TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The question posed in the headline is a bit of a loaded one, but when your editor gives you an assignment, you go with it.
Let’s break this down: Can Alabama football beat Georgia in the SEC Championship Game without starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa?
That depends. Are we talking about Alabama with a healthy Jalen Hurts? Or would this version of Alabama feature Mac Jones as the starting quarterback?
With respect to Jones and his game, we haven’t seen enough of the redshirt freshman in meaningful game reps to make a fair assessment of what he can or can’t do. Maybe we’ll get that opportunity this coming Saturday when Alabama hosts The Citadel.
If Hurts (ankle) is healthy, Alabama absolutely can beat Georgia without Tagovailoa (knee). That’s a big if at the moment, because Hurts has been limited the last three weeks and has missed the last two games after undergoing a procedure to help his ankle sprain. A big part of Hurts’ game is his ability to run and make defenders miss in the open field, so not having two healthy ankles would limit his explosiveness.
But the two biggest reasons I believe Alabama could beat Georgia without Tagovailoa — if Hurts is healthy — are Hurts’ improvement as a passer and how well Alabama’s defense is playing.
Hurts has shown a willingness to hang in the pocket and deliver strikes that we didn’t see in his two years as a starter. He’s still developing in terms of going through his progressions, but he has done better in that area as well, when given time. Hurts always had a strong arm, but he wouldn’t always trust what he saw and wouldn’t rifle the ball into tight windows. Some of that was likely from being risk-averse, as Nick Saban preaches that his quarterbacks protect the ball. But we’ve seen Hurts take more chances this season. Alabama would still be the favorite over Georgia with a healthy Hurts.
Further, Alabama’s defense is playing lights-out football over the last two-plus games.
Alabama has pitched back-to-back shutouts for the first time since 2012, blanking LSU 29-0 two weeks ago and Mississippi State 24-0 on Saturday. Alabama hasn’t surrendered a single point in its last 13 quarters of play, which covers 152 minutes and 18 seconds dating to a second-quarter Tennessee touchdown pass on Oct. 20.
The way Alabama is playing right now defensively, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Georgia’s offense has a ton of success.
Teams rarely run the ball well on Alabama. Alabama held LSU to 12 net rushing yards (0.5 per carry) two weeks ago. Mississippi State managed just 44 rushing yards. Alabama has held its last five opponents to 329 yards on the ground (65.8 yards per game). The Tide’s last four SEC opponents have rushed for just 157 yards, an average of 39.3 yards per contest.
If Alabama is bottling up Georgia’s run game, do people trust Jake Fromm to hang in the pocket and beat Alabama with his arm? Or better, do people trust Georgia’s offensive line to hold up against Quinnen Williams, Raekwon Davis, Isaiah Buggs and the rest of Alabama’s defensive front?
Tagovailoa is obviously a big part of Alabama’s attack, but the Crimson Tide would be fine with a healthy Hurts. Surely though, every Alabama fan in the country is hoping that scenario doesn’t present itself.