SEC: Cooper Bateman

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s a terrible cliche, but we’re going to have to let this thing play out.

Alabama’s quarterback competition, despite our incessant need for more information and more insight, is, for the most part, unknowable. That is, unless your name is Nick Saban or Lane Kiffin. And even then, their patience far exceeds the general public’s.

[+] EnlargeJake Coker
Brynn Anderson/AP PhotoJake Coker is more confident in his second spring at Alabama, but don't expect the Crimson Tide QB job to be decided any time soon.

Former Florida State transfer Jake Coker seems to be more confident, Saban has said.

Stud freshman Blake Barnett seems to have great leadership qualities, Saban said as well.

But are they frontrunners to replace Blake Sims, who threw for the most yards in a single season in school history last year? If not, where do they rank in relation to the other candidates at the position: Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Alec Morris?

Maybe we’ll get a clearer picture come A-Day when the final scrimmage of spring will be open to everyone, but for now it’s hard to tell.

The only thing we do know is that the staff has changed the way it looks at the position this year.

“We’ve tried to make it a little easier with what we’re doing at that position so that they don’t have the burden as some of the guys in the past have had so that the inexperienced players can develop a little more quickly,” Saban said.

While it’s unclear whether that means a trimmed-down playbook or fewer calls made at the line of scrimmage, it does add an extra layer of intrigue to the competition, seemingly opening the door for youngsters like Barnett and Cornwell, a redshirt freshman.

But at the same time it might be a relief to someone like Coker, too, considering his struggles a year ago learning a new offense. He was the more prototypical fit with a stronger arm and more ideal size than Sims, but Sims ultimately showed more comfort running the offense and won the job early on in the season.

When Coker spoke to the media prior to the Allstate Sugar Bowl in January, he said he had made strides in practice and during spot duty late in games.

“I’ve gotten better I feel like in all areas of playing quarterback, but especially as far as learning this offense and getting more fluid and on time,” Coker said.

Center Ryan Kelly, who spoke at the start of spring practice, said he’s seen a difference in Coker, too.

“He’s obviously more mature, obviously, being a fifth-year guy,” Kelly said. “You’ve seen the in and outs of college football, and I think he’s done a great job stepping into a bigger leadership role. Last year, being his first year, it’s just hard to step into a role like that when you don’t really know a lot of guys. Now that he’s had a little bit of time to meet everybody and kind of hang out and build people’s trust up, I think he’s going to have a good year.”

Of course, that’s only one player’s opinion, and we likely won’t hear from Coker or any of the other quarterbacks at all this spring. They’ll fight to win the job first, and then they’ll live to tell us about it.

For now, though, we’re left to read the tea leaves. Pretty soon we’ll have scrimmages, which may or may not include passing statistics.

If you’re looking for a starter to be named this spring, don’t hold your breath. It’s a competition, but another cliche you hear often in sports -- a sense of urgency -- isn’t part of the equation.

Opening spring camp: Alabama

March, 13, 2015
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Schedule: The Crimson Tide begin spring practice on Friday with a workout at 4:30 p.m. ET. They will take the week of March 15 off for spring break and return to practice on March 23. The spring game will be held on April 18 at 3 p.m. ET at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

What’s new: The defensive coaching staff will have a different feel this spring with Lance Thompson and Kevin Steele gone. In their place, former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was hired to coach defensive backs, Tosh Lupoi was promoted from analyst to outside linebackers coach and coordinator Kirby Smart shifted from coaching the secondary to inside linebackers.

On the mend: Like a lot of players these days, Kenyan Drake has taken to social media to show off his rehab. The speedy running back has looked good, too, as he attempts to return from a broken leg he suffered in October. Outside linebacker Denzel Devall, who injured his ankle during the same game Drake went down, was spotted at Alabama's pro day this week using a scooter with his leg in a protective cast.

[+] EnlargeJacob Coker 140806
AP Photo/Alabama Media Group, Vasha HuntJake Coker will have another shot at winning the starting quarterback job that has eluded him at Alabama and Florida State.
New faces: With T.J. Yeldon off to the NFL, Drake coming back from an injury, Altee Tenpenny gone after transferring and Tyren Jones in the doghouse, the depth chart at running back is wide open. So don't be surprised if Bo Scarbrough makes a push for early playing time. The late qualifier and former five-star athlete enrolled at Alabama in January.

Question marks: There are plenty, but the most compelling question might be on defense, where Alabama allowed an average of 33 points and 493 yards per game to end the season against Auburn, Missouri and Ohio State. The common denominator in those games: an uptempo attack featuring a mobile quarterback. So is that Nick Saban's kryptonite or does the coach many describe as a defensive mastermind have an answer?

Key battle: The starting QB job was Jake Coker's to win last year after he transferred in from Florida State. So will he take advantage a second time around? Or does another veteran like Blake Sims emerge in the form of Alec Morris or Cooper Bateman? There's even the possibility that redshirt freshman David Cornwell or true freshman Blake Barnett vies for playing time.

Breaking out: We've only seen glimpses of Derrick Henry's talent. He's started a few games at running back, but with Yeldon ahead of him on the depth chart he's never had the ability to be Alabama's featured back. With Yeldon gone now, though, it's time. It's time for Henry to show what he can do with 20 carries a game instead of his usual 10-15. At 6-foot-3 and 245 or so pounds, that should be a frightening prospect for SEC defenses.

Don’t forget about: They don't pick up eye-popping stats and their names aren't on the cover of magazines, but Alabama's defensive line could be its biggest strength in 2015. In Jarran Reed and A'Shawn Robinson, you're looking at two future NFL interior linemen. And in Jonathan Allen, D.J. Pettway, Dalvin Tomlinson and Da'Shawn Hand, you've got a nice group of pass-rushers, too. If junior college transfer Jonathan Taylor can make an impact right away, Alabama could have an embarrassment of riches at the position.

All eyes on: They'll go up against one another in practice every day, so it's logical to pair the defensive backs and wide receivers together as the most pivotal position groups this spring. At cornerback, the focus will be on whether sophomore Tony Brown or redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey can win a starting job. And at wideout, everyone will be paying attention to who becomes the next Amari Cooper, whether that's Chris Black, Robert Foster, Cam Sims or any one of Alabama's highly touted prospects who have been overshadowed in recent years.

Roundtable: Most intriguing QB battles in SEC

March, 10, 2015
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Competition is the running theme in every spring practice, but it will be especially so for SEC quarterbacks over the next several weeks.

Today our SEC writers take a look at some of the most intriguing quarterback battles that will take place within the conference this spring and beyond.

Alex Scarborough: Georgia

Call me crazy, but who wins the job is irrelevant. What matters is that either Jacob Park or Brice Ramsey secures the position early and sets the tone for the rest of the season, because the last thing Georgia needs is a QB controversy. There’s so much going for the offense already. There’s Nick Chubb, the only running back in college football that could make you forget Todd Gurley. There’s Malcolm Mitchell, a top talent at receiver if he can stay healthy. And there’s the O-line, which could be the best in the SEC with four starters back. So whoever starts under center will have plenty to work with. Now it’s only a matter of settling on the best option.

