There was never much of a likelihood that there would be a major quarterback controversy at the state of Alabama’s SEC schools, Alabama and Auburn, this August. People are always infatuated with hypotheticals, but both teams knew what they had returning. In Alabama’s case, that is Jalen Hurts, a quarterback the coaching staff was happy with, one that the team supports. At Auburn, that was Sean White, who, in my limited observation, seemed solid enough, and is clearly a fierce competitor. Auburn, though, wanted better — as schools should. Having had success with the transfer route before, the Tigers brought in Jarett Stidham, a sensation in a brief stint at Baylor.
On the surface, that only seems logical. The status quo at Alabama, after all, is the SEC Championship and a narrow miss in the College Football Playoff Championship. With the expected freshman-to-sophomore improvement by Hurts and some fine-tuning in other areas, that slim margin of defeat could easily be reversed this year. There are other factors, of course. The overwhelming question at Alabama, although it rarely is articulated bluntly, is “will the defense be as good?” At most places, the answer would be an immediate “no.” What college program could be expected to replace an NFL exodus of talent and stay at the same level? At Alabama, the answer is a qualified “maybe.” Observers of the first scrimmage last Saturday generally stopped short of saying the defense was “as good” as the 2016 unit but even conservative practice watchers did not think the dropout was nearly as steep as might be expected.
The defense last year, in nearly every game, gave the offense a tremendous margin for error. The offense needed that sometimes. If the defense can do the same thing this year, and the offense is better — and “better” can mean both more explosive and, in other cases, more cautious, then that’s what Nick Saban wants.
Auburn was a good team last year, especially before a plague of injuries, but the status quo — no trip to Atlanta, no win over Alabama — will eventually get an Auburn coach, any Auburn coach, into hot water. Therefore, a change that might catapult the Tigers is the smart play. If it works out, happy days are back at Jordan-Hare Stadium. If it doesn’t and Stidham struggles, has anything really been lost? You aren’t going to hit the Cam Newton jackpot with every spin of the wheel, but it’s fair to note that the last national championship quarterback at both Auburn (Newton) and Alabama (Jake Coker) was a transfer.
The rest of the SEC West, except for Texas A&M, went into August with their quarterback position settled. The Aggies are having a competition between four candidates, none of whom promise to be an upgrade over the departed Trevor Knight. The stability at quarterback and most of the division schools is one reason that 2017 might be a better year, SEC-wise, than 2016. The speculation continues to grow, though, that this will be another Alabama-Auburn showdown year. Results can change that speculation, and LSU, in particular, has enough athletes to throw a monkey wrench into anyone’s plans. But if both Hurts and Stidham live up to expectations, leading to a rare year of quarterback excellence on both sides of the state, it’s hard to imagine anyone else winning the league.