Joe Burrow vs. LSU killer Jalen Hurts? Why an irony-filled matchup could be one for the ages
Let’s go back in time 19 months ago to the day.
It was May 8. Joe Burrow announced that he was leaving Ohio State. The guy who, in case you haven’t heard, “couldn’t win the starting job in Columbus,” decided his path to playing was blocked.
As of that date, Jalen Hurts was still locked in a battle of his own. While the increasing sentiment was that Hurts wasn’t going to beat Tua Tagovailoa for the starting job at Alabama — it probably didn’t help matters that a couple of weeks earlier Nick Saban was caught on a live mic expressing his frustrations for Hurts’ inability to complete passes in a spring game — it was still a competition.
Neither Hurts nor Burrow won their respective job, and of course, the rest is history. What happened in a 20-month stretch is the stuff of fictional sports movie. One of them will continue their silver screen story, and the other has to settle for the heartbreaking ending.
It’s a matchup that has everything — irony, star-power and national intrigue galore. It’s not a protagonist-antagonist game by any stretch, seeing as how Burrow and Hurts would dominate an “America’s favorite player” vote. They’ve earned your respect for how they handled their respective situations and how they’ve truly developed into elite college quarterbacks. They went to systems that allowed for them to rise in ways that few thought they could.
It’s strange to think about either Hurts or Burrow ending up on the losing side in Atlanta. Each of their last trips to Mercedes-Benz Stadium were SEC Championship performances for the ages.
Nobody needs reminding of what Burrow did on Saturday in a game in which he torched an elite Georgia defense en route to SEC Championship MVP honors. And nobody needs reminding of what Hurts did last year in a game in which he entered for an injured Tua Tagovailoa and also torched an elite Georgia defense en route to an SEC Championship victory (which should’ve earned him MVP honors).
It was the last bit of brilliance we saw from Hurts at Alabama. LSU fans hope that won’t be the last bit of brilliance that we see from Burrow.
Despite the fact that Burrow’s Tigers are the obvious favorites, history is working against them in a couple of different ways.
The No. 1 seed — the thing LSU fought tooth and nail to earn — hasn’t won a national title in the Playoff era. In fact, it boasts just a 3-5 record since the system began in 2014. LSU is no longer the underdog despite the fact that this is the program’s first Playoff berth.
Compare that to 2016 and 2017 (the pre-Burrow era) when LSU was the team that couldn’t get over the Alabama hump. Why couldn’t they? Part of it was the elite Alabama defense. Another part of it was because Hurts made key plays when Alabama needed them. The overall numbers aren’t gaudy by any means. His numbers against LSU average out to 49% accuracy with 145 passing yards with 79 rushing yards and a rushing score. But twice Hurts faced Dave Aranda’s defense, and twice he was on the winning side with plays like this:
— Alex Byington (@_AlexByington) November 6, 2016
Obviously Lincoln Riley’s system has Hurts in a wildly different role than where he was at a few years ago. Much like comparing 2019 Hurts to 2017 Hurts is night and day, the same is true of 2019 Burrow and 2018 Burrow.
Needless to say, the 2 times that Hurts beat LSU, he never had to worry about keeping pace with an offense as historically dominant as this Joe Brady-influenced version of the Tigers. Back when Hurts battled LSU, Ed Orgeron’s offseason frustration with being on the wrong side of the Alabama losing streak usually had something to do with being some quality quarterback play from getting over the hump.
LSU is no longer quality quarterback play away from getting over the hump, which Oklahoma obviously knows nothing about. The Sooners’ 3 Playoff semifinal losses came with Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray at quarterback. Hurts isn’t the key ingredient to getting Oklahoma over the hump. It’s a defense that allowed an average of 45 points in those 3 Playoff losses. Tua Tagovailoa, Jake Fromm and Deshaun Watson were the 3 quarterbacks who did the damage.
Is Burrow about to join that club? We already know that the LSU quarterback is about to accomplish something that none of them did. That is, win a Heisman Trophy.
We have yet to see a Heisman-winning quarterback win a national title in the Playoff era. Add that to the aforementioned stat about No. 1 seeds struggling in the Playoff era and it’s fair to say Burrow’s continued dominance is by no means a given. He’s trying to cap the same hat trick that Cam Newton and Jameis Winston earned — a Heisman, a conference championship and a national championship.
Meanwhile, Hurts has another trend of his own that he’s working against. In his fourth Playoff berth, Hurts is searching for his first national title. Check that. He won the 2017 National Championship, but of course that came after Tagovailoa replaced him in the second half. Hurts has yet to be the winning quarterback who had the confetti fall on him after a national championship.
Remember 2016? Hurts used a picture of confetti falling on Clemson as his screen-saver for the entire offseason. There’s a chip on his shoulder. Still. And no, it’s not a chip that involves anger at Alabama. It’s a chip that derived from people who thought he couldn’t throw after his passing game struggles in Brian Daboll’s offense in 2017.
It feels like the same is true of Burrow, who plays with that proverbial chip in a way that’s unlike anything we’ve seen from an SEC player in recent memory. It’s Baker Mayfield-esque, sure, but Burrow’s bravado is different than the former Oklahoma quarterback and it’s certainly different from the current Oklahoma quarterback. To each their own.
Both quarterbacks got to this point by doing them. They were prime examples of what the transfer portal can do for those who are ready for it. Burrow and Hurts were absolutely ready for it.
In a few short weeks, they’ll be ready to battle each other. Between them, they boast 9 years of college experience, 4 SEC Championships and 2 perfect transfer decisions (after both earned their undergraduate degrees in 3 years). Both are in search of something that very few people thought they’d earn 19 months ago. Both players will have incredible support not just within their fanbase, but outside of them, as well.
It’s the matchup we never knew we needed, and it’s the one we should be grateful that we’ll get.