Chris Low: Texas A&M

There's not much drama this spring in the Texas A&M quarterback camp. It's sophomore Kyle Allen and ... well, that's it. Kenny Hill transferred after being all the rage in Aggieland to start last season, but Allen was the one who finished the season at quarterback, going 3-2 as the starter. He's got a big arm and showed uncanny presence in the pocket for a true freshman. But it would be premature to pencil in the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Allen as Texas A&M's starter in 2015. Kyler Murray is slated to be on campus this summer, and he arrives as the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback prospect in the country -- assuming he doesn't opt for pro baseball. There's some thought that Murray could be a first-round selection in June's baseball draft. If so, he's got another big decision to make after picking Texas A&M over Texas in a fierce recruiting battle. Stay tuned because the real drama surrounding the Aggies' quarterback job will heat up this summer.

David Ching: Ole Miss

Ole Miss is intriguing not so much because of the on-field competition, but because of Chad Kelly's presence in the position battle. I suppose it’s the tabloid element of the story that interests me. Prior to his arrest following a bar fight late last year, Kelly was already viewed as a wild card because of his unceremonious exit from Clemson. Hugh Freeze stood by the junior college transfer -- Kelly led East Mississippi Community College to the NJCAA title last year, passing for 3,906 yards, 47 touchdowns and eight interceptions -- saying Kelly deserves a second chance. But can Kelly keep his act together and also outperform Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade? It will be fascinating to watch it play out.

Edward Aschoff: LSU

The Tigers are in desperate need of competent play at quarterback, and just about everyone will be keeping a close eye on Anthony Jennings vs. Brandon Harris. No one has any clue which way this one will go. You have Jennings, who basically limped his way through 2014, and Harris, who arrived as a star recruit but couldn’t stay on the field. Both have shown flashes -- maybe Harris a bit more -- but both were wildly inconsistent and have a long way to go with their development. However, if one can stand out and transform into a legitimate passing threat, LSU’s offense -- and entire team -- could be dangerous in 2015.

Greg Ostendorf: Florida

Don’t underestimate this battle. This could be a career-defining decision for Jim McElwain in just his first year at Florida. Fans are tired of subpar quarterback play, and that’s part of the reason McElwain was hired in the first place. On one side, Treon Harris came in and gave the Gators a spark last season. He’s a true dual-threat guy who has more game experience. On the other side, there’s Will Grier, the former ESPN 300 signal-caller who better fits what McElwain wants to do on offense. Both will be given an equal shot at the job, and I don’t expect a starter to be named until the fall. But what makes it so intriguing and why I think it’s the most intriguing battle in the SEC is McElwain. He has a proven track record with quarterbacks, and both Harris and Grier will benefit from his arrival. Who will benefit the most?

Sam Khan Jr.: Alabama

Alabama’s quarterback battle fascinates me in large part because of how it played out a season ago. Jake Coker transferred into the program during the offseason and before he even stepped foot on campus, there seemed to be widespread speculation that he was the successor to AJ McCarron. Then an interesting thing happened -- the battle played out, Blake Sims eventually won the job and had an impressive season. Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin were methodical in that process, so I expect that to be the case again. Coker’s certainly the favorite again this year and has the experience edge, being a senior and the only one out of the group that includes himself, Blake Barnett, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Alec Morris to have thrown a collegiate pass. That said, he has thrown only 10 more passes against SEC competition than his competitors, so while he has an experience edge, it’s not an overwhelming one.
As we get closer and closer to spring practices popping up all around the country, it's time to dive a little deeper into the substance of the 2015 season. That substance talk really starts right after the season, grows after national signing day and then starts to snowball during spring practice.

We'll dive into the season with 10 burning questions in the SEC this spring:

1. Who will stand out in all these quarterback battles?
OK, so the SEC is littered with quarterback battles this year:
  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • LSU
  • Ole Miss
  • South Carolina
  • Vanderbilt

So who will stand out this spring and propel themselves into a true starting role this fall? At Alabama, you have Jake Coker, who was supposed to be the starter last year but wasn't, and a trio of former high school standouts in Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Florida has a new coaching staff, and Jim McElwain will be very involved in the grooming of sophomore Treon Harris, who took over as the starter last November, and redshirt freshman Will Grier. Georgia has a three-man battle among Brice Ramsey -- the presumed favorite -- Faton Bauta, and redshirt freshman Jacob Park, who could slide by both. Can Anthony Jennings really grow this spring at LSU? Or will Brandon Harris finally look like the top prospect he was coming out of high school? Mercurial junior college transfer Chad Kelly is the favorite to start at Ole Miss, but sophomores DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan actually have some real SEC experience. Connor Mitch is another favorite at South Carolina, but there's a thick field of competitors gunning for that spot. And Vandy has to figure out one quarterback and keep it that way. Johnny McCrary, Patton Robinette and Wade Freebeck all played last year, but incoming freshman Kyle Shurmur should join the fray this fall.

2. Which early enrollees are primed to make a splash?
The SEC welcomed 81 early enrollees this year, so someone is sure to stand out. Keep an eye on junior college running back Jovon Robinson at Auburn, who has a chance to make an immediate impact on the Plains and possibly take the starting job this spring. Georgia needs a lot of help along its defensive line, and freshman Jonathan Ledbetter could be a key addition up front. There's an opening at cornerback at LSU and Kevin Toliver II has a real chance to step into that spot right away. Arkansas needs to replace Darius Philon, and juco Jeremiah Ledbetter could be that person.

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia will look to running back Nick Chubb to carry the offensive load in 2015.
3. Will Auburn, South Carolina and Texas A&M see significant defensive improvements?
All three ranked in the bottom half of the league in total defense and scoring, but all got what appear to be upgrades in the coaching department. Will Muschamp took his superb defensive mind to Auburn after being fired as Florida's head coach, longtime LSU DC John Chavis moved to College Station, and Jon Hoke left the NFL to help the Gamecocks out. Muschamp and Chavis had better be good immediately because they are both well into the seven-figure salary club.

4. Can Florida find an identity on offense?
I feel like I've read this sentence before: The Gators haven't ranked higher than 93rd nationally in total offense the past four seasons, have had myriad quarterback issues and failed to have any sort of real consistency at receiver. First, Muschamp's Gators couldn't perfect ground-and-pound, then a failed spread offense experiment ultimately cost him his job. Now, McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have the tall task of resurrecting Florida's offense. The defense should be fine, but this team isn't going anywhere (again) without an offense. It needs a quarterback, some help for playmaking receiver Demarcus Robinson and a pulse.

