With the calendar turned to October, there’s no getting around it: Jalen Hurts is having a historic year in his last season of college football. He packed more into his first three years than most do in a career — two SEC titles and three national championship berths, including one in which he watched a dramatic comeback from the sideline, along with a heroic redemption in last season’s SEC championship game. “Everything about it is unique,” Hurts told reporters last spring. “For me, I know it’s happening to a unique person.”
He had already established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the country, going 26-2 as a starter for Alabama. When he left the Crimson Tide to team up with quarterback guru Lincoln Riley, coach of the four-time reigning Big 12 champion Oklahoma Sooners, there was no way of knowing how the alliance would turn out. Through four games, they’ve been unstoppable.
Hurts lost his starting job at Alabama not because of injuries or inconsistency but because he had committed the very forgivable crime of not keeping pace with breakout star Tua Tagovailoa. Few quarterbacks ever had, judging by Tagovailoa’s 2018 season. In many ways, though, Hurts is matching Tagovailoa now. Last season, Tagovailoa set a Football Bowl Subdivision record with a passing efficiency rating of 199.4. Through one month this season, Tagovailoa’s rating is 225.1, and Hurts’s is 249.9, the highest in the country and on pace for the highest ever.
Hurts also leads the country in total QBR, with a mark of 97.5. He ranks first in yards per play with a staggering 13.2 and is second in total offense with 434.5 yards per game, despite throwing only three fourth-quarter passes in four Alabama-esque blowouts. He is the first player since at least 2004 to start a season with four games of at least 15 passes and at least 14 yards per attempt, and he is also the first in that span to start with a raw QBR above 95 (minimum 15 pass attempts) in four straight games.
Though many other factors are at play, Hurts has raised the stakes on that intense Alabama quarterback competition from last summer: Who wins the Heisman Trophy? (Tagovailoa is the betting favorite at 2-3, followed by Hurts at 4-1.) The national championship? (Tagovailoa and Alabama are No. 1 in ESPN’s FPI; Hurts and Oklahoma are No. 5.) The No. 1 NFL draft choice? (Tagovailoa is considered the better NFL prospect, ranked No. 2 in The Athletic’s list of the top 60 prospects.)
At Oklahoma, Hurts has added to an almost unprecedented run of quarterbacks under Riley’s tutelage, succeeding Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. The Sooners are the second team since 1947 with back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners (not counting USC’s second in a row, won — and then given up — by Reggie Bush). They’re also the second team in history with back-to-back No. 1 overall draft picks.1 Through four games in 2017, Mayfield’s total QBR was 93.4; through five games (four starts) last season, Murray’s total QBR was 97.0. With his background, Hurts was expected to be Oklahoma’s next great quarterback. But perhaps nobody foresaw just how good he would be.
The big question in football — college and, soon, the NFL — has been this: Is Hurts’s rise a product of his growth or of Riley’s offense? It’s difficult to distinguish, but the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. NFL teams have long coveted Riley for his offensive mind, and his scheme has opened the field for Hurts. “I heard a coach say this years ago: If your system is not a quarterback-friendly system, you need to find a new system,” Riley told FOX Sports last week. This season, 49.4 percent of Hurts’s throws have traveled 10 or more yards downfield, compared with 38.6 percent in 2017, his last full season as a starter; 23.5 percent have traveled 20 or more yards, up from 15.4 percent in 2017. His air yards per attempt are up from 8.33 to 11.42. At the same time, Hurts is a more accurate thrower: He’s been off-target on a minuscule 2.4 percent of passes this season. “I had to do very little fundamentally with him,” Riley said earlier in the season. “I’m not this guy that, in your drop you need to hold it 3 centimeters more to the right. … The guy can either throw it or he can’t.”
The possibility of Alabama-Clemson Part V has dominated the conversation this season, but a Hurts-Tagovailoa, Oklahoma-Alabama showdown — at least in the College Football Playoff semifinals, if not the title game — would be fascinating. Considering the history between the two quarterbacks, it would also be a nice conclusion to both careers.2 By all accounts, the two remained friends throughout their competition at Alabama, as Hurts celebrated Tagovailoa’s comeback in the national championship against Georgia even after the two-year starter had been benched.
When he left, Hurts penned a letter to Alabama in The Players’ Tribune, ending with, “It’s been a great three years. I’ll love you until the end of time!” He remains popular with Alabama locals — even his former coach. After Hurts’s Oklahoma debut, Alabama coach Nick Saban said it “doesn’t surprise me in the least bit” to see Hurts excelling at Oklahoma.
All of this is unheard of — that Oklahoma could have a third-straight transfer win a Heisman; that perhaps the two best quarterbacks in the country played on the same team for two years; and that they may end up owning the two best single-season passer ratings in college football history. With three months left in the season, plenty of challengers could derail this collision course: Oklahoma must still play Texas, Alabama should have to go through Georgia, and then there is the small matter of the reigning national champion Clemson Tigers. But if Hurts was right in his letter, and an ESPN “30 for 30” film does end up documenting his career, it’s likely to have one exciting ending.
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