Is Jake Coker the QB to lead Alabama back to the top?
ARLINGTON, Texas—Jake Coker was entrusted late last week with the most sought-after information in the state of Alabama. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban told the fifth-year senior quarterback to plan to take the first snaps against Wisconsin on Saturday night. Saban made clear that he wasn't naming Coker the starting quarterback for the season—sophomore Cooper Bateman would also get into the game—but Coker would get the first crack.
"He told me, and that was the only person he told," Coker said after helping No. 3 Alabama to a 35-17 win over No. 20 Wisconsin at AT&T Stadium. "So nobody else knew." Well, that's not entirely true. "My parents knew, but they weren't telling anybody," the Mobile, Ala., native said.
Coker passed his first test by keeping his lips (mostly) sealed, and he passed the second by completing 15 of 21 passes for 213 yards with a touchdown against the Badgers. There wasn't a throw that stood out as spectacular, and that was fine with Saban. There weren't any glaring mistakes that stood out, either. After the game, someone asked Saban if it pleased the coach that Coker completed passes to six different teammates. Saban's answer might have sounded like a rebuttal, but on Saban's team it constituted some of the highest praise a player can receive.
"He threw the ball to the guys that he was supposed to throw it to," Saban said. "He made the right reads based on the call that was made and based on the way Wisconsin was playing. You know, if they're playing split safeties, you're supposed to throw it to one side. If they're playing middle of the field closed, you're supposed to throw it to the other side. So it's not like Jake went out there and said, 'I am going to throw to a lot of different guys.' He threw it to the guy that he was supposed to throw it to all the time in the game, which was a very good thing."
Remember, Saban is the sturdiest branch of the Bill Belichick coaching tree. What does Belichick always say? Do your job. Coker did his job Saturday. He didn't do anything less because that would have produced a subpar effort. He didn't do anything more because that might have led to mistakes or forced throws.
The Crimson Tide have won national titles in the Saban era with Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron at quarterback. Both of those players excelled at doing their jobs. They knew they had superior talent around them, and they took advantage of that talent. Last year, Blake Sims—who beat out Coker in preseason camp after Coker came to Tuscaloosa as a graduate transfer from Florida State—probably had to do too much. The line didn't blow open holes the way it had for backs in previous years, nor did it give Sims as much time as it gave McElroy and McCarron to throw. So, Sims had to keep plays alive with his legs. Meanwhile, Amari Cooper emerged as the best receiver in the country, but he was also the team's only dynamic pass-catching target. That limited the offense, and it forced coordinator Lane Kiffin to find creative ways to get Cooper open.
Saturday against Wisconsin, Alabama got its receivers open the old-fashioned way—by running so effectively that the defense had no choice but to pack the box and cover the receivers one-on-one. Tackling 242-pound junior tailback Derrick Henry must feel as if someone has launched a Coke machine from a slingshot and yelled, "CATCH!" Now add massive holes opened by sophomore left tackle Cam Robinson and redshirt freshman left guard Ross Pierschbacher and an opposing defense must load up to stop the run. After Henry turned a fourth-and-one play against an eight-man box into a 37-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, the Badgers had to know they couldn't blanket Alabama's receivers and hope to goad Coker into a mistake. Suddenly, the passing game opened up.
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Of course, it helped that Coker made smart choices with the ball. His touchdown pass didn't benefit from any play-action or running threat. Alabama started the play with two tight ends in two-point stances on opposite ends of the tackle box, and two receivers set slightly back from each tight end. Senior Kenyan Drake was the lone back, but he took off into the flat at the snap. Wisconsin rushed four, meaning the Badgers had seven players to cover the five Alabama sent into the pattern.
Sophomore Robert Foster, who had lined up on the far left side of the formation, ran a drag through the middle of Wisconsin's zone. Coker hit Foster just as he cleared two linebackers and before the safety who was supposed to pick him up could react. The result was a 17-yard touchdown born not of superhuman effort but of executing precisely what was called. In Saban's world, this might be better than a superhuman effort.
Coker has waited a long time for this moment. After following McCarron at St Paul's Episcopal School in Mobile, Coker signed with Florida State in 2011. EJ Manuel still had two seasons left as the starter, and after Manuel left, Coker found himself locked in a competition with a fellow Alabaman named Jameis Winston. We know how that turned out.
Coker graduated from Florida State in the spring of 2014 and headed to Tuscaloosa, where everyone but Saban and Kiffin anointed him the heir apparent to McCarron. Unfortunately for Coker, Saban and Kiffin were the only ones whose votes counted. Sims won the job because he ran what was called and because he made decisions quickly. When Coker entered games early last season, it felt like we could see the gears turning in his brain as he processed the possibilities on passing plays.