5. Who will step up at wide receiver for Alabama?
Now that Amari Cooper is gone, Alabama needs a go-to receiver, especially with a new quarterback taking over. The problem is Alabama is without its top three receivers from last year, and no one on this roster is proven. But that doesn't mean there isn't talent. Junior Chris Black and redshirt sophomore Robert Foster will get every opportunity to showcase their skills, but keep an eye on sophomore Cam Sims, who could be a special player.

6. Is Tennessee equipped to make a move in the SEC?
The recruiting classes have been great (back-to-back No. 5 finishes), a lot of perceived talent returns and the excitement level is through the roof in Knoxville. But it's time to put up, Vols. You have your quarterback in Josh Dobbs, sophomore running back Jalen Hurd has All-SEC written all over him, the receiving corps is loaded, both lines return a lot of valuable pieces -- including monster pass-rusher Derek Barnett -- and there are gems at linebacker and in the secondary. Now, the wins have to come, and that starts with a strong spring.

7. Can Missouri make it three in a row in the East despite losing so many key players?
Well, these Tigers sure haven't been afraid of the big, bad SEC. Three years in, and Mizzou has two SEC East titles. But Year 4 brings plenty of questions. Stud defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden are gone, and their replacements aren't on the same level. The receiving corps is unproven, there's no left tackle and quarterback Maty Mauk has to be much better. The Tigers proved everyone wrong the Past two years, but you can't blame anyone for doubting this team now. There are, however, some key pieces returning, such as center Evan Boehm and running back Russell Hansbrough.

8. Are any teams in the SEC really pegged for a national championship run?
The SEC has a handful of contenders, but none of them are polished to this point. Two favorites to watch? How about Auburn and Georgia? The Bulldogs still need to find a quarterback but might be the most complete SEC otherwise. Running back Nick Chubb seems willing to carry the offense, while the defense should fill its current holes nicely this spring. Auburn lost Nick Marshall at quarterback, but Jeremy Johnson should be fine, and this might be an even more dangerous offense with more of a passing identity. Muschamp's return can only mean good things for the defense, right? Don't sleep on Alabama, and take notice of Ole Miss and its 2013 class that probably has one final shot.

9. Can Brandon Allen finally take the next step at Arkansas?
We all know Arkansas can run the ball, but if the Hogs are going to contend in the West, they have to be able to throw. Bret Bielema knows that and so does Allen, whose 56 percent pass completions from last season has to improve. Allen wasn't consistent enough, averaging just 175.8 yards per game. He doesn't need to be Peyton Manning, but he has to take the next step in his development or Arkansas won't be able to take that next step under Bielema.

10. Can the Mississippi schools keep the momentum going?
Last year was historic for Mississippi State and Ole Miss. At one point, both were ranked third nationally, and the Bulldogs spent time at No. 1. Ole Miss is finally starting to get the depth it needs to be a contender, and the meat of that 2013 class appears to be in its final act. Mississippi State returns the league's top quarterback in Dak Prescott, and has a good foundation on both sides, even if some leaders from last year are gone. Still, Ole Miss needs a QB and Mississippi State has a few holes that need plugging. It's always an uphill battle for these two schools, but in order to really be taken seriously, they have to really compete year in and year out.
You think last season brought a drought of experienced quarterbacks in the SEC? Try this year's group. In all, there are five returning quarterbacks in the conference that started at least 10 games last season. Not surprisingly, most appear early on in our pre-spring position rankings.

1. Mississippi State: His confidence seemed to wane during the second half of last season, but there's no denying Dak Prescott's talent. All told, the former Heisman Trophy contender threw for 3,449 yards and rushed for 986 more as a redshirt junior. If he can use the offseason to become more comfortable throwing from the pocket and limit his turnovers, there's no reason he can't be the best QB in the conference.

2. Tennessee: Is there a quarterback in the SEC whose stock rose as quickly as Josh Dobbs' last year? For the first seven games he was on the bench. But then Justin Worley was injured and the sophomore was thrust into the action. Including a solid performance in a loss to Alabama, Dobbs won four, lost two and scored 17 touchdowns. With Marquez North, Von Pearson, Josh Malone and Pig Howard to catch passes, the Vols passing game could take a huge step forward in 2015.

3. Missouri: Gary Pinkel is going to live and die with Maty Mauk as his quarterback. And while it's got to be scary for the veteran head coach to see all the interceptions he throws (13, second most in the SEC last season), it's just as exhilarating to witness the offense he creates. If a middle ground can be reached, Mauk could turn into one of the SEC's best passers. If not, he'll continue to cost his team wins.

4. Auburn: He's the first non-returning starter on this list, but Jeremy Johnson is a special exception for a reason. Why? Because he has already appeared in 13 games and thrown for more than 800 yards in his two seasons at Auburn. With Nick Marshall no longer ahead of him on the depth chart, Duke Williams back at receiver and a career completion percentage of 73 in tow, Johnson has all the earmarks of a solid starter.

5. Texas A&M: As the former No. 1 pocket passer in his class, Kyle Allen has the tools. Now with five starts, he has some experience under his belt, too. So what's stopping Allen from being the presumptive starter in College Station? As it turns out, it's another blue-chip recruit by the name of Kyler Murray. In spite of Allen's 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season, coach Kevin Sumlin wants to see all his options. That could be good thing for the Aggies, but remember that nothing is certain until Murray turns down the money professional baseball will offer.

6. Kentucky: That's 6-foot-5 and 238 pounds coming at you. That's Patrick Towles, the strong-armed rising junior from Kentucky who conjures images of Ben Roethlisberger when he's on his game. While he's got a ways to go to reach those heights, Towles gives coach Mark Stoops a talented quarterback who can stretch the field vertically as well as tuck the ball and move the chains by running. If he can get his completion percentage above the 60 percent mark, the Wildcats will be in business.

7. Arkansas: Remember in August when someone set fire to Brandon Allen's truck? Well, the drama around the Razorbacks' starting quarterback has quieted since then thanks to his part in the team's turnaround from cellar-dwellers in the SEC to 7-6 and bowl victors. To get over the next hurdle and compete for a New Year's Six bowl, Allen has to bridge the gap from game-manager to playmaker. Until then, people will continue to seek the next man up -- most notably former four-star recruit Rafe Peavey.

8. LSU: Last season felt like more of a competition at quarterback in Baton Rouge, but when you look at the numbers you'll find that Anthony Jennings started all but one game and attempted 182 more passes than then-freshman Brandon Harris. So Jennings is the starter this season, right? Not necessarily. At the end of the day, his numbers weren't great with a completion percentage of less than half and only 11 touchdowns to seven interceptions. With that in mind, don't discount Harris gaining ground in the race now that he has a full year in coordinator Cam Cameron's system.

9. Florida: Treon Harris is a promising young quarterback. The problem is the rising sophomore doesn't really fit into Jim McElwain's system. After all, he ran 40.3 percent of the time his name was called last year. So the question becomes whether Harris adapts and plays more from the pocket, whether McElwain adapts and changes his offense or whether a new quarterback is starting altogether. If it's the latter option, pay close attention to Will Grier's development. Grier is a former four-star prospect who lost the backup job to Harris as a freshman last year.

10. Alabama: Anecdotally, Alabama has loads of talent at quarterback. Whether it's Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell or Blake Barnett, you're talking about a top-five passer coming out of high school. And then you have to consider Jake Coker, who wasn't a hot commodity as a prep but developed into one while at Florida State. So in spite of all that talent, how did Blake Sims, a former three-star recruit and part-time running back, beat everyone but the freshman Barnett out for the job last year? Now Sims is gone and there's little evidence to suggest anyone on the roster will run away with the job.

11. Georgia: With Hutson Mason's departure, Georgia's line of succession at quarterback ended. This spring there is no incumbent at the position and no clear frontrunner either. That's because of the three returning quarterbacks, none have started a game in college. Brice Ramsey, a redshirt sophomore, was the backup to Mason and will get the first look, but in eight appearances last year he had three touchdowns and two interceptions. He'll be pushed by Faton Bauta and Jacob Park.

12. Ole Miss: Chad Kelly is clearly the favorite to replace Bo Wallace. Otherwise, why would coach Hugh Freeze bring him in? Why take the risk on a guy who was already booted from Clemson and is treading on thin ice after his arrest in December? It's said that Kelly has loads of talent and his numbers in junior college back that up, but he's a liability. If he can't keep out of trouble or make the transition to the SEC smoothly, look for redshirt sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade to battle for the job.

13. South Carolina: Steve Spurrier has never shied away from putting his backup quarterback in the game, so it's odd to see no one other than Dylan Thompson a shot last year. In fact, the team's second leading passer wasn't a quarterback at all. It was wideout Pharoh Cooper, who attempted eight passes to Connor Mitch's six. Mitch, a former four-star recruit, has the edge, but it's a large field of competitors with Perry Orth, Michael Scarnecchia and incoming true freshman Lorenzo Nunez all vying for playing time.

14. Vanderbilt: You know the saying that if you have two quarterbacks you have none? Well, what does it mean if you started four quarterback as Vanderbilt did in 2014? It means you have a problem. Because it's not a lack of choice that plagues coach Derek Mason, but an apparent lack of quality options. Patton Robinette and Johnny McCrary return to the competition, but don't count out true freshman Kyle Shurmur, ESPN's No. 7-rated pocket passer.
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Like any good quarterback, Blake Barnett has plenty of confidence. And why not? He’s 6-foot-5, 205 pounds, has a great head of hair and says he can throw the ball about 70 yards. He has the honor of being ESPN’s No. 1-rated pocket passer, and he’s even got some dual-threat in him, too, having rushed for 479 yards and seven touchdowns as a high school senior.

In short, the kid is the total package. So why not enroll early, dive head-long into the offense and take a shot at the starting job as a true freshman? That’s what Barnett did.

Of course, the rookie said the right things on signing day, pointing out how his focus was "getting down with the playbook, getting stronger, and preparing myself for the season ... as much as possible." But even as he ever so diplomatically explained that, "The depth chart is something I’m not completely worried about," you could feel his confidence tugging at him. When asked point-blank whether his goal was to start right away, he couldn’t say no.

"My main goal is to compete for a spot," Barnett said, "but right now that’s big-picture things. The small picture I’m focusing on right now is to get the playbook down and take it step by step. I think that’s a while away from here.

"I don’t want to say anything, make any statements right now."

And neither will his coach, Nick Saban, who said he wouldn’t rule out playing a true freshman at quarterback.

"I wouldn’t rule that out at all," he said. "If he’s the best player, why would we not play him? That’s like saying a guy is from California, so we should not play him because he’s from California."

Barnett, just so we’re clear, is from California.

But does all that mean a West Coast kid will be running Saban’s pro-style offense? In spite of Barnett’s confidence and Saban’s let-the-best-man-win attitude, that seems unlikely. Not only would he have to pass Cooper Bateman, Jake Coker, David Cornwell, and Alec Morris on the depth chart, he’d have to hurdle history, too.

Saban, for all his talk, has never fully handed over the reins of his offense to a true freshman. He didn’t at Toledo when sophomore Kevin Meger was his quarterback. He didn’t at Michigan State when he went from sophomore Tony Banks to junior Todd Schultz to junior Billy Burke. He was close at LSU, starting Jamarcus Russell four games as a redshirt freshman in 2004, but otherwise it was junior Josh Booty, senior Rohan Davey, sophomore Marcus Randall, and junior Matt Mauk.

Since arriving at Alabama in 2007, Saban has continued to side with experience, going from junior John Parker Wilson to junior Greg McElroy to redshirt sophomore AJ McCarron to fifth-year senior Blake Sims.

In what will be Saban’s 20th season coaching the college game, can we really expect him to change his stripes? Is Barnett good enough to convince him that a rookie can handle the responsibility?

If anything, Barnett has the tools to pull off the upset. He talks a pretty good game, too.

Now all he has to do is get his coach to have confidence in him.
Four consecutive No. 1-ranked recruiting classes Insider. Arguably the best head coach in the country. And a schedule that's manageable by most any standard.

For Alabama, the baseline is New Year's. With everything already going right for Nick Saban's Crimson Tide, there are no excuses not to make one of those top six games. Read more from this series here.

Even with a giant question mark at quarterback, the offense should be fine. Derrick Henry (6-3, 240 pounds) will be among the biggest and most intimidating feature backs in America, and he'll have the benefit of the lightning quick Kenyan Drake to spell him off the bench. Pick a couple blue-chip receivers from the cupboard, throw in a senior center (Ryan Kelly), a franchise left tackle (Cam Robinson) and the return of X's and O's aficionado Lane Kiffin, and you're looking at a solid recipe for success.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesDespite some questions at the quarterback position, Alabama's offense should still take off with the likes of Derrick Henry in the backfield.
Sure, the defense needs to pick up the slack after surrendering an average of 33 points and 493 yards in its final three games, but that porous finish should only serve as motivation through a long offseason. The defensive line, led by standouts A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed in the middle, is poised be the best in the SEC. Losing Trey DePriest's experience at middle linebacker hurts, but getting Reggie Ragland back might actually to be an upgrade in terms of athleticism. And while the back end is shaky without Landon Collins, there are plenty of four- and five-star prospects at defensive back to fill the gaps.

But the biggest help to the defense and its ever-important battle for field position could be punter J.K. Scott, who routinely booms the football with his pendulum-like leg.

Outside of personnel, though, maybe the most compelling case for Alabama making a New Year's Six bowl is its schedule. While we don't want to venture into the territory of counting wins in February, it's worth noting that the Tide get Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU at home. And while opening against Wisconsin in Dallas, might appear like a tall task, don't forget the Badgers have a new coach and are now without their best player in Melvin Gordon.

