It looked like the dumbest play of Jalen Hurts’ career.

The Alabama quarterback, who threw just 1 interception all season, looked destined to double that total. On 3rd-and-9 in the red zone, down 6 points in the final 16 minutes of the Iron Bowl, Hurts threw across his body off his back foot into double coverage.

The play went against everything that Hurts is about — ball security and getting it to Alabama’s explosive playmakers in the right spots. Hurts’ pass floated in the back middle of the end zone and two Auburn defenders sandwiched Calvin Ridley. The inexplicable throw was batted into the air and, initially, it appeared that tight end Hale Hentges made a miraculous diving catch for an Alabama touchdown. Replay confirmed that the ball hit the ground. No go-ahead touchdown.

The situation went from bad to worse when a botched hold prevented Alabama from getting any points that drive. The Tide never recovered from that play, and the same question was likely asked in living rooms across the state of Alabama.

What in the world was Hurts thinking?

That play was a microcosm of Alabama’s offensive struggles this year. When Hurts had to make a play, Ridley was who he targeted. It didn’t matter that he was draped with defenders and that it would take a dangerous throw in traffic to get there. Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele told his defense going into the Iron Bowl that it was a “LeBron game.” What exactly did he mean by that?

“Yeah. 2 (Jalen Hurts) and 3 (Calvin Ridley),” Steele said. “You better know where they are.”

That, Auburn did. The Tigers held Ridley to 3 catches for 39 yards, which still led the team. Ridley hasn’t had a game with fewer than 3 catches since Alabama beat Washington in the Playoff semifinal last year. The difference was. in that game, the Tide could still impose their will on a Playoff-caliber team.

This year, Alabama hasn’t done that yet (Auburn was really the only opportunity). Against a Clemson defense that’s allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns (5) of any FBS team, the Tide can’t afford to let another defense execute a “LeBron game.”

Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, Ridley’s role in Alabama’s offense is almost too valuable. Perhaps “valuable” isn’t the right word. Hurts and the Tide are too “reliant” on Ridley in the passing game.

Outside of Ridley, no Alabama player has more than 14 catches on the season. No Alabama player has even 250 receiving yards this year.

To recap, that means Ridley is the only Alabama player who:

  • A) Averages more than 1.2 catches per game
  • B) Averages more than 20.3 receiving yards per game

For a team that can consistently dominate at the line of scrimmage and use the ground game to move the chains, that’s not usually an issue. But when Alabama was finally matched in size and speed against Auburn, it was a problem. When Alabama was finally in obvious throwing situations late in that game, it was a big problem.

Hurts has simply not developed that trust with his young receivers yet. If he did, he would’ve targeted anyone other than a double-covered Ridley on that wild tipped pass in the end zone.

Let’s get back to that original word, “valuable.” Ridley is just that for Alabama because if he goes down, the Tide become completely one-dimensional. Without him, there’s no one who can consistently stretch the field, nor is there a reliable possession receiver on Alabama’s roster that Hurts targets.

It’s not that young receivers such as Jerry Jeudy are completely incapable of doing what Ridley can. Hurts actually relied on Jeudy to go up and make a play earlier in that game, which he did:

That, however, was Jeudy’s only catch of the game. Hurts still doesn’t look like he’s on the same page as Jeudy, which has probably cost Alabama at least a handful of big passing plays this year. A passing game isn’t very effective when the defense knows the quarterback has one read (Ridley), and if that’s not viable, he’s taking off and running.

Steele knew that. You can bet that Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant last year, knows that from looking at Alabama on film. The Tigers will be focused on doing whatever they can to take Ridley away.

What happens if Clemson does take Ridley away or — hypothetically speaking — he gets injured? Ask Ohio State if you can be one-dimensional against that Clemson defense in a win-or-go-home scenario. Like Auburn, Clemson has the strength and speed to match Alabama at every position. The Tide offense could have an unfortunate flashback if Ridley is eliminated.

Let’s ask another hypothetical question. Take any non-quarterback off a Playoff team. Is any as big of a loss as Ridley? As special as Minkah Fitzpatrick is, the Tide are still loaded in the secondary. The same is true of that ground game. Ridley might be the only player that’s truly irreplaceable on Alabama.

Clemson, unlike Alabama, has three players with 45-plus catches and 500-plus receiving yards. The Tigers also have a true two-back system to complement the mobile Kelly Bryant. And on defense, removing any individual Clemson player doesn’t cause that unit to fall apart.

The same is true of Georgia and Oklahoma. Their weaknesses are different than Alabama’s, which was magnified in that Iron Bowl loss. Ridley was a non-factor and Alabama had its worst offensive output in over a year.

Hurts will have had a full month to break down what went wrong that day at Jordan-Hare. That’s more than enough time to work out the kinks and develop trust in the young receivers. Alabama must find ways to use Ridley not only as a deep threat, but as a decoy. That factor could determine whether the Tide earn a third national championship berth in as many years.

All the focus will be on No. 3.