As September 2014 loomed, Alabama still had not decided on a quarterback. Two guys competed for the job, and even after an opening win, Coach Nick Saban said, “I still don’t hesitate to say that there’s a quarterback competition.” In ensuing months, the Crimson Tide won the haughty Southeastern Conference and reached the first College Football Playoff.
As September 2015 loomed, Alabama still had not decided on a quarterback. Three guys vied for the job, and the uncertainty proved disastrous: Over the ensuing months, the Crimson Tide was able to win only one national championship.
As September 2016 waits behind the curtain, Alabama still had not decided on a quarterback entering the final weekend of August. Three guys have been competing for the job — the Utahan junior Cooper Bateman, the Californian redshirt freshman Blake Barnett and the fascinating Texan newcomer Jalen Hurts — and the sage Associated Press voters have taken notice of this inconvenience. They have doled Alabama a preseason ranking of No. 1, as if it had won four of the past seven national titles, which it has.
“I think the big word there that I’d like to use with these guys is ‘consistency,’ ” Saban said in his state-of-the-union news conference last week. “You know, one day or two days in a row it will look like one guy’s starting to sort of forge ahead a little bit. All right, then two days later, somebody else seems to have a good day or two, and it makes you think that maybe this guy is starting to take the bull by the horns, going to be the guy.”
If anyone still fretted over that, that must be some worrywart.
In the area of succeeding after quarterbacking uncertainty, Alabama isn’t lonely. In the small sample set of two College Football Playoff seasons, four of the eight playoff qualifiers (including two Alabama teams) have played chunks of August beneath the big American quarterback question. In 2015, Oklahoma named Baker Mayfield the starter Aug. 24. In 2014, Ohio State named J.T. Barrett the starter only after Braxton Miller re-injured his shoulder Aug. 18.
Those Buckeyes, of course, thrived even after starting December with a new quarterback upon Barrett’s injury Nov. 29.
As camps began this month, the eventual preseason top 25 included 14 obvious starting quarterbacks, down from 15 last year, but the top 10 had five, up from four last year. Whereas last season saw the two top 10 teams — and the national landscape — trying to replace the top two NFL picks in stars Jameis Winston (Florida State) and Marcus Mariota (Oregon), this year it tries to replace a smattering of semi-stars. The highest draft pick pulled from any preseason top 25 team was Southern California’s Cody Kessler, No. 93 overall to Cleveland.
This year, certainty reigns at preseason No. 2 Clemson (the mighty Deshaun Watson), No. 3 Oklahoma (Mayfield), No. 6 Ohio State (Barrett), No. 9 Tennessee (Joshua Dobbs), No. 11 Mississippi (Chad Kelly) and ambitious No. 15 Houston (Greg Ward Jr.). The promise from fine freshman years is alive at No. 14 Washington (Jake Browning) and No. 16 UCLA (Josh Rosen). No. 17 Iowa gets a senior year from C.J. Beathard, and it likes that; No. 21 Oklahoma State gets a junior year from Mason Rudolph, and it likes that; and No. 23 Baylor gets the return from injury of Seth Russell, and it likes that.
Among newcomers, the most curious would be redshirt freshman Deondre Francois, whose swift ascent to pilot No. 4 Florida State became complete when Sean Maguire broke his foot at the start of training camp. At Florida State’s media day, Coach Jimbo Fisher said of Francois: “He likes the grind part of it. He puts in the time and likes ball. Some guys play sports and some guys love it, and he’s one of those [latter] guys. He likes the ‘whys’ of the game. He likes to understand and be around it.”
“I live it, breathe it and eat it,” Francois said. “I strive to be great.”
He will start striving before big, demanding audiences on Monday night, Sept. 5, in Orlando, against Ole Miss. Don’t forget: Florida State’s last national championship came in 2013-14, with a quarterback (Winston) who had thrown zero college passes as of that August.
In the category of veterans who waited for a shot, there’s Ryan Burns at No. 8 Stanford (a D.C.-area native from Stone Bridge High to replace D.C.-area native Kevin Hogan from Gonzaga), Tyler O’Connor at No. 12 Michigan State and Mitch Trubisky at No. 22 North Carolina. In the category of debuting transfers, there’s Kenny Hill at No. 13 TCU (after Texas A&M), Dakota Prukop at No. 24 Oregon (after graduating from Montana State), Luke Del Rio at No. 25 Florida (after both Alabama and Oregon State), and maybe John O’Korn at No. 7 Michigan (after throwing for 3,117 yards for Houston in 2013), if he winds up beating out Wilton Speight, who threw for 29 yards in a key comeback drive last October at Minnesota.
In the category of veteran starters with lingering question marks, No. 5 LSU has Brandon Harris, who last November couldn’t open any room for celestial running back Leonard Fournette on the trip to Alabama. And in a Southeastern Conference with only three surefire incumbent quarterbacks, the category of lingering mystery has No. 18 Georgia, whose first-year coach, Kirby Smart, told local reporters he’s “not really any clearer” among Greyson Lambert, the transfer from Virginia who went 162 for 256 last year; third-year Brice Ramsey; and new arrival Jacob Eason, who came all the way from high school in Lake Stevens, Wash.
In the category of uncertainty because of riches, No. 10 Notre Dame might have too many good quarterbacks, so Coach Brian Kelly will play two (Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer) in the opener Sept. 4 at Texas. That displeased both quarterbacks and led to a Zaire quote with a shot at a long shelf-life, the vow to local reporters to “turn chicken crap into chicken salad.” It also threw Notre Dame into a mini-category with Ohio State, which “suffered” a similar surfeit of talent last year and finished 12-1, after which Coach Urban Meyer began this season by noticing a better arrangement for Barrett.
“He did not have a great training camp last year, for whatever reason,” Meyer said. “There was a lot of distraction with Cardale [Jones, Barrett’s rival for the position] and who’s going to play quarterback, and he was still overcoming a pretty serious injury that took a long time to heal, so he didn’t have the spring reps that he needed. He did this year, and I anticipate he’ll be as good a quarterback as we’ve had.”
Nobody’s ever too sure, of course, especially whenever Saban isn’t.