So with so much going in its favor, it's really not as simple as reaching next year's Sugar, Fiesta, Rose or Chick-fil-A bowls for Alabama.

If anything, the mantra continues to be what it's always been: playoff or bust.

What could go wrong

Blake Sims was a nice story. The way the former running back came out of nowhere to win the starting job at quarterback as a fifth-year senior last season was an excellent story, in fact.

But you can't bank on a Blake Sims fairytale happening every year. And if we're looking at it with a critical eye, doesn't Sims winning the job reveal some flaws in the other QBs on the roster? It wasn't as if Sims had a particularly strong or accurate arm, remember?

So why did Jake Coker not beat him out? What about Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris or David Cornwell, for that matter? If they weren't good enough then, what makes us believe they'll be good enough now? The only thing that's changed since then is time and the addition of early enrollee Blake Barnett.

If experience doesn't dramatically improve the quality of Alabama's QBs or Barnett doesn't prove to be a rare exception as a rookie, the offense could be in shaky hands.

But even if you set that aside and assume the QB position will be fine, how confident should you be in the defense's ability to make stops? Because while the line is in good shape and the linebacking corps should to be fine, there's not a lot to feel good about when it comes to the secondary.

While there's plenty of talent to draw upon at DB, the same was true last season and it didn't exactly work out. Outside of cornerback Cyrus Jones, good luck figuring out who starts in 2015. Do you put a shaky Eddie Jackson back at corner? Do you bank on Tony Brown's improvement as a sophomore? Or does Marlon Humphrey come in as a redshirt freshman and set the world on fire?

Another year in the system might give guys such as Hootie Jones, Maurice Smith and Geno Smith the experience to become impact players, but that's not a sure thing. We might drool over the signing of Kendall Sheffield, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Deionte Thompson, but expecting contributions from true freshmen in Saban's complex system is a lot to ask.

If someone doesn't step up in the secondary and a quality QB doesn't emerge, Alabama could be in trouble.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- They’re talented. So, so talented.

With 19 ESPN 300 signees -- three more than any other school and twice the average of the SEC -- there is no doubt that Alabama has the most stacked recruiting class in college football. Coach Nick Saban not only signed the country’s No. 1 passer (Blake Barnett), he signed its No. 1 receiver (Calvin Ridley), its No. 2 running back (Damien Harris) and its No. 3 cornerback (Kendall Sheffield). Not to mention the 14 other players he signed who rank among the top 10 at their respective positions.
It’s staggering really.

But there is a bigger question at play. Because it is Alabama and because it holds ESPN's recruiting title for four years running now, you have to look at things differently. Unlike Florida, which is rebuilding under a new head coach, or Auburn, which went after better personnel on defense, Alabama didn’t have to make wholesale changes or cover up obvious deficiencies on its roster. With 54 ESPN 300 recruits already on campus, the talent was there before signing day ever began.

So at what point do you move past the obvious recruiting numbers and ask whether Alabama is truly any better than it was at this time a year ago? Trading one blue-chip prospect for another doesn’t guarantee anything. It only begs the question: do any of these new recruits translate to a national championship in 2015?

In a sense, this was what Saban was getting at when he told reporters on Wednesday that, "Every coach is going to stand here at this podium ... and say they're pleased with the guys they recruited."

"No one has a bad recruiting class," he explained. "And we're certainly pleased with our guys, but predicting how a young person is going to do academically and athletically in college by giving them some rating when he's in high school is not very scientific.

"We try to use science to create things that are very subjective in terms of what someone's performance is going to be, and I don't think that's really possible. There's no scientific way to know what the achievement of any person is going to be in anything they try to do. It's impossible."

He’s right, there is no way of knowing. Just look at the quarterback position where Alabama has signed seven prospects since 2010, including Phillip Sims, who ranked No. 1 out of high school, David Cornwell and Cooper Bateman, who each ranked in the top five, and Jake Coker, who was viewed as an uber talent upon leaving Florida State. Who won the job last season? A three-star athlete. A fifth-year senior. A former running back by the name of Blake Sims.

Talent is great, but development trumps all.

It’s why the secondary took a step back last season and is not guaranteed to get better in 2015. Because though you could say that signing cornerbacks like Sheffield and four-star Minkah Fitzpatrick will help, you have to at least acknowledge the year before when five-star freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey had little impact. For that matter, neither did sophomores and former four-star recruits Maurice Smith and Anthony Averett.

That is not to say those players won’t become starters with time, only that you can’t get carried away with what happens on signing day. At least you can’t when it’s Alabama and you’ve watched it carry home the recruiting trophy four years in a row.

Saban signed the best players in the country on Wednesday. He signed the players who best fit his team’s needs. And he will probably send a few of them to the NFL in time.

But what has changed? The same things were true last year before Alabama lost to Ohio State in the playoff, and the same things were true the year before, when Alabama's championship drought began.

You have to respect the talent Saban has assembled, but when the four- and five-stars become too many to count, you move on to what it all means. And when you venture into the territory of predicting a No. 1 class will lead to the country's No. 1 team, you're not relying on science. Knowing that with certainty is impossible.
Talent isn’t the question. For Alabama, it never is.

But the number of concerns coach Nick Saban and his staff face this offseason are aplenty. On both sides of the ball, there are major reconstructions to take place. And philosophically, it feels as if the program is at a crossroads -- to further embrace Lane Kiffin’s wide-open offense and try to win games by way of a shootout or go back to the basics and attempt to re-create the hard-nosed defense that typified Alabama’s first three national titles under Saban.
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It’s why we at the SEC Blog went against the grain and did not rank the Crimson Tide among our projected top three teams in the conference. With so much up in the air, we felt better about the chances of Georgia and Auburn.

Now there are two sides to every debate, and here we’ll reveal the point-counterpoint behind our thinking.

[+] EnlargeMichael Thomas
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsCan CB Cyrus Jones make a big leap in his play in the Tide secondary?
1. A shaky defense

Point: Saban built Alabama on defense. So to see the regression there this past season was troubling. While the line was strong and the linebackers were more than adequate, nothing seemed to save the secondary. It seems like so long ago now, but the season-opener against West Virginia when it gave up 365 yards passing was a harbinger of things to come. Outside of the now departed star safety Landon Collins, there wasn’t a lot of solid on-ball coverage. In the final three games against Auburn, Missouri and Ohio State, the once-dominant Crimson Tide defense surrendered an average of 33 points and 493 yards per game. Without Collins to lean on and no sure thing at safety ready to step into his shoes, can we honestly expect an improvement in Alabama’s pass defense? And even bigger than that, is there anything to suggest that Saban and his staff have learned to defend the hurry-up, no-huddle any better? Especially when there’s a mobile QB involved, Alabama has been found lacking.

