3. Alabama went 3-and-out six times in the second half, though they did get a field goal out of one of those offensive failures.

Much will be made of Nick Saban's decision to fire offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin (make no mistake, Saban showed Lane the door) and replace him with Sarkisian, the former Washington and USC head coach and an Alabama offensive analyst, for the most important game of the year.

But it's not as if Kiffin had Hurts playing at an elite level in the Tide's game against Washington.

Perhaps a different voice, a different viewpoint, would help Hurts find his way. Even if it didn't, at least Saban could trust Sarkisian to be prepared for the game, something he clearly felt he couldn't do with Kiffin.

We'll never know the full effects of the OC switch -- if there were any -- but the common denominator in the situation was Hurts.

It's less-than-enjoyable to pin a loss on an 18-year-old, especially one as affable and talented as Hurts, and he certainly wasn't the only reason Alabama lost Monday, but he was, frankly, the most glaring of those reasons.

Alabama roundly outplayed Clemson for at least the first three quarters of Monday's contest, but the Tide's inability to move the ball in the second half of the game -- save for the final offensive drive -- left the door open for a Clemson comeback.

The barrage of Alabama 3-and-outs allowed Clemson to run 98 plays Monday. Even what might have been the best defense in college football history can't hold up under that heat.

Saban had never played a true freshman quarterback because of the obvious risk -- they don't have experience in the biggest moments. Up until the College Football Playoff, Hurts' talent was so prolific, his wet ears didn't matter.

But that inexperience showed up against Washington, and it showed up again against Clemson.

It seems almost unavoidable that Hurts will get another shot at winning a national championship -- he'll probably even get two -- and there's no doubt that his play was a major reason why Alabama was playing for the 2016 crown.

There will be 1,000 what-ifs following Alabama's loss, but one thing is clear beyond debate -- all of Saban's worst fears about playing a true freshman quarterback came to a head at the worst possible time.

It's a big reason why Clemson is the 2016 national champions.