A year ago, a complete transformation unfolded at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Perhaps the better word for what played out in the 2018 SEC Championship was more “maturation” than “transformation.” Jalen Hurts was benched after the first half of the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship in the same building after he started 3-for-8 for 21 yards. It was his lack of development in the passing game that ultimately prompted Nick Saban to roll with Tua Tagovailoa (everyone remembers what happened after that).

Back to the 2018 SEC Championship.

Hurts, in relief of the injured Tagovailoa, was brilliant … with his arm. He picked apart the same Georgia secondary that stymied him a year earlier in Atlanta. Hurts had a 4th quarter for the ages with 82 passing yards and a touchdown pass to Jerry Jeudy, as well as the go-ahead rushing score that gave Alabama the SEC championship.

So when Hurts hit the transfer portal after the 2018 season, the thought was that he wanted to continue to mature as a passer like he did in his year working with Dan Enos. What was the best place to do that? Obviously it was Oklahoma, AKA the program that just had consecutive quarterbacks win the Heisman Trophy with historically efficient passing seasons.

Saturday will mark the 3rd year in a row that Hurts is playing a postseason game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He got there in large part because of that passing maturation. He had career highs in passing yards, passing touchdowns, yards per attempt, and essentially every worthwhile passing stat (he also set personal bests in rushing).

But the plan to beat LSU shouldn’t involve Hurts throwing to keep pace with Joe Burrow and the Tigers’ high-powered passing offense. It should involve Hurts being more runner than passer.

Oh, the irony.

What a thought that is in 2019. Let me repeat that one more time — Oklahoma should run the ball more because that makes more sense than turning it into a shootout against LSU’s unstoppable aerial attack.

One would think this has to be on Lincoln Riley’s mind. Much of that is based on what we saw in the last month from the Tigers. Against Ole Miss, LSU looked like a bad Big 12 defense. It played like the Oklahoma team that ranked No. 101 in scoring defense in 2018. The Tigers allowed true freshman John Rhys Plumlee to rack up a school-record 212 rushing yards on 21 carries. The 402 rushing yards allowed by LSU were 18 short of the school record.

That game was filled with missed tackles, poor gap control and coverage breakdowns galore. That wasn’t the first time LSU struggled to come up with defensive answers, either. It was the fourth game (out of 9) that LSU allowed at least 37 points. Even though LSU won 58-37, it resulted in the Playoff selection committee dropping the Tigers from No. 1 to No. 2.

What happened after that was a different story. With a healthy Grant Delpit, LSU held a pair of preseason top 15 teams (Texas A&M and Georgia) to an average of 8.5 points. The missed tackles/poor gap control/coverage breakdowns faded faster than you could say “Burrow for Heisman.”

Is it possible that LSU’s defense got the kick in the pants it needed against Ole Miss and it’s essentially in buzzsaw mode now? Absolutely. If the Tigers cover that 2-touchdown spread against Oklahoma, that’s exactly what we’ll be saying come Saturday night.

That brings us back to the Sooners. Riley can look at those A&M and Georgia games and see the same thing I saw — neither team tested LSU with spread-it-out, designed quarterback runs. They didn’t prioritize that for 60 minutes, unlike Texas, who actually got 87 rushing yards on 15 carries (taking away sack yards) from Sam Ehlinger in that thriller against LSU in Austin. Neither A&M nor Georgia truly forced the LSU secondary to get out of their comfort zone (covering) by getting off blocks and making tackles in the open field.

Check that. A&M actually did do that on the opening series of the game. Kellen Mond had a designed run on the second play from scrimmage and picked up 14 yards. Mond had 4 designed runs for 26 yards (6.5 yards per carry) in the first quarter, 2 of which resulted in A&M first downs. The problem? The Aggies were staring at a 21-0 deficit by the end of the 1st quarter and they were in catch-up mode the rest of the night.

Ole Miss decided that it wasn’t going to stop running the ball just because it trailed by 3 scores. It worked. Had their defense shown any signs of life that night — something that’s not easy against LSU — and it could’ve been a much scarier game.

The misconception is that in order to stay on the field with LSU, the offensive sequence has to be pass, pass, pass. Against that secondary, though, that’s a bad idea. That’s not taking away anything from Ceedee Lamb, who is bound to have a few big plays on Saturday. But between Delpit, Derek Stingley and Kristian Fulton, LSU is too good in coverage not to capitalize on a mistake or 2.

Hurts has certainly matured as a passer, for sure. Is he Kyler Murray or Baker Mayfield with his precision downfield? Even Oklahoma fans would tell you no. But Hurts is more capable of providing a 1-2 punch with Kennedy Brooks, and breaking off chunks of yardage via the RPO. When that lulls LSU to sleep, that’s when Hurts capitalizes on those secondary eyes peeking in the backfield to hit a streaking Lamb over the top.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Hurts didn’t go to Oklahoma to be a 20-carry per game guy. The goal was to develop as passer and follow in the footsteps of fellow transfers Mayfield and Murray. In the first 2 months of the season, Hurts wasn’t a 20-carry guy. He didn’t have 20 rushes in a game with the Sooners until Nov. 9, when they found themselves in a dog fight against Iowa State. That’s been Oklahoma’s story the past month. They won 4 of their past 5 games by 1 score, and in all of those contests, Hurts had 20-plus carries. And to be fair, he had 19 carries in the Kansas State loss.

It’s been a different game plan than with Murray, who averaged 10 carries per game last year. Riley has adjusted to Hurts’ skill set.

Now, the ultimate question is if Riley can make the right tweaks to take down LSU.

You won’t find many people outside of the Sooner State publicly calling for the upset. Part of that could be based on the 3 suspensions and the injuries that Oklahoma is dealing with. And the other part of that is based on the belief that even at full strength, this Hurts-led Oklahoma offense doesn’t have what it takes to stay on the field with Burrow and Co.

Hurts went through a major transformation, but he isn’t about to transform into Burrow by Saturday afternoon. If Oklahoma doesn’t get run out of the building, it’ll be because Hurts reminded us why he went 26-2 as a starter at Alabama with a 2-0 mark in Playoff semifinal games. Well, and he’ll occasionally remind us why he went to Oklahoma, where an 80-yard passing score always feels like it’s a play away.

Of course Hurts’ college career would come down to keeping pace with a high-powered SEC West passing attack in Atlanta.

Once again, the irony is rich.