Jalen Hurts never has to look far for a reminder of the national championship game loss to Clemson.
No. 4 Alabama’s quarterback only needs to turn on his phone, which sports a photo of him walking off the field afterward.
“As many times as I open up my phone, I don’t look at it like, ‘Dang, I lost to Clemson.’ I don’t do that every time,” Hurts said. “But it’s definitely there, it’s definitely a motivating factor and it’s always been.”
His counterpart for the top-ranked Tigers, Kelly Bryant, was a spectator for that game when Deshaun Watson picked apart a worn-out Alabama defense on his way to a game-winning touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second left.
Hurts and Bryant have led their teams back into the College Football Playoffs, where Alabama and Clemson meet for the third straight year Jan. 1 in the Sugar Bowl.
Hurts is actually the more experienced quarterback in the game this time, instead of last season’s freshman vs. senior matchup. Both he and Bryant are efficient passers and dangerous runners who have logged more carries than any of their respective teams’ running backs.
Both also have done little but win.
Bryant has ably filled Watson’s shoes , but matching his performances against Alabama would be a tall order.
The two-time Heisman Trophy finalist accounted for 972 total yards and eight touchdowns in two previous playoff meetings, almost unfathomable numbers against one of the nation’s top defenses. Not surprisingly, a number of Tide defenders have said he’s the best quarterback they have faced.
“I think the quarterback now is even a better runner, if that’s possible, than the guy we played against the last two years, who was probably the best player in college football in my opinion,” Tide coach Nick Saban said.
In fact, Watson once tweeted of Bryant, “He will be better than me.” Not yet, but Clemson’s only loss came against Syracuse, when Bryant left early with a concussion .
That social media prediction came with Bryant’s performance against Louisville, his only 300-yard passing effort, while Watson had seven last season.
Bryant has completed 67.4 percent of his passes, a hair better than Watson last season. He hasn’t thrown as frequently as Watson, but has run a couple more times per game while only having to play in the fourth quarter eight times.
“Kelly Bryant is a great athlete,” Alabama cornerback Levi Wallace said. “He’s definitely a little faster than Deshaun Watson, definitely more running talent. He can definitely throw deep balls. They have great receivers who make plays for him. He’s definitely a dual threat quarterback.”
Hurts definitely is, too.
He has already run for more touchdowns (21 in 27 games) than any other Tide quarterback and his 38 passing TDs ranks fifth. Hurts’ 30-yard touchdown run with 2:07 left against Clemson last season gave Alabama a 31-28 lead that was quickly erased with Watson’s 2-yarder to Renfrow .
He has passed for 15 touchdowns and only been intercepted once, throwing for the game-winning touchdown against Mississippi State .
Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell said Hurts appears to be an improved passer who’s making better decisions .
“He’s a lot better passer this year — another year of maturity and another year of the offense,” Ferrell said. “Even when plays break down, he’s able to scramble out of the pocket and throw it downfield.”
But Hurts is coming off perhaps his worst game of the season in a 26-14 loss to No. 7 Auburn , when he made some questionable decisions and lost a fumble. The performance generated some criticism from fans on social media, but Hurts’ teammates are “behind him 100 percent,” tight end Hale Hentges said.
“What Jalen does for us, we really don’t care what everyone says, the media, the fans,” Hentges said. “They can say whatever they want about Jalen, but we know what he does for our program. He’s a fearless leader, he’s our guy and he’s led us to many great wins and we’re behind him 100 percent. We believe in him, he’s done a great job for our offense, and he’s going to continue to do a great job.”