Throughout this off-season, Coker couldn't nail down the job. He, Bateman, Alec Morris, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett all had moments in which it looked like they'd win the job. All five also had moments in which it appeared they'd never play a meaningful snap. "It was the hardest competition I've ever seen for one position," Alabama senior center Ryan Kelly said. "They were just battling. Everybody had a good day, a bad day."
Saban and Kiffin judged Coker and Bateman the most consistent of an inconsistent bunch. Then they decided to let the pair duke it out with the bright lights shining. Saban told Coker he would take the field first, but there was no promise of a set number of series. Had Coker faltered, Bateman would have entered much earlier.
But Coker didn't falter. That gears-turning sensation was absent Saturday at Jerry World. Coker was crisp and decisive. He faced occasional pressure, but he seemed to know when to scramble and when to eat the ball and take a sack.
By the time Bateman replaced Coker at the end of the third quarter, Coker looked in command of the offense. Then Bateman provided an entirely different look. His speed suggested the possibility of read-option plays, moving pockets and scrambles more reminiscent of Sims. Though this is all part of Kiffin's playbook, it looked like two different offenses. And that's excellent for Alabama. On Sunday, Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack must create a scheme to stop the Tide and then teach it to his players over the succeeding few days. If the Rebels have to prepare for those two distinct looks on Sept. 19—plus whatever the offense will look like if Morris gets in next Saturday against Middle Tennessee—it forces the only SEC team to beat Alabama last fall to make its game plan a mile wide and an inch deep.
This could be why Saban offered no hints Saturday night as to what he'll do at quarterback going forward. "We don't have a plan yet. We have a 24-hour rule," Saban said after the win. "We just won a big game against a good team. I'm really proud of the way our guys came and competed in the game. We'll look at the film and evaluate the things that we need to do to improve on, and we'll make a decision on who plays quarterback based on what's best for our team."
That competition could keep going. The sample size is small, and while Wisconsin was a quality opponent, it can't match the athleticism Ole Miss will throw at Coker—or whoever Alabama trots out at quarterback—in two weeks. Coker will likely have to earn the permanent starting job by proving he can consistently play as poised as he was Saturday. But for those first three quarters, it certainly looked as if Coker considers this his offense. "I always had belief, but it's kind of surreal that it actually happened," Coker said. "To play quarterback for Alabama is something that's always been a dream of mine."
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Projected College Football Playoff
Before we start, a quick reminder about how this section works. This projection will be based solely on what has happened so far this season, with the exception of one quirky schedule-related note that I'll explain shortly. So, the teams will likely fluctuate wildly in the early weeks before settling into a more consistent order as more data rolls in. If you don't like this projection, don't worry. We'll create another one next week that you might like better.
1. Ohio State
This is the quirky scheduling exception. This column runs Monday. Ohio State doesn't open its season until Monday night at Virginia Tech. So, yes, I'm basing the Buckeyes' placement here on what happened last season. But I'm also basing it on spending some time in Columbus over the spring and summer and seeing a loaded defending national champ that seems to have incredible team chemistry. Obviously, Virginia Tech could prove me wrong. Of course, losing to Virginia Tech didn't keep the Buckeyes from winning the national title last year.
2. Notre Dame
Yes, the Texas offense is a mess. But the Texas defense isn't, and new Fighting Irish starting quarterback Malik Zaire punished the Longhorns in a 38-3 rout. Notre Dame is excellent at almost every position, and the Irish will have plenty of chances to prove that against a tough schedule. Depth, however, could be an issue. Losing tailback Tarean Folston for the season (to a torn MCL) is a huge blow. If the Irish hope to be in this spot come December, they'll have to hope they don't get much more bad news like that.
True freshman quarterback Josh Rosen was dealing against a Virginia defense that is probably much better than Rosen made the Cavaliers look by completing 28 of 35 passes for 351 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 34-16 win. The Pac-12 South is likely to be a bloodbath this season, but UCLA seemed like the most stocked team this preseason even with questions about whether Rosen could adequately replace Brett Hundley. Now that we know the Bruins might have upgraded at quarterback, their immediate future looks awfully bright.
If the Crimson Tide's offensive line can open holes and the front seven can stone opposing backs the way both units did against Wisconsin, there aren't many teams in the country that will be able to stay on the field against Alabama. No matter how much schemes advance, the team that dominates the line of scrimmage will dominate the game.
A random ranking
The Kansas State band had to issue an apology Saturday following a performance that involved a Kansas Jayhawk fighting the U.S.S. Enterprise. There was nothing inherently offensive about the routine in theory—except possibly the lack of narrative coherence—but in practice it appeared the Enterprise was, um, boldly going where no ship made of woodwind- and brass-playing humans had gone before. That effort won't make this ranking, so here are the top five recent college marching band formations.
