It was a minor surprise when sophomore Cooper Bateman got the starting job at quarterback for Alabama in the Crimson Tide’s Southeastern Conference opener against Ole Miss in Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday night. After all, Jacob Coker had been the starter in the first two Bama games, both victories. But Bateman had been given a large number of snaps in those two games and Alabama Coach Nick Saban had said it was because Bateman might be needed to play sometime.
That seemed to send a message that Coker would have the job, but throughout the week word was leaking from Bama practices that Bateman was getting most of the work with the first offense.
In Saban’s tenure at Alabama, now beginning his ninth season in his extraordinarily successful career, the quarterbacks have been very good, but not sensational pull-the-game-out-of-the-fire quarterbacks. They are men who have ordinarily done all they could to keep Bama from losing.
This is not to say that Cooper Bateman and Jake Coker shoulder the blame for Alabama’s disturbing 43-36 loss to Ole Miss in Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday night. Both, however, threw interceptions that resulted in very short touchdown drives for the Rebels. Another interception came with Alabama in position to make a drive, perhaps a game-winning drive, late in the fourth quarter.
Hasten to add that as long as the game of football has been played, quarterbacks have been given too much credit for team success and too much blame for team failure. There were many other sub-par performances against the Rebels, including offensive line blocking, receivers catching the football, kickoff returns, and secondary play.
Quarterbacks must have good play from their 10 offensive teammates in order to get the job done. Blockers have to block, receivers have to run good routes and then catch the passes, and runners have to run.
And, frankly, coaches have to prepare the quarterbacks in the week up to the game, have a good game plan, and then make the right calls and right substitutions in a timely matter during the game.
Here are the raw numbers from Saturday night’s game:
Starter Cooper Bateman was 11-14 for 87 yards with one interception and no touchdowns.
Jacob Coker came on in relief and was 21-44 for 201 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Bateman led Alabama to a field goal in the second quarter and a 3-3 tie, but after his pass on the next Bama possession was intercepted and returned to the Tide 26, leading to a 10-3 Ole Miss lead, Bateman was done for the day.
Coker was battling from behind from the moment he entered the game. A fumbled kickoff return by Kenyan Drake had led to another short touchdown drive by the Rebels and it was 17-3 when Coker entered at quarterback. His only drive of the first half was a successful one, 15 plays for 75 yards and a touchdown pass to Richard Mullaney with just over a minute left before halftime. The touchdown cut the deficit to 10-17.
Things got worse before they got better with the Rebels scoring the first 13 points of the second half to take a 30-10 lead before Coker drove Bama 69 yards in nine plays just before the end of the third quarter. Coker took it in himself on a three-yard run for the touchdown that made it 30-17.
Alabama had excellent field position – the Ole Miss 46 -- to start the fourth quarter.
Coker completed three passes for 26 yards, the last an eight-yard TD pass to ArDarius Stewart to pull the Tide to within six points at 30-24. That was as close as Alabama would get. The Rebels got a 73-yard touchdown pass, snatched an interception from Coker to set up shop at the Alabama 31, and scored in two plays from there to go up by 43-24.
Coker then led a long touchdown drive with Derrick Henry scoring to make it 43-30 and Tony Brown recovered an onside kick for the Tide at the Rebels 30. With four and a half minutes to play, Bama had again cut the deficit to six points, 43-36.
With just under three minutes to play, Coker scrambled to get the Tide out of a hole, going from its 8 to the Bama 33. Plenty of time, particularly with three timeouts. Inexplicably, Alabama went for it all. Coker was hurried, threw off his back foot, and his pass for Stewart was way short and intercepted by the Rebels with only two and a half minutes to play.
Alabama would get the ball back with half a minute and 69 yards to go, but all four of Coker’s passes were incomplete, a couple of them dropped by receivers.
So that’s what has gone wrong. Now what?
Following last spring’s A-Day Game and in the early part of fall camp, David Cornwell was the quarterback flavor of the day. But as Saban would say later, Cornwell had some problems during fall camp and fell down the depth chart.
After the first two scrimmages, Saban frequently mentioned Alec Morris, but Morris has seen the field only in a couple of mop-up opportunities in the first two games.
That leaves true freshman Blake Barnett, who almost everyone seems to believe is the future for Alabama at quarterback. In 2009, Saban was asked who would be his backup quarterback if starter Greg McElroy had to come out as Bama was rolling towards and undefeated season and the national championship. It was more than a bit of a surprise when Saban said it would be true freshman AJ McCarron, even though McCarron had not played and seemed destined for a redshirt season. (McCarron was not needed in 2009 and would be redshirted.)
So Saban is on record that he would play a true freshman in a critical situation.
With Alabama losing so early in the season, will Saban take the presumed redshirt off Barnett and make the quarterback future now?