Rivalry games are one of the many things that make the college game so special. There are none bigger than Michigan vs. Ohio State and Alabama taking on Auburn. These annual classics remind us to “throw the records out,” and plays and players can live on forever if they turn a game.
While a little mostly good-natured hatred will fuel the players as well as the fans in these games, the teams are all going to have to overcome injuries. As good as they are, two of these teams are coming in with big injuries to their quarterbacks, while the other two have kept their signal caller very clean. Depth and health go together, but the injuries that will keep key players off for those big plays could end up deciding these games as much as the next “Kick Six” or Spielman 29 (as in, the number of tackles by the Buckeyes’ Chris Spielman vs. the Wolverines in 1986) could. Let’s look at the stories of all four and their health:
SEAN WHITE, Auburn
Auburn’s hopes for an upset and a huge rivalry win rests squarely on White’s injured shoulder. As with most colleges, Auburn doesn’t give specifics on injuries, but White’s issue appears to be an AC sprain. The range of motion and strength, as well as the mechanism, all point to this joint being sprained midseason and simply never getting healthy. White sat out last week’s game against Alabama A&M in hopes that healing and treatment could take hold in time for the bigger game.
White is called a game-time decision for Saturday, but Malzahn likely has made the call already. He’ll lean heavily on the medical staff for the risk, look back at the practices, and look hard into the eyes of White before making the decision. If White does play, there’s simply no way to say how effectively. White could be set back significantly by even one hit, so John Franklin and Jeremy Johnson will have to stay warm from kickoff.
JALEN HURTS, Alabama
Oddly, the guy named “Hurts” has barely had a nick this season. Much of the credit goes to the offensive line, but freshman quarterbacks aren’t supposed to exist, let alone excel. This young Alabama team is bringing almost all of the offense back next season, plus recruiting strongly, something that the rest of the SEC can’t be happy about. For Hurts, he has a big stable frame that allows him to take the hits that do happen, and he has good vision to avoid big hits in the pocket and on the run.
As a dual-threat guy, Hurts exposes himself to hits in the field as well, but he has great elusiveness despite his size (6-foot-2, 209). He already holds the program’s single-season rushing record for a quarterback, and is just 197 yards away from a 1,000-yard season. The medical staff has kept him healthy through the long season, and Hurts has made it look easy. Behind the scenes, the team has a focus on recovery, which certainly seems to have worked for Hurts. He’s not living up to his name and that’s a very good thing for the Tide.
WILTON SPEIGHT, Michigan
Speight was thought to be done for the season with a reported fractured collarbone. However, Speight took practice work this week and could be on track to play, even start in the game against Ohio State. While Jim Harbaugh and Michigan have made no comment on this injury this week, there’s likely no chance that this is a collarbone fracture if Speight actually plays. There’s a chance, though an outside one, that Speight could throw with a collarbone fracture, but even that would be extremely unusual. It’s hard to imagine that Harbaugh and the Michigan medical staff would take even a small risk with Speight to benefit a bluff.
There is an injury, but we don’t know what it is. The symptoms match up with an AC sprain. The acromioclavicular joint is located between the clavicle (collarbone) and the shoulder itself, with a strong, thick ligament holding it together. When compressed hard, such as a quarterback landing on the shoulder with weight on him, the ligament can be damaged. If this is the case, a two-week absence is reasonable, but Speight will be at risk for a similar kind of injury if he takes any kind of hit. Even getting pushed down and catching himself with an extended arm could be very problematic.
There is not likely to be much notice on whether Speight will play. It’s a true game-time decision, though I would guess that Jim Harbaugh and a handful of others know now whether it’s probable. Speight’s shoulder injury shouldn’t affect his throwing significantly (the left shoulder is still involved with the throwing motion), considering the deep ball is not a huge strength of his when healthy. The key will be preventing as much contact as possible, so both the line and the game plan would be adjusted to maximize protection.
J.T. BARRETT, Ohio State
Barrett is the last remaining of the three quarterbacks from Ohio State’s last run at the national championship. Injuries to Barrett and Braxton Miller propelled Cardale Jones into the role, but Barrett is not only the clear QB1, he’s the unquestioned leader for the Buckeyes. Keeping him healthy through his junior campaign has been one of the keys to OSU’s. While Urban Meyer certainly has depth, as he did in ’14, he’d rather not push his luck again.
Barrett limped out of ’14 and after needing a plate to strengthen his fractured ankle, there was some worry that Barrett would lose some quickness out of the pocket. That hasn’t been the case, which is a feather in the cap of the Buckeyes medical staff. Barrett doesn’t have the same burst that made him so difficult to pin in during his ’14 campaign, but he’s still an effective runner. However, he seems to have learned not to take the big hits, something that will serve him well at the next level.
Kamryn Pettway is expected to be available for Auburn after missing the Tigers’ last two games with a strained quad. His power style still could be impacted. … Trevor Knight returned for Texas A&M after what was thought to be a season-ending shoulder injury. Apparently, it wasn’t. He figures to be available for a bowl game as well. Knight stepped back in for an injured Jake Hubenak. … Leonard Fournette missed the Texas A&M game with another instance where his ankle couldn’t make it back. Scouts are definitely taking note, and I’m surprised that Fournette doesn’t already have a plan saying he intends to have surgery after the season. Derrius Guice certainly looked great in his absence and puts himself in position for Heisman contention next season … Tommy Armstrong is expected to play for Nebraska as the Cornhuskers hold out hope for a Big Ten championship game slot. They’ll need help (and a healthy Armstrong).