Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff WriterSep 19, 2023, 07:00 AM ET
Alabama receivers aren’t creating enough separation, the offensive line is allowing too much pressure in the backfield, getting a snap from center has turned into an adventure rather than a formality, the running game is inconsistent at best, players across the board are committing too many penalties, and the offense as a whole doesn’t appear to have a sense of identity or direction.
Now Alabama finds itself outside the top 10 of The Associated Press’ poll for the first time in eight years. With the Crimson Tide absent from the playoff conversation, hope seems a long way off. Whether that remains true for the rest of the season is anyone’s guess.
And while it’s unfair to pin all the blame on the quarterbacks (see above), a critical eye has to start there. It’s the most important position on the field and the sharp decline has been startling. Alabama is a program that passed its QB baton from Jalen Hurts to Tua Tagovailoa to Mac Jones to Bryce Young. Depending on how you count Hurts’ time at Oklahoma, you’re talking about one or two Heisman Trophy winners and two Heisman finalists.
Coaches around the SEC last season said privately Young was covering up a lot of Alabama’s flaws, including the mediocre play on the line and at receiver that continues today, but no one thought to look further down the depth chart at what would be missing once he left. To go from four consecutive future NFL starting quarterbacks to the rotation of backups we saw Saturday against South Florida boggles the mind.
Jalen Milroe, Young’s former backup who began the season as the starter and was benched after throwing two interceptions in a loss to Texas, didn’t take a single snap in Tampa. Tyler Buchner, the late addition from Notre Dame, got the start and completed 5 of 14 passes for 34 yards before he was pulled. His replacement, redshirt freshman Ty Simpson, wasn’t much better, running for a 1-yard touchdown and completing 5 of 9 pass attempts for 73 yards.
Against an unranked opponent it was favored to beat by five touchdowns, against a team that had given up 41 points to Western Kentucky in the season opener, Alabama had to grind out a 17-3 win that ranked among the ugliest of coach Nick Saban’s 16-year tenure. Buchner and Simpson posted an 18.5 QBR in the game, the fourth lowest in 224 games under Saban and the lowest since 2009 against South Carolina.
Forget the five sacks, the 13 incompletions and that paltry QBR. Forget all those penalties that wiped points off the board. The video of a rain-soaked Saban leaving the field during a lightning delay told the story of a frustrating day.
Afterward, Saban was noncommittal about next steps.
But Monday, he seemed to have made up his mind.
“This is all I’m going to say about this,” Saban said. “Jalen really showed the leadership I was looking for in terms of supporting his teammates.”
Milroe, he added, “has earned the opportunity to be the quarterback.”
But if Milroe has another performance like the one against Texas — where he telegraphed his passes and threw a pair of back-breaking interceptions — will Saban stick with him? Saban craves consistency from his quarterbacks and values the ability to take care of the football seemingly above all else. Old school, he’s said on more than one occasion that if a drive ends in a kick, whether it’s a field goal or a punt, that’s fine by him.
So pay attention because the drama might not be over yet.
But before asking where Saban and Alabama go from here, you have to ask how they got here in the first place. How is it that no one was ready to replace Young after he left school as the No. 1 overall draft pick? How did it fall to Milroe, Buchner and Simpson? How did it get to the point that the break in case of emergency option — true freshman Dylan Lonergan — might have his number called before he’s ready?
The answer is complicated. Some sources close to the program say it’s as simple as the program’s good luck finally running out. The Hurts-Tagovailoa-Jones-Young run was unprecedented for a reason, they say. But other, more cynical sources, question the recruiting and development at the position the last two-plus years.
Milroe might not have been Alabama’s pick in the 2021 class had Drake Maye not decommitted in March 2020, opting instead to sign at North Carolina. Fast-forward to the end of last season and Alabama was back sniffing around Maye, according to multiple sources, in the event that he entered the transfer portal, which he didn’t.
By the time it became clear neither Milroe nor Simpson had separated themselves — after going through all of spring practice — Alabama was too late to find a top quarterback in the transfer portal. Sam Hartman had already gone to Notre Dame and Brennan Armstrong had already gone to NC State. The rest of the SEC had already cleaned up with Kentucky signing Devin Leary, who broke Philip Rivers’ single-season school record for touchdowns at NC State, and Ole Miss signing Spencer Sanders, an All Big-12 pick at Oklahoma State, and Walker Howard, a former five-star who spent his freshman year at LSU.
The rumor mill briefly connected Alabama and Miami’s Tyler Van Dyke in April; the speculation was so rampant that the Canes’ official X account posted a not-so-subtle message affirming Van Dyke’s commitment to the program. When the music stopped and the portal quit spinning, it was Buchner, who would have been Hartman’s backup, that became the best option remaining. And even then, Buchner was brought in not with the expectation that he’d be a slam-dunk starter but rather as someone who could compete and push Milroe and Simpson.
Maybe he did that. Maybe he didn’t. But Simpson started the season third on the depth chart for a reason and Milroe, despite being the starter the first two games, didn’t show noticeable improvement in his first real test against Texas. A former SEC coach said Milroe simply isn’t skilled enough in the short-to-intermediate passing game, which is what Alabama needs to keep defenses honest.
A Power 5 defensive coordinator said Milroe was essentially the same player he watched on film from a year ago: “Big play or nothing.” But in Milroe’s defense, he’s had to deal with a not insignificant amount of turnover during his time at Alabama. Former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian — a wizard with the run-pass option — recruited him and left to become the head coach at Texas two weeks after he signed his letter of intent. Then, when the opportunity to start finally came this year, the O.C. who coached Milroe the last three seasons, Bill O’Brien, left to join the New England Patriots.
That’s not all. Alex Mortensen, the analyst and behind-the-scenes QB guru who spent nine seasons at Alabama, left in December to join the new staff at UAB. On Monday, Georgia coach Kirby Smart said of Mortensen, “He was at Alabama behind all the offenses — worked with Bill O’Brien, worked with Sark, was there when I was there. I have a lot of respect for Alex.”
Meanwhile, new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees has pulled back some on the RPO game (down 3.1% from 2021-22, down 7.3% from 2019-20) that might suit Milroe’s skill set best.
“He’s in a tough spot, but I do think he’s talented,” the Power 5 coordinator said of Milroe. “He throws a great deep ball, can create on his own. He just doesn’t have that ability to make the off-platform throws that Bryce Young did.”
Here’s the thing, though: Alabama doesn’t need any of its quarterbacks to be Bryce Young to have a more effective offense. At this point, it would take another Jake Coker — someone who can manage the game, take the occasional deep shot and limit bad plays. In fact, last week Saban compared the offense’s struggles to what the team went through in 2015 when Coker and Cooper Bateman competed for the starting job through the first three games of the season, including a heart-breaking loss to Ole Miss that prompted some in the media to speculate that Alabama’s dynasty was at its end. Coker won the job, the Tide ran the table and won the national championship.
But that optimistic narrative has one glaring plot hole: This team doesn’t appear to have another Derrick Henry to feed at running back. Henry set an SEC single-season record with 1,986 rushing yards in 2015 and won the Heisman.
With Saban reinserting Milroe into the starting lineup against Ole Miss on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS), will he use his speed to field a more run-heavy offense? It’s certainly possible. But can the offensive line support it? And will the receivers hold up their end of the bargain? And will the team stop shooting itself in the foot with penalties and unforced errors?
Picking a lane on offense is a good start to figuring things out, but it’s going to take a lot more than that for Alabama to get back on track and back in the playoff hunt.
Until then, the questions about who should start at quarterback will dominate the conversation and the doubts over the health of Saban’s dynasty won’t end.