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A case could be made that Alabama’s football season has had three parts. The first three games included a loss to Ole Miss in the third game. After that the Crimson Tide made progress through a stretch that included four tough Southeastern Conference games befor a bye week. Since that bye week, which started with an impressive 30-16 win over an LSU team that was ranked second in the nation Bama has been outstanding, including winning the SEC title.
There are notable reasons for the Tide’s surge after the loss to Ole Miss. Alabama players had a team meeting following that game, and Bama Coach Nick Saban said after that game his team “responded in the right way in terms of the willingness to work and improve and pay more attention to detail. I think everybody elevated the level of intensity and the standard they were holding themselves accountable for their play.”
The offensive line, which had three new starters, “made steady progress throughout the season,” Saban said. He said the players began to make fewer mistakes and grew in confidence in themselves and in what their coaches were telling them.
But it may be that the biggest change in Alabama following the loss in what is now a 12-1 season was the performance of quarterback Jacob Coker. Coker did not start against Ole Miss, but came into the game and played well. He has started every other game, and thus has a 12-0 record as a starter.
Saban said, “I think that when he went into the Ole Miss game for the first time coming off the bench, the guy competed and played and ran the ball and made some great throws.
“I think he won the team over with the way he competed in the game. I think that was probably the most significant thing that happened for Jake. And I think rather than worrying about what he was supposed to do, and trying to be perfect, he just went out and played for the first time.
“I think he gained a lot of confidence. I think we gained a lot of confidence. I think the players gained a lot of confidence.
“Since that time, there's been no doubt who the leader of the offensive team is.”
Coker and his Alabama teammates are now preparing for what is essentially a fourth part of the season, the national championship College Football Playoff. The Crimson Tide will meet Michigan State in the semifinal round at the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 31. The winner of that game goes to the national championship game against the winner of Clemson-Oklahoma on Jan. 11 in Phoenix.
Coker certainly remembers the Ole Miss game, remembers not being the starting quarterback as Cooper Bateman had the reins in that contest. He did chuckle as he remembered his feeling.
“I wasn’t happy,” he said, “but that’s part of it. I wasn’t about to be a distraction to other guys or in any way try to take the attention off Ole Miss. That was the last thing I wanted to do. So I made sure I was still supportive every way I could.”
Coker deflected the suggestion that his play since the loss has been the catalyst. “The team has kind of changed and molded to what we needed to be this whole year and I think the team had confidence in everybody and still would,” he said. “I think it’s one of those things where we picked up and started running and playing well after that game and kept running with it.
“I think everybody realized that our backs were against the wall. We only had one option – to win. Otherwise, it was something other than a championship and that’s not what we wanted. We had to make sure we were ready to play every day.”
During the pre-season as Alabama worked to find a starting quarterback, Saban said he wanted a man to win the team. Coker was asked how he did that. He said, “I just tried to work as hard as I could every day and through hard work be the guy. I think over the course of the season it happened and I’m just thankful to play quarterback right now.”
Alabama returned to the practice field Wednesday and Coker admitted that he had not yet learned enough about Michigan State to comment on the opponent. But he was a member of last year’s team as the back-up to Blake Sims and he remembers the loss to Ohio State in the semifinals of the CFB in New Orleans.
He said the learning experience is “Just stay focused. Never lose sight of the goal we had in mind. Just keep working hard every day. That’s something we have to stress.”
Last year, he said, “We kind of lost sight of that and we had to pay for it.”
Coker didn’t begin his career at Alabama. He spent a few years at Florida State, earning his degree and then transferring to the Tide prior to the 2014 season.
Saban said that when he looks at a transfer quarterback, “First of all I think he has to be a good fit for the offense.”
Coker has been a good fit. He has completed 222-338 passes for 2,489 yards with 17 touchdowns and only eight interceptions.
Moreover, he was elected by his teammates as a captain.
Coker said, “That’s one of the things that means more to me than any award out there, any honor you could possibly get. I’m honored to be on this team with these guys. It’s unbelievable to be surrounded by guys like this.”