If Alabama beats Georgia, Jalen Milroe would be big reason why

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Early this season, Alabama had a quarterback problem. In the days leading to the SEC Championship game, their quarterback is a primary reason they believe they have a chance.

The Crimson Tide benched Jalen Milroe after their home loss to Texas in early September. They slogged through a 14-point win over South Florida the following week before opting for Milroe again – and then announcing they’re sticking with him.

Milroe rewarded them with nine consecutive victories. As Bama prepares to face Georgia for the SEC title (4 p.m. Saturday, CBS), he’s emerged as one of the more exciting signal-callers in the country, improving greatly as a passer while gashing defenses with his running ability. As Milroe has developed, Alabama has recaptured its form as a title contender.

“I think I’ve been the same person since I came to Alabama,” Milroe said. “The only thing that’s changed is the opportunity to play the game that I love. I think that’s the biggest thing. I’ve been the same person. Constantly wanting to work, first one in the building, last one out. I’ve been the same person. All I have is the opportunity, and I’ve seized the moment as much as possible.”

When Milroe returned from his benching, he was 17-for-21 passing against Ole Miss, managing the offense effectively. He later threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns at Texas A&M. He scored six touchdowns against Kentucky. He ran all over LSU with 155 yards and four scores on 20 carries in a game where Alabama truly embraced his strengths.

Then, in the final minute Saturday, he converted a fourth-and-goal from the 31 with a dart to Isaiah Bond to spare Alabama of an upset against Auburn and keep its playoff hopes alive. As his team stormed the field after winning, Milroe was seen yelling “Give me the Heisman!” A couple of days later, asked about the remark, Milroe was more grounded: “That was an emotional moment,” he said. “Now, it’s about fixing what we need to improve on from Auburn.”

Milroe won’t win the Heisman Trophy. He could become a championship quarterback, though, and that says everything about how he’s progressed.

“Jalen has played really, really well for us,” Bama coach Nick Saban said. “He has a lot of confidence. He has a really good understanding of what his role, what his job is, how he’s been able to execute it on a consistent basis, whether it’s as a passer or as a runner, whether it’s scrambling or a designed run.

“He’s done a really, really good job, I think, of playing one play at a time and trying to execute that play the way it’s designed. He distributes the ball in a very efficient and effective manner, and I think that’s how his growth has occurred. It’s transformed him as a player and transformed our offense, as well, because of his growth and execution.”

Credit: Sarah K. Spencer/AJC

Watch Georgia’s offense and one sees a Carson Beck-led unit thriving in structure. Watch Alabama’s, it’s more about improvisation. The Tide have been spoiled by superb quarterback play lately – going from Tua Tagovailoa to Mac Jones to Bryce Young – but Milroe’s dual-threat ability makes him far different from his recent predecessors.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart made headlines this week when he described Milroe as a “bigger, more physical version” of Heisman Trophy-winner Lamar Jackson, perhaps football’s greatest modern mobile quarterback.

Milroe’s development also has helped an offensive line that earlier this season appeared to be a weakness. He’s been sacked only four times over the past four games after getting sacked 23 times over the previous five.

“His pocket awareness is major to us as an offensive line because in order for us to protect him, we have to have a feel for where he’s at,” Alabama guard Tyler Booker said. “My mindset as a guard is let me stay firm up front so he has somewhere to step up because these days you have edge rushers who are 220 pounds just jetting up the field against 360-pound offensive linemen. Just for him to have the awareness to step up in the pocket and make those big plays, that’s major. It shows how much better he’s getting and how much better everybody is getting.”

Since Milroe became entrenched as the starter, Alabama has gone 9-0, with six victories by double digits. He’s completed 68% of his passes (131 of 193) for 2,077 yards with 16 passing touchdowns against four interceptions (he was picked twice in the Texas game before his benching).

If his improvement carries into Saturday, he might have gone from benched to the quarterback who led Alabama back to the playoff. And he would’ve led his team past the back-to-back champions in the process.

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