Alabama has parlayed two straight offseason quarterback battles into two straight SEC titles, two straight College Football Playoff berths and the 2015 national title.
That battle—which kicks into overdrive on Aug. 3 when fall camp opens—includes redshirt junior Cooper Bateman, redshirt sophomore David Cornwell, redshirt freshman Blake Barnett and true freshman Jalen Hurts.
First-year starting quarterbacks have won six of the last seven national titles, and 10 of the last 14 starting quarterbacks in the national championship game were first-year starters. The supporting cast around the eventual winner should keep the Tide in the discussion.
But Alabama better not enter the season with its quarterback issue unresolved—as has been the case for each of the last three quarterback tussles in Tuscaloosa.
“In a perfect world, the quarterback situation would be solved by the end of spring so they can get reps all summer and the team knows who to follow when leadership is required,” said Greg McElroy, SEC Network and SiriusXM analyst and Alabama’s starting quarterback in 2009 and 2010.
Obviously, with a four-man competition, solving the riddle is a near impossibility for the staff in the spring, and the battle among four inexperienced quarterbacks almost had to go to fall camp.
That’s where the similarities between this contest and those of years past end.
The last two seasons, the eventual winner—Blake Sims in 2014 and Jake Coker in 2015—had a reliable and proven center to adjust protection schemes at the line of scrimmage and a running back who had gained at least 990 yards the previous season.
Alabama doesn’t have either this time.
Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris combined for just 261 rushing yards a year ago—which is only the second time under Saban that Alabama’s top two returning running backs had fewer than 1,000 combined rushing yards the previous season.
“This is the first time for many, many years that we have not had an experienced, talented running back who has proved his value, whether it was way back when Glen Coffee played, it was Mark Ingram,” Saban said. “Mark Ingram came back and played with Trent Richardson. Trent Richardson played with Eddie Lacy. Eddie Lacy played with T.J. Yeldon. T.J. Yeldon played with Derrick Henry.”
At center, Ryan Kelly was a stalwart of the Alabama offensive line for three years. When he was out, red flags always went up. He didn’t play in the regular-season finale in 2013—the 34-28 “Kick Six” loss to Auburn that prevented the Tide from winning a third straight national title. He went out with a knee injury in the third quarter of the 2014 loss to Ole Miss and missed the next game, a sloppy 14-13 win at Arkansas.
Kelly is now a member of the Indianapolis Colts.
“Kelly got movement on his own,” said former Auburn center and SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic. “That’s tough as a center based on alignment, most of the time. He was great with leverage and staying square to the line of scrimmage. He brought physicality to the initial point of attack for Alabama last year.”
With uncertainty at the center position and no proven running back, it’s imperative that the eventual winner of the quarterback battle get unquestioned first-team snaps during the final couple of weeks of fall camp so the offense can hit the ground running once the season starts.
While Kiffin has shown the ability to adjust the scheme on the fly with uncertain quarterback play over the last two years, he can’t modify the protection at the line of scrimmage. That’s the center’s and quarterback’s job, and former guard Ross Pierschbacher will have to make those calls at center this year without relying on experience from his quarterback.
“William Vlachos, Mark Ingram and myself were all first-year starters in 2009, and we played a very exotic defense in Virginia Tech in our first game,” McElroy said. “It took us a little while to get comfortable, longer than any of us would have liked. But toward the end of the game, we got on the same page and finished strong in the fourth quarter.”
Alabama can’t afford to let this battle linger.
Not this year.
With USC in Week 1, a road game at Ole Miss in Week 3 and a schedule that includes road trips to SEC East favorite Tennessee and LSU, it’s imperative that the Crimson Tide offense gets off to a hot start versus the Trojans.
“It’s important because of the unique looks they might get from a well-coached USC team in the first game,” McElroy said. “They will have some things up their sleeve, and the quarterback and center must be able to adjust on the fly.”
A strong performance against an ultra-athletic USC defense will give the newcomers up the middle of the offense—particularly the quarterback—a ton of confidence heading into the meat of the schedule. Conversely, a lethargic performance in the opener at AT&T Stadium at Jerry World could result in an out-of-conference loss that could haunt the Tide down the road, or it could change the way that Kiffin approaches the offense heading into SEC play a couple of weeks later.
He doesn’t need that.
“Somebody’s got to win the team,” Saban said. “That has not necessarily happened yet and, you know, I’m not going to sit up here and sort of try to, you know—I don’t know the right word, but give you some statistics on who’s winning the race and how the race is going and who’s ahead, are they on the back stretch or in the final turn. That’s something that’s going to happen probably in fall camp. I hope in fall camp.”
It better happen in fall camp.
Alabama’s defense is expected to be elite again, with studs such as end Jonathan Allen, outside linebacker Tim Williams, safety Eddie Jackson and an established secondary intact. But while it has been the hallmark of the great Alabama teams, defense doesn’t win championships anymore—”just enough” defense does.
Alabama found this out when it beat Clemson in last year’s national title game playing “Clemson” football, beat Auburn at the end of the 2014 season playing “Auburn football” and routinely won shootouts versus Texas A&M.
The definition of “just enough defense” varies based on the style and versatility that an offense shows.
Even with Alabama’s stingy defense a year ago that gave up just 276.3 yards per game and 4.3 yards per play, it had a loss on the resume and had to rely on its offense to win games that got out of its comfort zone.
It’s up to the quarterback to make sure the staff and personnel are as comfortable as possible when things get a little sideways based on the inexperience elsewhere on that side of the ball.
Unlike the previous two quarterback battles in Tuscaloosa, Alabama doesn’t have the luxury of time this go-round.
The offense, led by the quarterback position, has to be clicking from the moment the Tide take the field in Arlington; otherwise, Alabama’s chance to repeat could disappear deep in the heart of Texas.
Quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com, unless otherwise noted.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
Read more SEC Football news on BleacherReport.com
Source: Bleacher Report -SEC Football