For the third offseason in a row, the Alabama Crimson Tide will have one of the most watched quarterback battles in college football. This is a natural storyline. The defending national champions will be re-opening the competition for the most scrutinized position in the game.
Who will the Crimson Tide go with for 2016? Cooper Bateman, who started against Ole Miss last season? David Cornwell, who was at one time last spring considered a legitimate threat to win the job? Blake Barnett? Early enrollee Jalen Hurts will join the competition this spring as well.
Ultimately, Tide fans can rest easy because it's not going to be the most critical area of need for the offense. Whoever wins the starting quarterback job for Alabama next season will have a couple of things going for him.
First, he'll have an experienced offensive line with arguably the best left tackle in college football in Cam Robinson.
Secondly, he'll have a wealth of talent around him. Top receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart will be back, plus tight end O.J. Howard, who had the game of a lifetime out of nowhere against Clemson in the national title game (five catches, 208 yards, two touchdowns).
OJ Howard 88 ™ @TheRealOjHoward
8+8=16! Add One More To That 17 Baby!!! #RoadTo17 #RollTide #OneMore https://t.co/ShQJLr41tF2016-1-18 20:16:38
While Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry declared for the NFL draft, there are two names to watch who will pick up the slack in the ground game: Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris. Specifically, remember this quote in a year from now about Scarbrough from Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer's feature on the star nobody yet knows:
“I told everybody that he’s kind of like Adrian Peterson,” IMG Academy [Florida] assistant coach Adam Behrends told Bleacher Report. Behrends worked with Scarbrough his senior year of high school. “Kids like this only come around once every 10 years. I haven’t really been around anybody like Bo.”
Put another way, whoever starts for the Tide at quarterback will have more than enough weapons at his disposal. The term "game manager" doesn't necessarily apply here, but there will be more than enough help that the quarterback doesn't have to carry the offense.
Alabama is a run-first team, and it has running backs for days capable of carrying the load. But don't forget about the guy calling the plays and what he can do for the quarterback position.
|Alabama's supporting cast for 2016|
|Calvin Ridley||WR||89 catches, 1045 yards, 7 TD|
|ArDarius Stewart||WR||63 catches, 700 yards, 4 TD|
|O.J. Howard||TE||38 catches, 602 yards, 2 TD|
|Bo Scarbrough||RB||18 rushes, 104 yards, 1 TD|
Let's assume for the time being that offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin stays in Tuscaloosa for another year. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported this week that Kiffin was the "front-runner" to be the offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers under first-year head coach Chip Kelly. (However, per the same report, Kiffin said he would "definitely" be at Alabama in 2016.)
Kiffin has elevated Alabama's offense to levels previously not seen under head coach Nick Saban. In 2014, Kiffin's offense set program records for total offense and yards per game, among other things, according to Christopher Walsh, previously with Saturday Down South. And that was with Blake Sims, a converted running back, at quarterback.
This past season, Kiffin quietly did an excellent job developing Jake Coker. By the time Alabama was lifting its national championship trophy, Coker was as efficient a quarterback as there was in college football. In his final three games against Florida, Michigan State and Clemson—three stout defenses—Coker threw for 825 yards at 10.2 yards per attempt, six touchdowns and zero picks.
Compare that to his first four games in which he threw for 786 yards at 6.4 yards per attempt, eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
In short, Kiffin is 2-for-2 on quarterback development projects at Alabama.
That leads into an interesting point. Kiffin has done a remarkable job putting his quarterbacks in great positions to succeed, but he hasn't had a truly elite signal-caller with which to work. Sims wasn't a natural quarterback and Coker, who initially lost the job to Sims in 2014, didn't start until his final year of college.
Looking at the entirety of Saban's time with Alabama, he's won four national championships without a game-changer at quarterback. In that sense, Saban has been an exception to the rule. Florida State, Auburn, Florida and Texas have all had premier quarterbacks when they won. (Ohio State is an exception as well, winning a title with third-string quarterback Cardale Jones.)
|National champions and their quarterbacks|
|Year||Team||Quarterback||Heisman Finish||Drafted||NFL Accolades|
|2014||Ohio State||Cardale Jones||--||--||--|
|2013||Florida State||Jameis Winston||1st||No. 1||PWFA All-Rookie Team|
|2012||Alabama||AJ McCarron||--||No. 164||--|
|2011||Alabama||AJ McCarron||--||No. 164||--|
|2010||Auburn||Cam Newton||1st||No. 1||3x Pro Bowl selection|
|2009||Alabama||Greg McElroy||--||No. 208||--|
|2008||Florida||Tim Tebow||3rd||No. 25||--|
|2007||LSU||Matt Flynn||--||No. 209||--|
|2006||Florida||Chris Leak/Tim Tebow||--||--||--|
|2005||Texas||Vince Young||2nd||No. 3||2x Pro Bowl selection|
For Alabama to have won more titles than all of those programs without an NFL-caliber star at quarterback is, well, something else.
Who knows, maybe Bateman, Barnett or Cornwell will emerge as the best quarterback Saban and Kiffin have ever coached at Alabama. Perhaps, finally, the Tide will have a transcendent talent at the position to complement the always-reliable running game.
But even if that doesn't happen, history has shown Alabama will be fine all the same. It has college football's greatest coach and arguably top play-caller on the sidelines. Yes, the quarterback battle will get plenty of attention over the next several months, but it won't decide the Tide's fate in 2016.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand.