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Quarterback controversy at Alabama? No way

From the moment Nick Saban arrived at SEC media days last Wednesday, he was waiting for the question to come.

Someone, he knew, inevitably would ask about quarterback Jalen Hurts. And when they did and insinuated there was a QB controversy at Alabama, he said it was a “hanging curveball.”

“Who’s saying that?” Saban snapped back at the television reporter in question. “You’re the only one saying that. You’re trying to create it right now. I never said that. All right? So I don’t know who’s saying that.

“That’s like me saying, ‘Someone said it’s going to have a hurricane outside today.’ Is that right or wrong? I just said it. So that means I created something that makes everybody panic and creates news and gets everybody excited and interested and afraid.

“Look, we have competition at a lot of positions. ... But we’re not going to tolerate people making stuff up to create interest.”

As far as Saban tirades go, it was a double or possibly a triple. He definitely got the fat part of the bat on it.

But if it was meant to dispel the interest in Hurts’ development and whether he could be unseated as Alabama’s starting quarterback by true freshman Tua Tagovailoa, it might not have done the trick. Nothing might until the season opener against Florida State on Sept. 2.

Hurts may have gone 14-1, scored 36 touchdowns and become the first true freshman to win SEC Offensive Player of the Year since Herschel Walker, but all many people want to talk about is the way his season ended. He threw only two touchdowns and completed less than 50 percent of his passes during the SEC Championship Game and both rounds of the College Football Playoff, ultimately losing the national title in the final seconds to Clemson.

Ever since, there have been questions about whether he can improve his downfield passing and be better from the pocket.

It doesn’t matter that Saban called Hurts the starter the day spring practice began. It doesn’t make a difference that many players have given rave reviews about his progress as a passer, with senior center Bradley Bozeman recently reporting that the offense has “come out clicking” since the end of last season. Nothing is moving the focus off the young quarterback.

Even other players around the league have taken notice of the Hurts dilemma.

South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley, who spent time with Hurts at the Manning Passing Academy this offseason, was forceful in his defense of his SEC brethren.

“All that crap about, ‘He can’t throw the ball,’” Bentley said. “It’s not true. He can spin it.”

Said Alabama wideout Calvin Ridley: “There are people out there who don’t respect him, but they should.”

On Wednesday, Hurts was one of 30 players named to the Davey O’Brien Award Watch List -- an award that goes to the nation’s best college quarterback. That honor, coupled with being named the first-team quarterback on the Preseason All-SEC team, should be enough to quiet some of his critics, but probably not.

If anything, more time should be spent discussing Alabama’s other questions entering this season. For instance: How will Brian Daboll -- a relative unknown in college football -- work out as offensive coordinator? How will the defense fare now that more than half of its starters are in the NFL? And with Jarrett Stidham creating Heisman buzz at Auburn and Matt Canada poised to overhaul LSU’s offense, what about the competition in the SEC?

“I think this is going to be one of the youngest teams that we've had probably since maybe 2012, especially on defense, where we lost a ton of really, really good players -- I think seven guys drafted off the defense, all in the first four rounds,” Saban said. “So it's going to be a challenge to replace those guys.”

It’s not hard to understand why the defense isn’t getting more attention. For one, Alabama has a well-earned reputation of being a top defense year in and year out, regardless of returning starters. Secondly, and probably most important, is that nothing comes close to matching the buzz of a quarterback controversy in football.

As it turns out, the debate doesn’t even have to be real to have legs.

Hurts has work to do as a quarterback. That never has been in doubt. But a full-blown QB battle? That’s not on the agenda at Alabama.

If the Tide lose to Florida State, the offense struggles, and Hurts doesn’t make the progress usually associated with a quarterback entering his second season as a starter, then it might be time for that discussion.

For now, be careful not to make any assumptions. Saban might see it and take another swing.