It’s easy to miss that Jalen Hurts, despite earning SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2016, was highly inconsistent in his performances depending on the level of the defense he faced.
Having big splits between good and bad defenses is understandable and even expected for a true freshman operating with a small playbook. However, Hurts went from brilliant against some bad defenses to being an outright liability against top ones. Given that Florida State should be fielding an exceptional defense, he needs to show a marked improvement if Alabama is going to continue its streak of perfection in season-opening neutral-site games Saturday night.
Hurts had only two excellent passing performances against FBS competition a year ago. He threw for 14.9 yards per attempt with a passing efficiency of 228.5 against Arkansas, and then he went for 9.4 yards per attempt with a passing efficiency of 184.7 against Mississippi State. These weren’t exactly against stiff competition, as the Hogs had the No. 78- and the Bulldogs had the No. 103-ranked S&P+ passing defenses, respectively.
He did top 180 passing efficiency in limited action against USC and its 13th-ranked S&P+ defense, but two deep passes skewed the sample. He completed a nice 39-yard touchdown pass to ArDarius Stewart and hit Stewart again for a 71-yard catch-and-run touchdown off of blown coverage. He completed four of his other nine attempts for 8 yards with a pick and a passing efficiency of 29.7 on those throws.
On the flip side, the three best pass defenses he faced last year were LSU, Clemson and Washington in that order. All three of his passing efficiencies against those defenses were in the 80s. Those performances comprised three of his four games being held under 6 yards per attempt; the fourth was against Ole Miss in his first true road game of the year. In both College Football Playoff games, he barely posted a rate of over 4 yards per attempt.
Hurts’s best performance against a top defense came in the SEC Championship Game. Florida finished with the No. 6 S&P+ pass defense, though it was a heavily banged-up unit missing several starters in Atlanta. He went for 6.9 yards per throw with a passing efficiency of 129.5.
Again, though, a long gain skewed things. Early in the second quarter, Hurts hit Calvin Ridley behind the line of scrimmage on a quick throw to the sideline. Ridley avoided a badly injured Jarrad Davis and took it 52 yards. Minus that one play where Hurts had little to do with the success, and his yards per attempt rate falls to 4.5 and his passing efficiency dips to 108.0.
Florida State finished with the No. 14 S&P+ pass defense a year ago. I used linear regressions to project what the 2016 version of Hurts in 2016 Alabama’s offense would have for attempts, completion percentage, yards per attempt and passing efficiency against the 2016 Seminole defense. He projects to have approximately a line of 13 of 24 (54.2 percent) for 143 yards (5.95 YPA), two touchdowns, two interceptions and a passing efficiency of 115.1.
That works as a baseline for how to judge what Hurts does against this year’s FSU defense.
Hurts, for his part, improved over the offseason, according to the coaches. His experience allows him to run a larger playbook, and players often make a big improvement from their first to second years. For instance, he demonstrated a new and improved aptitude for the deep pass in the spring game.
FSU, however, returns nearly its entire defense from a year ago. Losing DeMarcus Walker up front will hurt, but basically everyone else is back.
What’s more, safety Derwin James is ready and available for the first time since Week 2 of a year ago. James is a freakish athlete who used his injury recovery time to deepen his knowledge of the game. He might be the best defensive player in the country this year, and FSU posted that mark of 14th in S&P+ pass defense in 2016 largely without James on the field.
Both Hurts as a passer and the Florida State pass defense should be better than they were last year. Which improvement will win out?
Alabama, in theory, could win if its offense is one-dimensional. It defeated LSU 10-0. It still beat Washington by 10 even when tossing out Ryan Anderson’s pick-six. It lead Clemson with two minutes to go in the championship game. All of these were definitely winnable games despite Hurts putting up passing efficiency numbers typically associated with quarterbacks for 2-10 Vanderbilt teams.
Even so, it’s not hard to imagine Florida State leaving Atlanta with a win if Hurts doesn’t show his improvement as a passer in the game. Whether Hurts can make progress against James and the tough FSU secondary will go a long way to determining the game’s outcome.
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