1. At the movies with The Best Damn Band In The Land
The Ohio State band celebrates some cinematic favorites. Take note, K-Staters. No mascots of teams the Buckeyes aren't playing that day are involved.
2. The Marching 100 does Kermit drinking tea
Florida A&M's band performs a meme at the Florida Classic in 2014.
3. Pretty much anything the Southern University Human Jukebox has ever done
4. The Stanford band's tribute to Girls Gone Wild creator Joe Francis
The original NSFW band performed this at the home stadium of Francis's alma mater.
5. Wolverines. Michigan Wolverines.
The Michigan band performs a tribute to 007. This one does include a rival the Wolverines aren't playing that day, but unlike the performance at Kansas State on Saturday, nothing here is unintentionally explicit.
Big Ugly of the Week
It pains me to give this award to someone built like a comic-book superhero. This category is supposed to honor those who are rounder of belly, but six-packed Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett deserves acclaim after recording 2.5 tackles for loss, including two sacks, with a forced fumble and three hurries in Saturday's 38-17 win over Arizona State. The best way to block Garrett seems to be chipping him and/or holding him, and even then he finds ways to disrupt the quarterback. Plus, dedicating resources to stopping Garrett opens up opportunities for fellow Aggies defensive end Daeshon Hall, who had four sacks and two forced fumbles against the Sun Devils. I know we learned a lesson last year about making too much of a Texas A&M season opener, but if the Aggies are going to consistently play this kind of defense under first-year coordinator John Chavis, we may need to revise our expectations for their season.
1. The incredible finish of BYU's win at Nebraska tempered the team's heartbreak of losing quarterback Taysom Hill to injury for a third season. "There's no one I respect more that I've ever coached," a tearful Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall told his players after the 33-28 win. The good news for Hill is that even if he never plays football again, he is going to be successful. In fact, this injury may hasten his entry into the world of hedge-fund management.
Meanwhile, Hill's replacement may have a tough time topping his first college game. Tanner Mangum came off the bench and led a comeback that ended with a 42-yard Hail Mary to receiver Mitch Mathews as time expired.
Nebraska fans may be stunned by the outcome, but they shouldn't be discouraged by the first game of the Mike Riley era. The Cornhuskers played BYU much closer than expected, and if not for a fluky play they would have won. BYU is as good or better than the rest of the teams in the Big Ten's West Division. If the Cornhuskers can play with the Cougars, they can play with the teams they need to beat to reach Indianapolis.
2. Tanner wasn't the only Mangum who made highlight-reel plays Saturday. His brother, Madison, made this touchdown catch for Idaho State.
3. Less than two weeks ago, Texas coach Charlie Strong told me this regarding the Longhorns' season opener against Notre Dame: "I look at how last season ended. We can't start off like last season. Because everything you've built up to this point is gone in a matter of three and a half hours. Now you're talking about trying to regroup and get them to go play 11 more."
So, now what? The 2015 season began exactly as last season ended. The Texas offense looked as horrible in a 38-3 loss to Notre Dame as it did in a 31-7 Texas Bowl defeat to Arkansas. About the only difference is, as of yet, Brian Kelly hasn't assessed the eroticism of the victory.
The Longhorns don't have time to allow players to repair their shattered psyches. They don't have time to get more freshmen ready—even though, at times Saturday, it seemed the best Texas players were the newest ones. The next two games against Rice (Sept. 12) and Cal (Sept. 19) don't look like gimmes. Then Big 12 play begins.
Texas has to find a coherent offense by then. How does that happen? That's a great question. Quarterback Tyrone Swoopes didn't look any different than he did in 2014. Backup Jerrod Heard didn't look ready. Maybe, in keeping with the youth movement along the offensive line and at middle linebacker, Strong will yank the intended redshirt off freshman quarterback Kai Locksley. Something needs to be done to fix the offense, or this season could get historically ugly for Texas.
4. Graduate transfer Vernon Adams Jr. was everything he was expected to be in his Oregon debut, but the biggest question after a 61-42 Ducks' win was whether he would be able to take the field this Saturday at Michigan State. Adams was knocked from the game by a vicious hit from former Eastern Washington teammate John Kreifels.
Afterward, however, Adams told reporters he would be ready to go against the Spartans. "I'm feeling good," Adams said. "Yes, I will be out there."
5. The entire Northwestern team celebrated a 16-6 upset of Stanford with a dance circle. The best moves? Maybe those of longtime Wildcats secondary coach Jerry Brown.
6. Meanwhile, in an unhappier corner of the Big Ten, here is one play that sums up Penn State's futility in its 27-10 loss to Temple. The Owls rushed two—yes, two—defenders and still sacked Christian Hackenberg.