Counterpoint: There’s always the chance that this was a transitional year at cornerback. Cyrus Jones came to his own, Eddie Jackson returned from a torn ACL quickly, and freshman Tony Brown was able to see the field with some regularity. So, if you’re looking on the bright side, all three could be better next season, whether it’s Jackson’s knee getting stronger or Brown’s knowledge of the defense increasing. Along with that, there’s plenty of talent waiting in the wings. Marlon Humphrey, a five-star corner in last year’s signing class, will shed his redshirt, and there’s the chance that a few stars from the 2015 class emerge, whether that’s early enrollee safety Deionte Thompson or one of the two top-five cornerbacks already committed to the Tide.

2. Too many questions on offense

Point: Blake Sims is gone after one spectacular year as a starter. And while Alabama lucked out with his out-of-nowhere development, can we expect lightning to strike twice? Maybe, but most programs aren’t so fortunate. At some point, you have to think Saban’s run of solid QBs will end. If it does, how will it affect Alabama? Do we know for sure that Derrick Henry is ready to become a feature back? After all, the way Kiffin subbed an ailing T.J. Yeldon into the game against Ohio State on most every third down indicated that Henry is a liability blocking. And beyond Henry’s ability and Kenyan Drake’s health, who will be the go-to receivers? Amari Cooper’s 124 receptions are gone, along with the next two leading pass-catchers in Christion Jones and DeAndrew White.

Counterpoint: Who would have thought a year ago that Alabama would be bemoaning the loss of Sims? The former wideout was never supposed to become the starting QB, which is both a testament to his ability and that of Kiffin to coach the position. After all, if Sims can throw for 3,000 yards, maybe Jake Coker can too -- or Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris, David Cornwell or Blake Barnett. Because in fact, we don’t know who will win the starting job. But there are plenty of options, and a number of them possess the traits to do well in Kiffin’s offense, as evidenced by Cornwell and Barnett’s high ratings as recruits or Coker’s much ballyhooed arm while at Florida State.

3. Increasing competition

Point: The bowl season said one thing, but the regular season said quite another. The West, contrary to popular opinion these days, might still be the best division in college football next season. If you don’t believe that to be true, come up with your predicted order of finish. Who do you have as the sixth and seventh teams? Mississippi State, which possesses a Heisman Trophy candidate at QB? Texas A&M, which should upgrade on defense thanks to the addition of John Chavis? How about Arkansas, which won four of its final six games and could begin the season ranked in the top 25? While Alabama might still be the most talented team in the SEC, the gap seems to be dwindling.

Counterpoint: It’s not so weak that it fails to merit playoff consideration, but Alabama’s schedule is not exactly a high-wire act. Outside of nonconference cupcakes Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Monroe and Charleston Southern, the big draw, Wisconsin, will have a new coaching staff and will be without its star player, Melvin Gordon. Then consider that the home portion of the schedule is about as favorable as possible: Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU. Going to Georgia, Mississippi State and Auburn won’t be easy, granted, but at least those games come in October and November, rather than when the team is still developing in September.
The season isn’t even over yet, but does that mean it’s too early to start looking ahead to 2015? Not when it comes to Alabama and Auburn. Fans are already talking about which team will be better next season and who will have the advantage come November.

So who does have the edge? We decided it break it down for you … in January.

Offense

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Henry will return to lead Alabama's offense and running game.
Alex Scarborough: In terms of knowing what you're getting at the skill positions, I'm inclined to give Auburn the edge.

But that's not to say that Alabama isn't loaded with potential. Derrick Henry is clearly a beast and the return of Kenyan Drake from injury could provide a lethal one-two punch at running back. But outside of those two, is there a position where you know who the starters will be? That's not the case at receiver, where Amari Cooper and his 124 receptions exit stage left, along with the next two leading receivers in Christion Jones and DeAndrew White. The wideout with the most receptions returning to school this spring? Chris Black, who caught all of 19 passes this past season. Cam Sims, Robert Foster and ArDarius Stewart have great potential, but they're unproven. Heck, O.J. Howard has the skill to be an All-SEC tight end, but two years in he hasn't found any consistency in the passing game.

And that's all not to mention the quarterback, which could be Jake Coker ... or Cooper Bateman or David Cornwell or Blake Barnett.

The one spot where I feel most sure Alabama will succeed is up front. On the offensive line, the return of center Ryan Kelly is an enormous help in terms of leadership for the rest of the line and continuity with whoever wins the starting job at quarterback. As is the return of standout freshman Cam Robinson. With Robinson anchoring the line at left tackle, there's plenty to build around. Grant Hill, Alphonse Taylor and Dominic Jackson have gained plenty of experience as a backups and could slide into the starting rotation with minimal stress.

Greg Ostendorf: Don’t be so quick to give Auburn the edge at the skill positions considering the Tigers are losing Cameron Artis-Payne, Sammie Coates, Quan Bray and Corey Grant.

The good news is that D’haquille Williams is returning to school. He solidifies a wide receiver group that would’ve been a huge question mark otherwise. Auburn should also be set at running back with Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber taking over for Artis-Payne and Grant, not to mention the addition of Jovon Robinson, the nation’s No. 1 junior college player. Gus Malzahn has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year he’s coached at the college level, and that trend should continue in 2015 with at least one of the players mentioned above.

The Tigers have a proven commodity at quarterback, too, which is more than their cross-state rival can say. Jeremy Johnson could’ve started for the majority of teams in college football, but he was stuck behind Nick Marshall, one of the best to ever play at Auburn. The offense might look a little different with Johnson under center, but don’t expect a big drop-off in production. Not after what we saw in the first half of the Arkansas game.

The concern will be up front on the offensive line. How do the Tigers replace Reese Dismukes? How long will the coaches stick with Shon Coleman at left tackle?

The pieces are there -- Avery Young is returning; Alex Kozan will be back from injury; Braden Smith will have a full year under his belt -- it’s just a matter of how they fit together. If Auburn can figure that out, this offense will be scary good.

Defense

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonAuburn is looking to Will Muschamp to lessen the talent gap between Auburn and Alabama's defenses.
Scarborough: The gap between the quality of Alabama's defense and that of Auburn's has narrowed of late. This past Iron Bowl and the bowl season showed that neither program is particularly adept at playing defense these days.

But in terms of who has the better defense entering the offseason, it has to be the Tide.

For one, there's no change in the system like Auburn is having to deal with. For another, there's a wealth of talent to draw from.

Alabama's secondary may be shaky today outside of Cyrus Jones, but there are so many four- and five-star DBs in Tuscaloosa it's hard to walk near the practice field without tripping over one. If for some reason Eddie Jackson continues to backslide and Maurice Smith and Jonathan Cook don't develop as planned, there's always the pair of top cornerbacks from last year's signing class in Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey. If they don't work out, there are two top-five cornerbacks committed and two top-10 safeties committed as well.

But the big reason to like Alabama's chances on defense next season rest primarily with the front seven and the defensive line in particular. With the likes of A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson returning, most of last season's two-deep depth chart will remain intact. If Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway stays for their senior season and the signing of Jonathan Taylor works out, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will have more defensive linemen than he'll know what to do with.

