It’s the question that continues to gnaw away in the back of Alabama fans’ minds. To the optimists, the passing game continues to make strides and get better. To the pessimists, who might be in the minority but might also make the most noise, the passing game is a weakness that will get the Crimson Tide beat when it runs into a better opponent.

The answer, of course, is that time will tell, but the numbers from Saturday afternoon’s 45-7 victory over Tennessee show progress.

Alabama threw for a season-high 332 yards, completed passes to eight different receivers and showed a steady progression throughout the game. Starter Jalen Hurts passed for 46 yards in the first quarter, 98 in the second and 54 in the third quarter before being lifted in place of Tua Tagovailoa after the first offensive series of the second half. Tagovailoa threw for 60 yards in the third quarter and 74 in the fourth.

Tennessee came in with a defensive game plan others before had attempted, to load the box and force Alabama to throw the ball. With a strong play-action run threat, Hurts answered, showing he’s getting more and more comfortable passing over the middle of the field.

“It’s critical that we take positive strides (in that regard),” Hurts said.

Hurts’ 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Irv Smith Jr., was a direct result of the play action.

“The linebackers came down and Irv did his job running a good route and getting open and I gave him the ball and he scored,” Hurts said.

Hurts finished with his second-best passing performance of the season with 198 yards on 13 of 21 attempts. He only played in six drives in the game and the offense scored touchdowns on four of them.

Middle of the field opening up

Hurts’ comfort level in throwing across the middle and his talents in the play-action naked bootleg plays have added elements to the passing game.

“When you can run the ball and kind of create a threat for their defense, it’s always beneficial for us knowing that we can drop back and run a play-action (pass) or a naked (boot), so it always helps us,” Hurts said.

UA coach Nick Saban liked the balance the offensive provided, especially in the second half.

“To have balance on offense is really, really important,” he said. “We didn’t do a good job in the first half controlling the line of scrimmage. They were doing a lot of corner cats and a lot of star fires. They were loading the box all day. Really, they’re almost forcing you to throw the ball.

“We made some plays in the passing game. Jalen did a nice job. I thought some of the play-action passes that we threw in the second half were certainly instrumental in us loosening them up a little bit.”

Tagovailoa continued to show a big arm with a quick release, and despite an interception that was returned 97 yards for a touchdown, he was an efficient 9-of-12 for 134 yards and a touchdown.

Reach Aaron Suttles at or at 205-722-0229.