7. Chance of rain? Never? O.K., maybe every once in a while.
The cancellation of LSU's season opener against McNeese State means the Tigers will open their season on the road at Mississippi State. Then they'll come home the following week and host Auburn. The tone of a season isn't usually set in September, but it could be for LSU.
8. While New Mexico State was losing to Florida 61-13 in The Swamp, someone was looting the Aggies' bus outside. Apparently, the driver stepped away and someone took everything that wasn't nailed down. Check out the Twitter timeline of New Mexico State athletic director Mario Moccia for more details.
9. SI's Brian Hamilton reported on Saturday that the injury suffered by Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright in Thursday's season opener against Texas-San Antonio isn't as serious as originally believed.
What's eating Andy?
You've just read about 3,000 words, some of which form conclusions that are likely to be proven hysterically wrong over the next three months. I'm sorry for that. College football is back. I just get excited. But never fear, the words below should remain true for the entirety of the season.
What's Andy eating?
The first time I ate barbecue for breakfast was at the venerable Snow's in Lexington, Texas. I had to do this out of necessity. After Texas Monthly named Snow's the best barbecue joint in the state in 2008, the crowds grew so big that those who arrived at noon might have missed out on the best stuff. Also, my first visit came on the day of the 2011 Oklahoma State-Texas A&M game. (We'll pause here while Aggies fans collect themselves after being reminded of an epic second-half collapse.) That game kicked off at 2:30 p.m. local time, and I needed to be in the Kyle Field press box by about noon. So, on that morning, I happily ate brisket and ribs and wondered why every barbecue spot hasn't figured out the breakfast thing.
Think about it. Brisket takes 12-16 hours to cook. At the pulled-or-chopped pork shrines in the southeast, the pig can take 16-24 hours to cook. You have to have an employee or two there tending the pit anyway. If you're going to open at 10 or 11 a.m., why not put something on a little earlier and serve it for breakfast? After all, the health nuts do say a high-protein breakfast is the best way to start the day. So, why aren't more barbecue places serving breakfast?
Fortunately, Meat U Anywhere in Grapevine, Texas, has corrected for this inefficiency. The place serves excellent brisket and some exotic (for barbecue) cuts at lunch, but hungry people need not wait until the sun rises high. Meat U Anywhere opens at 6 a.m. It doesn't have every cut of meat ready so early, but it does have brisket. This brisket usually gets stuffed into breakfast tacos, but if you ask they'll happily sell it to you by the pound. At about 8:45 a.m. Saturday, they sold me half a pound of brisket and an El Gran Taco (egg, chorizo, brisket, bacon, beans and cheese). I waited in line for about two minutes—because most people were just buying tacos—and I got the first cut off a just-finished brisket. The man behind the counter poised his knife at the skinny end of the flat and asked if I'd like lean. "No sir," I said. "I'd like the good stuff." He then spent the next two minutes finding the meatiest sections for me. Being first, I got more end pieces, which meant more bark.
The brisket might not quite stack up with the best in the state (Franklin in Austin; Pecan Lodge in the Deep Ellum neighborhood in Dallas), but it isn't far off. It was tender and juicy, and the bark packed so much salty and peppery goodness that sauce was completely unnecessary. Add to that the exquisite taco, and the total experience at Meat U Anywhere comes even closer to those temples of smoked meat.
After breakfast, I killed a couple of hours and headed back to Meat U Anywhere because I wanted to try some of the Friday/Saturday-only meat—which wasn't ready until lunch. The place touts its peppered smoked beef tenderloin, and it also has smoked prime rib. I was initially leery of the latter dish, but a January visit to Lockhart Smokehouse in Dallas proved prime rib could be just as good from a smoker.
I posted a photo of the tenderloin on Twitter, and it was met with immediate scorn. Those who thought it was brisket thought it looked odd, and those who realized it was tenderloin couldn't believe anyone would cook such a tender cut so much. While it is true that the police should arrest anyone who goes past medium rare when cooking tenderloin over direct heat, indirect heat is a different story. The tenderloin was moist and peppery, and the mingling of the deep smoke flavor and lean steak flavor combined two things I wasn't sure it was possible to combine in an appetizing way. Still, given the choice, I'd probably take tenderloin cooked rare or medium rare over direct heat.
That wasn't the case with the smoked prime rib. Give me the Meat U Anywhere version every time. Prime rib is a pretty fatty cut, so it can stand up to a longer, slower cook. That cook, meanwhile, creates a dark, smoky crust that elevates it above the prime rib at a white tablecloth restaurant. This version packs all the juice of tuxedoed-waiter prime rib but surrounds it with a bark that would be welcome at the best hole-in-the-wall pit. It's an almost perfect combination.
Combine that prime rib for lunch with the brisket for breakfast, and Meat U Anywhere served up an ideal set of pregame meals on the first Saturday of the season.