The Weird Saga of Alabama's 2014 Quarterback Battle

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The Weird Saga of Alabama's 2014 Quarterback Battle
Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Perhaps, as offseason chatter in need of definitive answers tends to do, media folks jumped the gun on anointing Florida State transfer quarterback Jake Coker the future at Alabama. 

On the eve of the Crimson Tide's season opener against West Virginia in Atlanta, head coach Nick Saban still hasn't officially announced a starting quarterback. He did, however, drop a hint that redshirt senior Blake Sims will take the field first.

Via Andrew Gribble of al.com: "We have faith, trust and confidence in Blake Sims. We're not going to evaluate Blake and he doesn't have to look over his shoulder while he's playing. I think there may be some occasion where the other guy deserves an opportunity at some point in time this season to show what he can do."

That quote was supplemented by a report from Jeremy Fowler of CBSSports.com, which stated that Sims would "start" against the Mountaineers—and "start" is a loose phrase. Coker could see the field in Week 1 as well, though that has not been confirmed either. As of Aug. 25, the two are listed as co-starters on the depth chart. 

It's been the most-watched quarterback battle in college football given Alabama's preseason No. 2 ranking in the Associated Press and USA Today coaches poll

That battle unofficially began when Alabama announced in January that it had signed Coker, who had lost the Seminoles' quarterback competition to eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston the year before. 

Since the Tide were replacing AJ McCarron, who helped lead the program to a pair of national titles, the initial assumption was that Coker—a 6'5", 230-pound physical specimen with a great arm—would be the successor. And why not? Coker was immediately eligible upon his graduation at Florida State, and quarterback transfers have been a vogue trend lately.

For instance: Michael Brewer, the former Texas Tech quarterback, was recently announced as Virginia Tech's starting quarterback earlier this month. A graduate transfer quarterback is the most identifiable quick fix. 

So when ESPN college football analyst David Pollack said in June (h/t Knox Bardeen, Fox Sports South.)"You can go ahead and hand it (the starting job) to [Coker]," it fell in line with the narrative. 

But the longer the competition went on, the less the narrative played out according to plan. As Bleacher Report's Ray Glier reported earlier this month, Coker has had his struggles in practice: 

Judging from a pass-heavy Aug. 16 scrimmage, Coker, the transfer from Florida State, is not there yet. He was not Bradford, Luck or Bridgewater. He was just a new quarterback trying to learn a playbook in three weeks and find his way with a new set of receivers nine months after undergoing serious knee surgery (meniscus).

It is a daunting task, and Coker scuffled, according to various people who witnessed the closed scrimmage.

One practice doesn't make or break anyone's chances to start—Sims wasn't all that impressive in Alabama's spring game—but Saban has been high on Sims throughout the offseason. In a situation that lacks a definitive answer, this much is clear: Sims won't, nor was he ever going to, take a back seat to Coker

"Saban is giving Sims the first snap here because of his experience in the offense and his familiarity with the players," said Marc Torrence, B/R's Alabama Lead Writer. "His teammates love him, and they barely know Coker."

To be clear, Coker could still start for Alabama. His physical tools are obvious, and it could be a matter of the light turning on for him. It would appear, based on practice reports, that Sims has an edge, but that could change in live game situations. Though Sims is the "program guy," he's every bit as unproven as Coker.

It's Saban's job to find out which quarterback can prove himself. That could take a week, or a month. According to Torrence, Saban isn't in a major rush to name a starter (nor is he interested in hypothetical situations). Rather, he's content to let things play out. 

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"The feeling is that they don't have to name a permanent starter until Florida [Sept. 20]," Torrence said. 

It wouldn't be the first time Saban has done this. In 2011, McCarron and another Sims—Phillip—split snaps in the Tide's season-opening win against Kent State. That season, if memory serves correctly, turned out alright. 

"Is Coker the better talent who will eventually win the long-term starter role? I think so," said Torrence. "Is Sims the best option right now, all things considered? Yes."

Alabama, along with the rest of the college football world, will find out Saturday. The quarterback two-deep may be a fluid situation, but Saban's history in Tuscaloosa suggests it'll level out eventually. Anxious minds just have to get on Saban's level of patience. 

  

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless cited otherwise. 

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