Najee Harris’ game-saving performance worth more than a Heisman for Alabama

By | December 20, 2020

Prior to Saturday’s SEC championship game, Alabama fans wondered aloud whether one of their two offensive superstars, quarterback Mac Jones or receiver DeVonta Smith, could win the coveted Heisman Trophy with one last brilliant display vs. Florida.

And brilliant they were: Jones completed 33 of 43 passes for an SEC championship game-record 418 yards and five touchdowns. Smith caught an Alabama single game-record 15 passes for 184 yards and two scores, became the Crimson Tide’s all-time leader in receiving yards (3,647) and set the school record for touchdown receptions in a season (17).

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But it was a third superstar, someone who has always been on the fringe of the Heisman conversation but never out of sight, who played the game of his life Saturday. Running back Najee Harris might not win the Heisman in 2020 — “The two guys we got up for that are enough,” he told reporters after the game — but his performance against the No. 7 Gators was an all-timer.

And he may have saved No. 1 Alabama’s perfect season in the process.

He rushed 31 times for 178 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and two touchdowns and grabbed five receptions for 67 yards and three more scores to earn game MVP honors. Alabama needed every bit of that production in a 52-46 thriller that treated defense mostly as an afterthought with all the incredible offensive talent on display.

“I have to give our offense a lot of credit. They answered the bell pretty consistently in the game, over 600 yards, Smitty had 15 catches, Najee scored five touchdowns, had 178 yards rushing, caught five passes,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the game. “These guys were pretty phenomenal all year. They certainly delivered tonight when we needed them to.”

Indeed, Florida’s defense had no answer for Harris. The senior — whose decision to return for one final season in Tuscaloosa will no doubt net him additional millions in the 2021 NFL Draft — gashed, flew by and leapt over the Gators. He put everything on display.

Part of his success, certainly, was due to the offensive line group he enjoys running behind. Gators defenders rarely met Harris in the backfield, so he was able to build up steam and use his incredible vision to cut in and out through would-be tacklers. The threat of Jones and Smith surely kept Florida from stacking the box, as well.

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But Harris’ versatility was his greatest weapon against the Gators — as it has been against every team he has played this season. He had a similarly dominant, albeit more one-dimensional, performance in the Tide’s 63-48 win over Ole Miss when he rushed 23 times for 206 yards and five scores.

Harris now has 24 rushing touchdowns this season, most in the FBS. He has 1,268 rushing yards, 316 receiving yards (1,584 yards from scrimmage) and 27 total touchdowns. And he has quietly moved ahead of some of Alabama’s all-time greats; he is the program’s career leader in rushing touchdowns (44) and yards (3,639), passing Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry, respectively.

The Crimson Tide are going to need even more from Harris as they venture into the College Football Playoff after a one-year hiatus. All of the other presumed Playoff participants — Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame — can move the ball and score. The acumen of their defenses vary, but Clemson’s destruction of the Irish in the ACC title game suggests Alabama will need to be creative in getting Harris the ball if it faces the Tigers.

That’s especially true after center Landon Dickerson, the linchpin of Alabama’s offensive line, suffered a left knee injury late in Saturday’s game. Saban said the injury was “serious,” which leaves little hope that he can return in time for the Playoff. The Crimson Tide have only 12 days to figure out the best O-line rotation before they face their semifinal opponent.

Harris can help offset the need for brilliant offensive line play. After all, he has been incredible all season — what are two more games?