Concerns About Alabama (and It’s Not Just Jacob Coker)

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Alabama head coach Nick Saban announced Monday quarterback Jacob Coker would miss “several days” due to a foot injury, perhaps throwing the Crimson Tide’s cloak-and-dagger quarterback competition into further flux.

Saban’s comments were predictably cryptic, shedding little light on Jacob Coker or his place in the ongoing quarterback competition.

For as much attention has been paid to the quarterback battles since Jacob Coker arrived from Florida State — both last year and this — quarterback play won’t determine whether Alabama repeats as SEC champion or returns to the College Football Playoff. Not exclusively, anyway.

On the same Monday Saban announced Jacob Coker’s absence from practices, ESPN.com published a feature on Auburn that included the following statement from Gus Malzahn:

“We didn’t score touchdowns in the red zone. We should have put 60 on them, and we didn’t. That was the most disappointing thing, when you have a chance to do something special and don’t, and then we gave up all those fourth-quarter points.”

Content mills, ready your “Malzahn ETHERS Saban” headlines, but at least see the forest for the trees: Malzahn’s right.

Auburn absolutely should have scored 60 points in last season’s Iron Bowl. In an ironic twist, quarterback play saved Alabama’s bacon that night in Tuscaloosa, as Blake Sims scored three consecutive touchdowns through the third and fourth quarters.

Alabama quarterbacks have typically fulfilled a very clear role in the tested, overall formula for success under Saban. That formula is why Jacob Coker may not be the reason Alabama loses out on a national championship, but neither he nor any of the other quarterbacks currently competing for the job will be the reason the Tide win one.

Put simply, a quarterback isn’t going to save Alabama when the defense falters or when Lane Kiffin falls into old habits.

Both are likely to happen.

Auburn and later, Ohio State, exposed cracks in the Tide’s once rock-solid defensive foundation. Both scored in the 40s and each should have put up more. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart didn’t forget how to coach overnight, but he did need reinforcements. The addition of defensive backs coach Mel Tucker, who told AL.com he’s constantly reminded of Alabama’s secondary woes, was meant to patch the cracks.

Much of the chatter emanating from Tuscaloosa throughout the offseason focuses on all the talent Alabama has in the secondary. But talent isn’t the issue — at least, not Alabama’s talent.

As programs like Ohio State and Auburn stepped up their recruiting efforts, the talent gap has been bridged. It’s not just about rankings, either, but the kind of highly touted recruit these programs bring in.

Alabama is still sending out talented defensive backs, but does so against improved receiving corps. The Tide have big, physical players in the front seven, but their primary competitors have bigger and more physical linemen than they did a half-decade ago.

Where Jacob Coker and the rest of the quarterbacks factor in: How many of the other upper echelon programs battling Alabama for supremacy have playmakers behind center who make up for such positional stalemates?

When Greg McElroy or A.J. McCarron were in the backfield, neither really needed to. Running back platoons with Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon imposed their will on opposing defenses.

Alabama still boasts talented running backs like Derrick Henry. The uncertainty surrounding Kenyan Drake’s return and Bo Scarbrough’s status casts a pall, as does Kiffin’s tendency to stray from the run. Nevertheless, the playmakers are still there.

But the advantage Alabama has in its run game isn’t as pronounced as it once was. It isn’t as such that the quarterback can simply manage a formula.

Make no mistake: The Crimson Tide will compete for the SEC West, which means they’ll compete for the SEC championship, which means they’ll compete for the national championship. But that doesn’t absolve Alabama from worries that go well past Jacob Coker’s foot.