Can Patrick Surtain bounce back from a bad Orange Bowl? Alabama's title hopes might depend on it
Patrick Surtain is an extremely talented cornerback who will likely earn plenty of accolades by the time his career at Alabama finishes. Odds are, 3 or 4 years being coached by Nick Saban will lead to NFL riches.
But in the short-term, like Monday night, Surtain’s future is uncertain.
That’s worth bringing up after the true freshman cornerback was, for lack of a better phrase, picked on against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. It almost felt like once Kyler Murray realized that the former 5-star recruit was on an island, he had his go-to target. It was CeeDee Lamb on Surtain.
Whether it was deep balls down the sideline in single coverage or 15-yard outs to the end zone, Surtain was clearly overmatched by the talented Oklahoma wideout.
Surtain was given that opportunity in a Playoff game for a reason. Entering Saturday night, the true freshman hadn’t allowed a touchdown in 771 passing snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Surtain started 10 games (11 including the Orange Bowl) and looked every bit like the 5-star recruit that Saban surprisingly stole from LSU ahead of signing day in 2018.
He just didn’t on Saturday night, and it was obvious.
Was it just one bad night? Or was Surtain’s inability to contain an elite route-runner exposed?
Clemson isn’t lacking in that department. The Tigers have a bit of a “pick your poison” approach when it comes to its receivers. There’s the ageless slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, and Tee Higgins is the most dynamic wideout of the bunch, seemingly capable of a highlight-reel catch every time he steps on to the field. He racked up 231 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns in his last 3 games, including a score against Notre Dame.
Lining up at the other wideout spot is Alabama native and true freshman Justyn Ross, who was unguard-able in the Cotton Bowl. Ross racked up 148 yards and a pair of touchdowns as Trevor Lawrence’s top target.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Ross will get plenty of chances to line up opposite of fellow freshman, Surtain. Alabama would probably prefer to have top corner Saivion Smith on the more experienced route-runner in Higgins, though that could depend on if Ross does to Alabama what he did to Notre Dame.
And perhaps part of that could even depend on how close the game is being called. Lamb was physical without interfering with the 6-2, 200-pound freshman, and that helped fuel his big night:
— Sooner Gridiron (@soonergridiron) December 30, 2018
It’s not crazy to think that Dabo Swinney, the former wide receiver, is going to have a thought or two on how to attack Surtain now that there’s film of his mistakes. And even though Lawrence is only a freshman, he’s plenty capable of finding the mismatch and exploiting it. It just took Murray a little too long to realize it.
Had Alabama not jumped out to a 4-touchdown lead early, Surtain could’ve been the goat (not the good kind). Instead, his play was the “better get that cleaned up” area.
The question is if the true freshman can shake off what was unofficially his worst game of the year. The last thing he wants, after an ideal start to his career, is to finish with a pair of duds to close his freshman season, especially if it results in Alabama coming up short of a national title. Fortunately for him, he has the best in the business to help correct those mistakes.
Even with Saban at the controls, one had to assume that there were at least going to be some moments of instability from a secondary that lost its top 6 players from a season ago. The issue being whether Alabama would be able to withstand them.
Against Oklahoma, the Crimson Tide did. Against a better team, maybe that won’t be the case.
One thing is for sure — Surtain sure as heck doesn’t want to be the reason that question resurfaces Monday night.