Two quarterbacks, one big question, and zero answers from Alabama coach Nick Saban
No one needed to ask. Nick Saban went ahead and answered the question on his own.
“I think the No. 1 thing you’ll want to talk about,” he said, “is the quarterback controversy that you’d love to create, that you’ve already created, that you will continue to create.”
Standing before a roomful of sportswriters at a weeklong media event for the Southeastern Conference, the Alabama football coach then insisted he has yet to choose a starter.
Throwing his hands in the air, he shrugged.
“So, some of your questions, when you ask me about that, I’m going to say, ‘We’ll see,’ ” he explained. “So don’t get mad at me.”
The issue was bound to come up Wednesday during the afternoon news conference for a couple of reasons.
The Crimson Tide’s dominance over the last decade — five national championships, a consistent presence at the top of the polls — puts them in the spotlight before every season.
Also, the play-caller situation in Tuscaloosa is a bit odd — how many teams stumble into this kind of uncertainty in the middle of a title game?
That is precisely what happened to Alabama six months ago, in this very city, when Saban benched starter Jalen Hurts in favor of then-freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who sparked a come-from-behind 26-23 overtime victory over Georgia.
Now, with summer training camp just weeks away, the Crimson Tide will have to settle on a leader — and make the right choice — if they are to repeat as champs.
“I’ve been asked about it a million times,” running back Damien Harris said, adding: “Whatever happens … it’s up to coach Saban.”
Barely two years ago, Hurts was on the other end of this equation. As a freshman in the fall of 2016, he was supposed to back up Blake Barnett but took the field early in a season-opening victory over USC.
People might forget he fumbled his first snap. They more likely remember his precocious talent and the way he quickly grabbed control of the job.
The trouble was, after 14 straight victories, Alabama lost to Clemson in the 2017 College Football Playoff national championship. Then came a stumble against Auburn during the conference schedule last season.
Given that Hurts has always been considered more of a runner than a passer, some fans wondered if the team might benefit from a stronger arm.
“As the quarterback for Alabama, anything less than absolute perfection is a disappointment,” offensive lineman Jonah Williams said. “I think that’s probably an unfair position to put someone in.”
Rightly or not, reservations about Hurts came to a head during the 2018 title game as the Crimson Tide fell behind Georgia 13-0 by halftime.
Turning to a largely untested freshman might have seemed desperate, but Tagovailoa — more of a pure passer — led the team on a grinding second-half comeback that ended with a 41-yard touchdown pass in overtime.
“He’s got confidence in his arm, he’s got poise in the pocket,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “He made the plays when he needed to.”
Which left Saban with a choice. Stick with Hurts, who has a 26-2 record as a starter and has guided the team to consecutive championship games? Or bet on the new guy with sizzle?
“I wouldn’t want to be in the board room when they’re making that decision,” offensive lineman Ross Pierschbacher said.
Spring football did little to help because Tagovailoa broke the index finger on his throwing hand and saw limited action; the competition will have to wait until players report to summer camp on Aug. 2.
Not that quarterback is the only concern. The defense must replace a slew of starters, especially in the secondary, and six of Saban’s assistants — including both coordinators — have taken jobs elsewhere.
“The biggest challenge would be just the coaches getting to know you as a player,” Pierschbacher said. “Just how you respond to different types of coaching.”
Conference rivals aren’t exactly feeling sorry for the Crimson Tide, who figure to compete with the likes of Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State and Oklahoma for the national title.
“Certainly Alabama is the standard,” said Joe Moorhead, who left Penn State to take the helm at Mississippi State this season.
But much depends on the quarterback duel, which has generated buzz here all week.
Days before Saban spoke, former Florida star and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow told the SEC Network that Alabama should find a way to get both Hurts and Tagovailoa on the field at the same time, maybe shifting Hurts to H-back or some other position.
Saban didn’t exactly shoot the idea down when he said: “We’ll create a role for one or both of those guys on our team.”
Some have wondered if Hurts might ultimately transfer. That is what Barnett did after losing the starting job in 2016.
There was no way to ask Hurts because the program did not to bring its quarterbacks to face reporters. Saban was left to address the possibility.
“Well, I have no idea,” the coach said. “I think it’s our job to give both players a very fair opportunity to have a chance to win the team at their position.”
A few minutes later, the moderator stepped in, announcing the news conference had run out of time.
“Is that it?” he asked. “It was easy today.”
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