Ostendorf: I’m not going to sit here and try and argue that Auburn has a better defense. It’s just not true. As bad as Alabama looked against Ohio State, Auburn was worse.

What I can say is that the Tigers will be better. Bringing in Will Muschamp to run the defense was the best move Auburn made all offseason. He’s one of the more renowned defensive coordinators in college football, and regardless of talent, he’ll have this defense playing much better than they did down the stretch.

But really, talent shouldn’t be an issue. Linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost have both announced they’re returning to school. Cornerback Jonathan Jones will be back after he quietly put together an All-SEC caliber season. Oh and did I mention that Carl Lawson will be healthy? Lawson missed the entire 2014 season due to injury, but he has a chance to be one of the league’s top pass-rushers this fall. Remember what Dante Fowler Jr. did at Florida? That’s what Muschamp wants to do with Lawson.

This unit might look even better a month from now depending on whether Muschamp can reel in five-stars Byron Cowart and CeCe Jefferson.

Alabama might have the better defense next year. And they should; that’s Saban’s identity. But like you said earlier, the gap won’t be as wide as it looked at times this past season. Auburn’s defense isn’t giving up 55 points in the Iron Bowl. I don’t care if Braxton Miller transfers to Tuscaloosa. That’s not happening again.
Alabama’s 2015 season begins in 239 days.

That’s an awfully long time to sit and wait and wonder. And like every offseason, we will eventually slip into a state of surefire prognosis, where predictions morph into reality and what we think we know overrides all we are only on the cusp of understanding.

It’s a time when preseason polls rule the world and coaches fight helplessly against the never-ending tide of speculation.

[+] EnlargeJake Coker
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonIs this the year Jake Coker takes over as Alabama's starting QB? With five candidates for the job, there is sure to be a lot of speculation this offseason.
It’s great fun.

But it’s also dangerous, because all too often we get it wrong.

This sportswriter, along with scores of others, were dead wrong at this time last year when we thought we knew exactly who Alabama’s starting quarterback would be. Whatever we didn’t know about Jake Coker, we were certain we knew about Blake Sims. After four years of toiling in obscurity, there was no way it could be Sims, who didn’t match Alabama’s recent run of quarterbacks who were picturesque in the pocket with solid throwing motions and even more spectacular bangs.

There were other reasons for our opinions about Sims, of course, but that’s a moot point now considering the way he beat out Coker and went on to set a school record for passing yards in a single season. We looked foolish with each Sims touchdown and each win that led to Alabama reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff. We ate our crow along the way, and deservedly so.

With that said, how about we swallow that last bite of humble pie and start this offseason right? Let’s try as best we can to not crown the next leader of the Crimson Tide so early. Let’s not put that pressure on Coker or any other QB on Alabama’s campus.

It very well could be Coker who ends up winning the starting job a year late. We know he has taken some first-team snaps during the season, and we’re certain he should have a better grasp of the offense after spending a year in the system. But there is also Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Alec Morris to consider. And don’t count out Blake Barnett, the five-star prospect who enrolled in school this week.

If we learned anything from Sims, it’s that anything is possible. Any of the five current candidates could develop into a starter.

Lane Kiffin might have driven Alabama fans crazy with his play-calling late in the game against Ohio State, but the offensive coordinator has shown he has the ability to coach quarterbacks. Like his clever use of misdirection in the passing game, he could surprise everyone with the quarterback he chooses coming out of fall camp.

With eight months remaining until that happens, let’s just relax and see what happens.

Let’s take a cue from someone who knows best: Coker, who is entering his third quarterback competition.

"Just trying to get better, that’s all you can do," he told reporters prior to the Allstate Sugar Bowl. "If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, you can’t worry about all the other stuff outside. I just try to go to practice and not read anything. Just stick to the program."

The program worked last season despite our best guesses. Maybe it will work again in spite of another offseason fraught with speculation.

SEC morning links

November, 13, 2014
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The weather has been a common topic at LSU this week.

Not the unusually cool temperatures in the low 40s that the Tigers practiced in on Wednesday. Even worse. The weather forecast for Saturday night’s game at Arkansas shows lows in the 20s and a 70 percent chance of snow.

Considering how 90 percent of Les Miles’ LSU roster hails from Louisiana and the surrounding Southern states, most Tigers have barely seen snow, much less played a competitive football game in it.

If it really comes down on Saturday, it will be interesting to see how the Tigers handle an entirely different climate than what they are accustomed. Miles’ staff seemed amused to turn it into a game of sorts, with one support staff member going shirtless at Wednesday’s chilly practice, but it could be a genuine area of concern.

Arkansas’ players aren’t especially prepared for snowy weather, however. Yes, far more Razorbacks are from states with cooler weather -- and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said that might be an advantage -- but the Arkansas News Bureau’s Robbie Neiswanger wrote this week that the last Razorbacks game impacted by snow was in 1993 against Auburn.

Arkansas initially planned to allow students to camp outside Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Friday night, but the school announced on Wednesday that camping is now canceled because of possible inclement weather.

One likely outcome is that two run-oriented offenses will lean even more heavily on their ground games in snowy weather. If that happens, the Razorbacks and Tigers might play the fastest televised SEC game of the entire season with few pass attempts to stop the game clock.

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In a way, this seems to be about taking the pressure off of Jacob Coker. To give into the public narrative and anoint him Alabama's next starting quarterback this early would go against Nick Saban's instincts. He'd be putting the weight of the world on Coker's shoulders, giving him nowhere to go but down. After all, it's a lot less stressful to compete for a job than to defend one.

So Saban went to SEC media days and said things like, "I don't want to minimize the other quarterbacks," and insisted that, "This is an open competition, no doubt."

"Everyone knows that," he added for emphasis.

Except Coker is the clear favorite. He fits the system best, has the most talent and may be the most mature after three years of ups and downs at Florida State. He may not be as popular among teammates as incumbent Blake Sims, but he's ingratiating himself quickly if you take the word of wideouts Christion Jones and Amari Cooper, who described him as laid-back off the field and take charge between the lines.

"He looks great," Cooper said. "Strong arm, takes command in the huddle, which I think is very important. You can tell he's experienced. I'm ready to see how he progresses in fall camp."

"Jacob's doing a great job since he arrived in May," Jones said. "He's done an awesome job with our wide receivers, with our coaches, learning and doing all the little things right trying to become the quarterback we want him to be.

"But it's a competitive job for him as well, and he understands that, because we have three or four other guys that can help us win."

Really, though, it's not three or four guys competing for the starting job. It's Coker vs. Sims, to be sure. And if you believe Saban, it might be both.

"It's not something that I would hope would happen," Saban said. "Is it something that I can totally rule out? Not really because I think the skill set of Blake Sims can create problems for a defense. If we wanted to utilize him to do that in some kind of way, I guess you could say that we could possibly have a two-quarterback system."

