Critics worry that Alabama’s offense does not test Hurts as the N.F.L. might and lets him rely on his legs. While Hurts’s mobility sets him apart from those previous signal-callers, he is in other important respects a classic Saban quarterback.
The Saban philosophy of quarterbacking can be summarized as: Don’t screw up. For Saban, who was an N.F.L. defensive coordinator under Patriots Coach Bill Belichick and coached the Miami Dolphins for two seasons, the quarterback’s main goals are to get the ball to talented backs and receivers, avoid big errors and let his typically top-ranked defenses do the rest.
“Jalen has always been a guy that, because of his athleticism and his ability to run the ball, has made a lot of plays with his feet,” Saban said. “But I also think that we’ve been able to help him develop as a quarterback in terms of his decision-making in the pocket.”
That emphasis is not new for Saban. The starting quarterback on the first of his five national championship teams (he won his first one at Louisiana State) has, in his football afterlife, taken on the profession that perhaps best suits the prototypical Saban quarterback: dentist.
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As the head signal-caller on the 2003 L.S.U. team, Matt Mauck averaged just 16 completions and barely 200 yards per game. He was called on not to be a superhero, but to be efficient.
“If it’s third-and-5,” said Mauck, who now works as a dentist near Denver, “just focus on getting six yards.”
In a Saban offense, the quarterback is never the team’s most talented player. (This year, that distinction likely belongs either to running back Bo Scarbrough or wide receiver Calvin Ridley.) For the quarterbacks who played alongside the Heisman Trophy winners Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry, the best play was frequently a dump-off.
“So many guys want to drive it down the field, make a tight window,” McElroy said, “but if you have the running back three yards away from you, that’s the best ball-carrier on the field.”
Saban could not — as has been remarked of offensive gurus like Bill Walsh, the former San Francisco 49ers coach — take any guy off the street, anoint him quarterback and win the national title.
Credit Heather Ainsworth for The New York Times
“It doesn’t bother me — well, it does a little bit — when people say anyone can play quarterback at Alabama,” McElroy said. “But it’s not true.”
That is because Saban asks his quarterbacks to do different things, but not necessarily fewer things, than most college coaches request. The derogatory “game manager” appellation is unfair to them. Mauck was one of the game’s most efficient quarterbacks; McCarron and Coker had among the highest completion percentages.
“The first thing we talk about in any game we play is, ‘The ball, the ball, the ball,’” Saban said earlier this season.
Saban essentially assumes that any opposing defense will be as complicated and brilliant as his own, according to Kirk Doll, an assistant head coach on that 2003 L.S.U. team. Saban made opposing quarterbacks “have a hard time recognizing it and getting into a good play,” Doll said. Saban demanded that his own quarterback be able to handle the same challenge.
Maybe the toughest thing for Saban quarterbacks is buying into the mind-set that calls on them not to win the game single-handedly. Young men who, as high-schoolers, were nationally recognized athletes playing football’s signature position are required to put all that aside.
“The first thing is checking your ego at the door,” McElroy said.
He added: “There are a lot of guys who love stats. And I loved stats! But I liked winning more.”
Several years ago, as Saban lost to Texas A&M’s scrambling Johnny Manziel and Auburn’s innovative offenses, he concluded that his teams needed to put more points on the board and procure the quarterbacks to do it. The classic game of the first part of Saban’s tenure at Alabama was the title matchup against L.S.U. after the 2011 season, a 21-0 shutout. The classic game of the current Saban era might be the January 2016 title game versus Clemson, a 45-40 shootout.
Hurts, a dual-threat quarterback — that is, able to run and pass — is perfect for the current Saban offense, which is 12th in the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision this season in points per game, with 37.9.
“Hurts was his first guy who has really changed the course of the thinking of what we expect Saban to sign at quarterback,” said Chad Simmons, an analyst for the recruiting site Rivals.
Before last season, as a true freshman, Hurts beat out two eagerly recruited pro-style quarterbacks for the starting job. With Hurts, Alabama has gone 26-2 and made it to two national title games. Hurts may not have had the arm to reach a wide-open Ridley downfield for what looked like a sure, big-play touchdown in the second quarter against Clemson on Monday, but he has the 11th-highest efficiency rating in top-tier college football and has thrown just one interception this season.
Ball security is “something that Jalen is very conscious of and done a good job of,” Saban said.
Alabama’s backup, the freshman Tua Tagovailoa, is also a dual-threat quarterback, and Simmons said Alabama’s biggest quarterback target among high school seniors was James Foster, who can also both run and pass.
If there is any team whose quarterback represents the old Saban paradigm, it is probably Georgia. Coached by the former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, Georgia relies on a stifling defense and a run-first offense whose quarterback, the freshman Jake Fromm, stands out for his extreme calm, his 63.7 percent completion rate and his 23-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
In fact, Alabama had eagerly recruited Fromm.
“We thought he was a fantastic player,” Saban said recently, adding the highest praise one can imagine Saban giving a quarterback. “Always puts his team in the best play that they can be in.”