BEHIND ENEMY LINES
DawgNation.com is fanning out across the SEC to get a look at Georgia’s early-season conference opponents. This is the fourth and final installment for the preseason.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – It was clearly on Nick Saban’s mind, just as it on everybody else’s around Alabama. The media was playing nice and trying to lead up to it, with the first question to Saban on Thursday night actually being about the cornerbacks.
But Saban heard it wrong. He started answering it, and had to be corrected.
“Oh, you disappoint me,” Saban said wryly. “I thought surely you’d be (asking about) quarterbacks.”
And so began a press conference that indeed was dominated by quarterback talk, just as it has been in Athens. The two teams that many feel will meet in the SEC championship, and definitely will meet on Oct. 3 in a highly-anticipated game, are both still trying to figure out their most important position.
For those who have followed No. 9 Georgia’s competition there is much that is familiar with what’s going on at third-ranked Alabama. There have been more than two candidates. There’s no clear leader with just over a week to go before the season starts.
There’s also a similar worry that if you haven’t named a starter by this point, then it means you don’t have a really good quarterback. Saban, asked what he thought of that theory, gave a two-minute answer that essentially boiled down to: No.
“You’ve got to have some clear-cut evidence that a guy really has won the job and he has won the team. You can’t make that happen,” Saban said. “As bad as I would like to say, This is our starting quarterback. I would really like to be able to say that. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a good quarterback. It means we may have more than one good quarterback, and they are both playing really well, or three guys are playing really well. It makes it very difficult to make a decision.”
There is, however, one big difference between the two team’s situations: While Georgia opens at home against Louisiana-Monroe, meaning it can probably afford to make it a tryout, Alabama takes on No. 20 Wisconsin in Arlington, Tex.
That makes it more likely that Alabama will pick either Jake Coker, Alec Morris or Cooper Bateman – the top three in the pecking order this week in practice – and let him try to run with the job.
Or maybe not, Saban cautioned.
“I think you can name a guy, but if we named a guy and then that guy wasn’t the best performer, and we had to un-name him, what good does that do?” Saban said. “So sometimes you run the risk of naming a guy before he’s really won the team, or won the job. So then you have to un-name him. So does that do the player any good?”
Then there’s the worry about continuity. If you don’t have a definite starter, and they’re not getting most of the first-team reps, does that mess with the continuity and rhythm of the first team offense?
Saban downplayed that idea too. In fact, he said he asked an offensive lineman which one they liked the best.
“And he said: ‘Well since we don’t huddle, we don’t even know who’s in there,’” Saban said. “So my question is, is it just like a known fact that you have to do this a certain way? If you don’t have a starting quarterback that means you can’t get ready to play well? If you play more than one guy, you can’t play good? I don’t know.”
All of the Alabama quarterbacks look big, physically, in practice. Coker (6-5, 232) is the most physically impressive, but Morris and Bateman are both 6-3, and freshman David Cornwell is 6-5.
Coker is the former Florida State quarterback who transferred when Jameis Winston won the job there. Coker was thought to be the favorite last year, but lost out to Blake Sims. He entered this year as the favorite again, but hasn’t been able to grab it yet. Bateman offers the most athletic ability; he played receiver briefly this spring.
Georgia and Alabama are handling another facet of the story the same: Players are being coached up not to reveal or say anything about it. Such as when tailback Kenyan Drake, the senior from Powder Spring, was asked Thursday if he liked catching passes from any particular quarterback.
“I like catching passes from any quarterback,” Drake said, laughing.
Drake admitted he fielded questions “all the time” from family and friends about the quarterback story.
“I give everybody the same answer,” Drake said.
At which point an Alabama staffer interrupted to say to reporters: “So, get the point.”
In most ways, this is the same Alabama, the potential juggernaut. There are the stud running backs (now Derrick Henry and Drake), a big offensive line, and a defense filled with five-stars, coached by Saban and Kirby Smart.
That leaves the passing game the main question. And it’s not just at quarterback: Star receiver Amari Cooper is in the NFL now, and the Tide also lost its second and third-leading receivers. Tight end O.J. Howard, who had 17 catches last year, is the leading returning receiver.
All that should, again, be very familiar to Georgia fans: A great running game, a defense expected to be good, meaning the passing game is the big question.
“I don’t have a gun to my head saying: If I don’t know this by Saturday I’m going to miss church and go jump off the bridge,” Saban said. “I haven’t gotten there yet.”
Hard as it is to believe, but Alabama hasn’t played in the national championship game (gasp) since 2012, the year it edged Georgia to get there. The two programs, often at loggerheads on the recruiting trail and the message boards, meet for the first time since then on Oct. 3.
By then, you figure each team will have an established quarterback.