That's right, folks, a two-quarterback system. Brace yourselves.

But to say that Sims' skill set is so different from Coker's isn't exactly true. Coker does have the tools of a prototypical pocket passer in that he's 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds with above average arm strength. He's also an athlete, though. The former All-Metro basketball player at St. Paul's High School has speed and agility, and knows how to run the read-option having played quarterback in a wing-T offense as a prep.

"He's a different type of quarterback than Alabama has had," Jones explained. "I see no similarities with him or AJ [McCarron] or any other QB that's been here. He's a different type of release. He's bigger in size. He can move faster and quicker than most guys his size. He brings a lot to the table."

He brings the most to the table, which is why he will be Alabama's next starting quarterback.

Sims will push him. So will Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell. But it's Coker's job to lose, whether Saban wants to come out and say it or not.

It may be a lot of pressure for a quarterback with zero career starts to handle, but at least one person thinks he can take it. It just so happens to be the one person who continues to try and keep the focus off of him.

"Let me just say this: Whoever the quarterback is at Alabama, they need to be able to manage external factors because there are lots of them," Saban said. "The clutter outside -- what people say, what people think -- you have to be able to stay focused on the process of things you need to do to play well and not worry about that stuff.

"So I would say that if you are putting too much pressure on him, that's his fault, and he needs to learn how to deal with it.

"He's never complained about it. I don't see him pressing. I like his disposition with the other players, how he engages with the other players. He just has to get comfortable with the offense. He's in a competitive situation with some other good players. It will just take a while for it to sort itself out."

How long, though, remains to be seen. Until then, prepare yourselves for plenty of coachspeak and very little talk of where each quarterback stands. We may believe it's Coker's job to lose, but don't hold your breath waiting for confirmation. Saban isn't going to tip his hand or handicap the race anytime soon.

It's an open competition, remember? Everyone knows that.
Parker McLeod knew this was a possibility. When the former three-star quarterback prospect enrolled at Alabama in 2013, he understood that he would be fighting tooth and nail for playing time.

He said he was confident. He said he was a competitor. He said he would work his hardest and hope for the best.

[+] EnlargeParker McLeod
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsParker McLeod redshirted last season at Alabama.
But after redshirting his first season on campus and then watching as three other quarterbacks on the roster separated themselves this spring, he had to know what the future held: He would not become AJ McCarron’s successor under center in 2014.

On Tuesday, Alabama coach Nick Saban told reporters at the SEC meetings in Destin, Florida, that McLeod had been given clearance to look around for another school to transfer to this offseason. And with that, Alabama’s quarterback competition became the slightest bit clearer. With Luke Del Rio long gone (to Oregon State) and McLeod having one foot out the door, as many as four players will vie to become Alabama’s next starting quarterback when fall camp begins.

The presumptive leader in the clubhouse, of course, is Florida State transfer Jacob Coker. The redshirt junior was the backup to Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston last season and first-round NFL draft pick EJ Manuel the season before that. He enrolled at Alabama earlier this month and should be fully recovered from knee surgery when practice begins later this summer.

Coker is considered the front-runner due in large part to poor performances by the other quarterbacks already in Tuscaloosa. Blake Sims, a senior with dual-threat capabilities, threw the ball poorly on A-Day, completing 13 of 30 passes for 178 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

Cooper Bateman, a former four-star prospect who redshirted last season, and Alec Morris, a sophomore who didn’t attempt a pass last season, didn’t fare much better as the two combined to complete 14 of 31 passes for 165 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Coker, who attended Alabama’s spring game but was unable to participate because he hadn’t yet graduated from Florida State, looked the best out of anyone, and he was in a simple T-shirt and a camouflage hat.

But Saban, forever the pragmatist, has urged caution when trying to predict the quarterback race. Coker won’t be handed anything. Even with news of McLeod’s departure, there are still too many horses who can win this race, he insists.

“There's a lot of competition at the position,” Saban told reporters earlier this month. "I think this is something that our team has to embrace and try to help each and every one of these guys play winning football for us at this position."

With McLeod on his way out of town, there will be more snaps for everyone when practice begins. But even with one fewer quarterback in the huddle, Alabama is still a long way from determining who will win the job.

Alabama spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Alabama Crimson Tide:

1. No leader at QB: Blake Sims was said to have made strides as a passer, but he took a serious step back at A-Day, throwing two interceptions. Cooper Bateman, the clear No. 2, wasn’t much better, though he did limit his turnovers. And Alec Morris, the third QB in a three-man race, shined mostly as a punter. For those looking to see separation in the quarterback race, there was none to be had.

2. Depth at RB: T.J. Yeldon and his 2,434 career rushing yards might not be moved from his starting role, but Derrick Henry will try after having what was described as a “fabulous” spring. But behind him, there’s Kenyan Drake to consider. Behind the home run hitter Drake is Altee Tenpenny -- plus Tyren Jones and Jalston Fowler. In other words, Alabama might not have a quarterback, but it has plenty of running backs to turn to in case of emergency.

3. Kiffin effect: The running backs are happy to be featured in new ways. The tight ends are pleased with becoming a bigger part of the offense. The receivers are thrilled with the simpler schemes. Even Nick Saban appears excited, saying how new offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin, will do a good job of getting the ball in playmakers’ hands.

Three questions for the fall:

[+] EnlargeJacob Coker
AP Photo/Phil SearsFlorida State transfer Jacob Coker could be the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback in 2014.
1. But what will Kiffin actually do?: A lot was said about Kiffin this spring, but there was very little in the way of evidence. Practices were kept behind closed doors and the spring game featured what one player described as only 10 percent of the playbook. New plays? We saw none. New formations? None of them either. We’ll have to wait until the regular season to see what Kiffin’s actual imprint on the offense will be.

2. Coker’s arrival: He was the white elephant in the room in the sense that he was never in the room. Jacob Coker, the transfer quarterback from Florida State, wasn’t able to compete in spring practice as he finished his degree. But he’ll be on hand for fall camp and will jump right into the competition for the starting job.

3. Secondary concerns: Landon Collins might be the only sure thing about the Alabama secondary. The safety just so happens to be the only returning starter, too. Nick Perry, Geno Smith and Jarrick Williams will battle it out at free safety and the two cornerback spots are still up for grabs after Eddie Jackson tore his ACL during the spring. Early enrollee freshman Tony Brown shined at A-Day and fellow five-star signee Marlon Humphrey is on the way.

One way-too-early prediction:

It seems like a sturdy ledge, so let’s walk it: Coker will be named the starting quarterback before the start of the regular season. Simply put, Sims is not the type of quarterback to work long-term in a pro-style offense. And whatever added dimension he brought as a runner, Coker also possesses. Alabama wouldn’t have accepted a transfer like Coker if they didn’t believe he could start. And after what we saw from the other quarterbacks at A-Day, there’s no reason to believe he can’t win the job.

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