Nick Saban doesn’t dwell on hypotheticals; he has no patience for what-ifs. The Alabama head coach focuses on what’s in front of him, what he can control right this moment. The Process does not allow for deviations into the world of what could be. Which, when you’re contemplating the possibility of time without your Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback on the field, is probably the right mindset to take.
Bryce Young injured his shoulder falling awkwardly in the second quarter of Saturday’s win over Arkansas. He didn’t return to the game, and the extent of that injury will go a long way toward determining the course of this college football season. After the game, Saban characterized the injury as an AC joint sprain, and he didn’t elaborate on that Monday.
“It’s a little bit of a shoulder injury, not a long term-type injury,” Saban said. “It’s day to day when he can get back to throwing. I can’t tell if it’s going to be today, tomorrow or the next day.”
Regarding the play where Young was injured, Saban offered perspective. “The only thing I would tell Bryce is, 'Don’t put yourself in a bad position.' He could have thrown the ball away before, he could have let the guy tackle him, but he was in the awkward position of trying to throw the ball while getting tackled,” Saban said. “Sometimes you’ve got to know when there’s no play to be made, and now it’s time to not put myself at risk.”
In Young’s absence, the Tide wobbled — briefly, anyway. Alabama let a 28-0 lead dwindle to 28-23 before shaking off the cobwebs and refocusing to throw fourth-quarter haymakers that put the game away. Young’s replacement, redshirt freshman Jalen Milroe, showcased astounding speed with a 77-yard breakaway, and running back Jahmyr Gibbs tore off touchdown runs of 72 and 76 yards. Young returned to the sideline in uniform, and even took simulated shotgun snaps, but never re-entered the game.
So what now? How injured is Young, and how much does the injury dent the Tide’s title hopes?
Any long absence would make life tougher for the Tide as they enter the meat of the SEC West schedule. Texas A&M has fumbled away most of the luster of this coming weekend’s matchup by losing two of its first five games. One week later, though, Alabama must travel to Knoxville to face current No. 8 Tennessee, which is averaging 48.5 points per game. After that, No. 23 Mississippi State, No. 25 LSU, and No. 9 Ole Miss await. That would be a challenge to navigate even if Alabama was at full strength.
With Young at quarterback, no spot on the field is out of reach. He was averaging 257 passing yards a game coming into Saturday, and he amassed 173 yards through just one quarter and change against Arkansas. His short afternoon included passes of 53, 47 and 41 yards, spreading the field so wide that Razorbacks defenders were in different area codes from each other.
Without Young in the lineup — and with the benefit of Milroe’s speed — Alabama would likely transition back to a run-first offense, a strategy Saban hinted at in the minutes following the Arkansas game.
“There are things that Jalen does well,” he said. “You know, we practice some of those things. And if he has to play, we’ll practice some more.”
No one is feeling sorry for Alabama, and no one should, either. When your backup quarterback is fast enough to outrun everyone on the field, it’s not like your season is over with one injury. Losing the reigning Heisman Trophy winner hurts, but this is Alabama — there are contingency plans for the contingency plans, and no, Saban would not disclose what they were on Monday.
“You guys think I’m going to tell you what I’m going to do with our offense and our team?” he barked, salty as ever despite Alabama’s new No. 1 ranking.
If Alabama needs hope — and if the rest of the SEC needs to temper its own — look back at the 2017 national championship game. Saban swapped out an ineffective Jalen Hurts at halftime for freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who then led the team to victory in overtime. The next season, Hurts subbed in for an injured Tagovailoa in the 2018 SEC championship. The Tide won that game, too.
Young’s Heisman odds took a hit following the injury, from +500 to +900, well behind Ohio State's C.J. Stroud at +150. However, Alabama still opened as a three-touchdown favorite against Texas A&M, exactly the kind of rat poison that Saban rages against.
“We’re going to get the other team’s best game,” he said. “They can all get well beating us."
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.