ARLINGTON, Texas — Alabama started the 2016 season the same way it started the 2015 season—with a convincing win at AT&T Stadium. Saturday’s 52–6 thrashing of USC wasn’t in doubt for long, but it was not without intrigue. Here are three takeaways from the night in which a true freshman declared himself to be the best quarterback on the defending national champion’s roster.
1. Jalen Hurts sure looked like Alabama’s QB1 of the future and of the present
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban wasn’t lying earlier this week when he said either Blake Barnett or Cooper Bateman would start at quarterback against the Trojans. But Saban wasn’t exactly telling the truth, either. Redshirt freshman Barnett started Saturday. But after getting sacked out of one of his shoes on his first series and going three-and-out on his second, the Alabama coaches yanked Barnett in favor of Hurts. The freshman from the Houston suburb of Channelview, Texas, didn’t exactly inspire confidence on his first play. He botched the mesh on a read option and fumbled, allowing USC to recover.
Alabama coaches stuck with Hurts, and he rewarded their patience by settling down and playing like a veteran. His first career touchdown pass came on a bomb down the right sideline to ArDarius Stewart. Later, Hurts would add another touchdown pass and two touchdown runs. For the night, he completed six of 11 passes for 118 yards and ran nine times for 32 yards.
Saban had said during preseason camp that he wasn’t opposed to playing a true freshman at quarterback. "I'm going to play the best guy," Saban said early last month. "Where they came from, what their mailing address is or how old they are really doesn't determine who the best player is at that position.” Still, Saban and his staff gave the older players every chance to win the job. But when they immediately went back to Hurts after his first-play gaffe, it was clear they believed in the freshman. Saban said all off-season that he would wait until one of his quarterbacks claimed the offense as his own. Saban also pointed out that sometimes, that doesn’t happen until the games begin. It certainly looked Saturday as if Hurts had staked his claim as the player to lead this offense.
Saban said Alabama’s defense, which held USC to 2.1 yards a carry without stacking the box, made it much easier for the Crimson Tide to work through their quarterback issues. “We wanted both [Hurts and Barnett] to play in the game,” Saban said Saturday. “And when the first quarter was over, I was wondering to myself, ‘Was this a good plan or a bad plan?’ Both guys were a little shaky in the beginning. But I think Jalen, each series that he played, got more and more comfortable. He adds a dimension with his athleticism and his ability to run that I think is very effective, and I think that that actually opened up the running game.”
Does that mean Hurts is the starter going forward? Saban had some fun with that question. “I made a decision for this game that whatever we did at quarterback was for now,” Saban said. “Did you ever make a ‘for-now' decision? So we made a decision today — for now. That's the only decision we made. So I'm not speculating on what we're going to do in the future. And everybody here wanted to know who the quarterback was going to be, all right? But did anybody write when one of Southern Cal players said, ‘I wish we knew who was going to play quarterback for them?’ And isn't that the object — to make it hard for the other team? Or is it to make it good for you guys to write about? I'm wondering. I don't know. It's one of those hypothetical questions that you always ask me.”
2. Don’t despair, Trojans
You’re not going to see a team like this the rest of the season. Stanford (on Sept. 17) may come close, but the Cardinal can’t run out as many freaks on defense as Alabama. That said, there are some things coach Clay Helton could do to help win for the first time since being named the Trojans’ permanent coach following last year’s UCLA game. “I really thought, preparation-wise, we had come in the game and we were ready,” Helton said Saturday. “And that’s on me, to be honest with you.”
A) Remind the quarterbacks that Juju Smith-Schuster is on the team. Smith-Schuster might be the nation’s best receiver, but someone has to throw him the ball. The Trojans targeted him deep early in the first quarter, and Smith-Schuster drew a pass interference penalty on Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick. USC didn’t target Smith-Schuster again until midway through the third quarter.
B) Tell Adoree' Jackson to run every kickoff he catches unless he’s falling out of the back of the end zone. USC’s best chance to move the ball Saturday came when Jackson caught kickoffs. He gained 112 yards on his first four kickoff returns, and then Alabama stopped kicking to him. Jackson is dynamic, and most USC opponents won’t trot out a kickoff coverage team as athletic as Alabama’s.
C) Hope left tackle Chad Wheeler heals quickly. Wheeler, who is suffering from plantar fasciitis, played some Saturday, but he was obviously limited. To make matters worse, Helton said replacement Chuma Edoga suffered a thigh bruise and had to come out of the game because of dehydration. This is a problem when facing a group as talented and deep as Alabama’s front seven. Quarterbacks Max Browne and Sam Darnold looked like this much of the night.
3. Lane Kiffin gets his revenge
What was the Bitmoji status of Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin after the Tide slaughtered the program that fired Kiffin as head coach in 2013? This, probably…
Or perhaps this…