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2016 SEC Championship Game: Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts faces toughest challenge to date in the Florida defense

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Hurts has looked strong at times this year, but he’ll be in for his biggest test yet this weekend.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Alabama John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama starting quarterback Jalen Hurts has probably put together the most decorated freshman season anyone has ever seen in Tuscaloosa.

Hurts became the first freshman signal caller to ever start under head coach Nick Saban and was the first to do so Alabama since 1984. He has excelled being the main man under center for the Tide, leading them to a 12-0 record this season and helping them stay atop of the polls from bell to bell. Hurts has thrown for 2,454 yards, 21 touchdowns and only nine interceptions while completing 65.9 percent of his passes. The young quarterback has also gotten it done on the ground as well. Hurts ran for 840 total yards and 12 touchdowns on a team-high 154 carries.

The crazy thing about these statistics is that Hurts has put up these numbers against some of the country’s best defenses. He made his collegiate debut against USC, who would turn out to be the nation’s 30th-ranked total defense. Hurts immediately made the nation know his name on opening night, and during the back end of the season, Hurts torched LSU’s defense in Alabama’s closest win of the year. He also finished the regular season with a stellar performance against Auburn, who ranks 21st in total defense.

Although Hurts has performed phenomenally against such gritty defenses, come this Saturday in the SEC Championship Game, the freshman will face his biggest challenge to date in his young college career as he and the Alabama offense will square off against the Florida Gators.

Coming into this matchup, Hurts has been sloppy with the ball at times and the Florida defense he is about to face is as good as they come. It’s the country’s sixth best defense and even though Hurts practices against the nation’s No. 1 defensive unit day in and day out, this Gator group does and can do two things exceptionally well that may cause Hurts to perform poorly: Create pressure and force the young quarterback to take deep shots.

On the season, Florida has racked up 28 sacks. That gives the Gators an average of 2.55 sacks per game, good for 29th in the country. If Florida is able to get pressure on Hurts, they will more than likely make the freshman actually look like a freshman quarterback.

In his first year at Alabama, Hurts’ passing ability under pressure has been poor. Throughout the regular season, the Channelview, Texas native has seen pressure on 63 of his 317 pass attempts. Out of those 63 passes, Hurts has only managed to complete 19 of them, which gives him a 30.2 percent completion rate for an average of 3.6 yards per completion, a touchdown and an interception.

While Hurts has been methodical when given time - he has completed nearly 76 percent of his passes when not facing pressure - the Florida secondary is probably the best he will face this season sans LSU.

On the season, the Gators pass defense is the third best unit in all of college football. Florida only allowed 158 passing yards per game and 6.12 yards per attempt in the regular season. Not only do the Gators barely allow any chunks through the air, they only have had seven passing touchdowns scored on them, which is good for second in the nation.

Despite the Gators barely giving up yardage through the air, Hurts can pick apart that secondary in the short and intermediate passing game. This season, Hurts has completed 91.7 percent of passes that were 19 yards or shorter for a total of 1,054 yards, 17 touchdowns and only three interceptions. But as previously mentioned, Hurts has been uninspiring throwing the ball further downfield.

Hurts is 17-of-53 (32.1 percent) for 661 yards, two scores and four turnovers on attempts that were 20 yards or more. Considering Florida’s back four, the Gators can scheme by using stud cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson to cover the flats and intermediate territory of the field, baiting Hurts to only take deep shots with safeties Marcell Harris and Nick Washington sitting over the top waiting to break up or pick off the pass.

Florida has faced six Power 5 teams that had underclassmen be their main man under center for the game. In those six outings, the Gator defense put up a stat line of 70 completed passes out 160 attempts (43.8 percent), two touchdowns and nine interceptions. The only underclassman who had a solid performance against this Florida D was Florida State’s Deondre Francois, who managed above six yards per attempt.

Hurts has certainly faced enough tests this season to prepare himself for what lies in front of him this Saturday. He also has more talent around him than any of those previous six underclassmen who have faced the Gators. However, the Florida defense is on a whole other level compared to the 12 foes Alabama has taken on this year.

Hurts will definitely need to be on the top of his game for the Tide as this will be the biggest challenge for him to date in his young collegiate career.