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Kelly Bryant, Jalen Hurts and a new age of player empowerment

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Saban explains Hurts' importance to Alabama (2:39)

Nick Saban discusses how the Crimson Tide's maturity helped them beat Georgia in the SEC championship game and what Jalen Hurts means to Alabama. (2:39)

The narrative took shape from the moment Jalen Hurts hopped to his feet in the end zone in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, pounding his chest with his right fist as teammates swarmed him.

Hurts had returned to the scene of his most-public failure -- a performance in last year's national championship game so ineffective Alabama turned to a largely untested true freshman in desperation -- and authored a storybook ending in the Crimson Tide's 35-28 comeback win over Georgia in the SEC championship game.

After then-Heisman Trophy favorite Tua Tagovailoa floundered on an injured ankle, Hurts entered the game with 11 minutes left and Alabama trailing by a touchdown. Hurts threw for one score and ran for the other with little more than a minute remaining, clinching the dramatic victory.

The triumphant moment made for a neat narrative arc, touching on familiar themes of resilience, patience and -- a term often the subject of much discussion and derision in college football -- commitment.

Hurts had redeemed himself on his terms, and that should have been lesson enough, but of course some used the moment to malign those who dared to chart a different course. Namely, transferring away.

No one actually had to say the name of ex-Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant, but his decision in September to transfer after losing a much-publicized position battle to true freshman Trevor Lawrence was the clear subtext.

A cursory search of social media from the night of the SEC title game will reveal a seemingly endless number of tweets from media members, coaches and players from all sports and levels, praising Hurts for not "quitting" or "pouting." The implication for Bryant was clear.

Bryant had reportedly agonized over losing his starting job before deciding to transfer to preserve his final year of eligibility. He announced last month he would attend Missouri.

Monday night in Santa Clara, California, where Alabama and Clemson will meet for the national championship for the third time in four years, Hurts and Bryant will be part of the storyline but not necessarily the game -- unlike a year ago when they were the starters in a low-wattage, low-scoring playoff semifinal won by the Crimson Tide. In their place now are Tagovailoa and Lawrence, the pair of precociously talented underclassmen who beat them out for their positions.

But beyond the on-field implications, the divergent paths of Hurts and Bryant (at least for now, assuming Hurts, in fact, transfers as expected, once this season ends) highlight the gradual -- though meaningful -- changes in the power dynamics between players and college football's largely anti-labor institutions.

In a sport that has long tolerated the hypocrisy of allowing coaches to job-hop at a moment's notice -- Manny Diaz took the Temple head-coaching job on Dec. 13, then left 17 days later to take over at Miami -- while limiting player movement with punitive rules, the comparative circumstances of Bryant and Hurts should make fans think more about what the players owe themselves.

Transferring is not only good for the players, it's good for the game. And that's even if you just limit the results to 2018.

The two most-recent Heisman winners, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, were both transfers who landed at Oklahoma. Gardner Minshew left East Carolina for Washington State and became one of the season's best stories. Shea Patterson freed himself from scandal-ridden Ole Miss to become the quarterback Jim Harbaugh had long been seeking at Michigan.

At Clemson, Bryant took advantage of a new NCAA redshirt rule that allows players to compete in up to four games while retaining their year of eligibility, which coaches initially celebrated as a way to assess freshmen in game situations. With Lawrence moving into the starting role for the Tigers and showing no signs of ever giving it up, Bryant decided to leave and spend that year elsewhere.

His former coach, Dabo Swinney, already had come out strongly against the rule change. "We want a society with no consequences," he said in February. "There should be consequences. You deal with young people, sometimes young people need to learn how to hang in there a little bit."

And that outlook certainly would have benefited Swinney and Clemson, which would have had one of the nation's most-accomplished and talented backups on the bench if Lawrence got injured or proved unequal to the task. But just as Swinney acted in the best interests of his job and the program in elevating Lawrence, Bryant did the same in protecting his college career and NFL aspirations.

Pouting or not, Bryant gave everything he could to Clemson, going 16-2 as a starter and leading the Tigers to the College Football Playoff semifinal the year before. Those 18 games weren't enough to convince Swinney to stick with the incumbent, accomplished as he was.

Waiting behind Lawrence wouldn't have done much to help Bryant's development or answer questions about his ability to make NFL throws and read defenses. With the freshman Lawrence entrenched as starter, Swinney would've been effectively asking Bryant to sacrifice his professional future -- a long shot, though it may be -- for the greater good of a program that already had shown it was ready to move on.

Meanwhile, in Tuscaloosa, Hurts was celebrated for his decision to stick with the Crimson Tide instead of leaving after the fourth game of the season. In fact, in the fifth game against Louisiana-Lafayette, Alabama fans gave Hurts a standing ovation when he entered in the second quarter of the blowout victory.

It was a nice moment, a testament to the strong bond between Hurts, the program and the Crimson Tide fan base. But Hurts also had reasons for returning to Tuscaloosa that went beyond trite aphorisms about sacrifice and teamwork: He reportedly wanted to spend a year working with offensive coordinator Mike Locksley and new quarterbacks coach Dan Enos. Getting immediate playing time, for an experienced two-year starter like Hurts with an extra year of eligibility, simply didn't mean as much as it did for Bryant.

The chance to develop as a passer isn't an insignificant factor, as Hurts isn't a finished product and still has a chance for some growth and development before taking his shot at the NFL.

"My story's far from over," Hurts said before the Orange Bowl.

But so is Kelly Bryant's. And now they'll both get to write their own endings.