Bama battle, LSU phenom key Week 1

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
9:10
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A lot of us were probably guilty of anointing Jake Coker before he’d ever graced the Alabama practice field.

We heard the stories about his bazooka arm, how he pushed eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston in the Florida State quarterback race a year ago and how his old coach, Jimbo Fisher, said he would be the most talented quarterback Nick Saban has coached at Alabama.

Who’s to say Coker won’t live up to that billing?

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherBlake Sims is taking advantage of his chance to be Alabama's starting quarterback.
But as it stands now, he still has fifth-year senior Blake Sims in his way before laying claim to the Alabama quarterback job. That’s more a credit to Sims than it is a knock against Coker.

It’s also a reminder that Saban is as bottom-line as it gets. He’s not going to reward a player for potential. He’s going to play whoever gives the team the best chance to win right now.

By all accounts, Sims has outplayed Coker.

That doesn’t mean he has locked down the job. Reports indicate Sims is expected to start against West Virginia in the opener Saturday, but both will get snaps.

Saban’s not nearly as concerned about settling on who his starting quarterback will be for this first game as he is on settling on who it will be for the season. Sometimes, the “process” takes a few games.

Moreover, Coker has been on campus for fewer than four months, since his transfer from Florida State. Sims has been there for more than four years -- sweating, working and sacrificing with his teammates.

The last thing Saban’s going to do is hand the job over to somebody who hasn’t won it, especially when that somebody is new to the program.

The added layer of drama in the quarterback situation this season is that Lane Kiffin is debuting as the Tide's offensive coordinator, their third in four seasons.

However it shakes out, the Crimson Tide would like to add more of a big-play element to their passing game. They ranked 45th nationally a year ago in completions of 20 yards or more (45). A healthy Amari Cooper at receiver should help pad those numbers.

Ultimately, Alabama doesn’t have to figure it out until a stretch against Florida at home on Sept. 20 and Ole Miss on the road two weeks later.

We’re now in the playoff era in college football, so it’s probably fitting that Alabama will have its own little playoff at the quarterback position during these next few weeks.

Fournette's debut


I’m old enough to remember Herschel Walker’s college football debut and can still see him running over Bill Bates at the goal line in Neyland Stadium. That was 34 years ago.

There was only one Herschel, for sure. But it’s been a while since I’ve been as eager to see a freshman play in this league as I am to see LSU running back Leonard Fournette. He’s built a lot like Walker (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) and has the kind of speed and power the great ones possess.

Rest assured, NFL scouts will be watching, and not just because Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon will be on the other side Saturday night. This summer, I had a longtime NFL coach tell me he’d never seen high school tape of a running back as impressive as Fournette’s.

"I'm not so sure that he's not ready [for the NFL] right now," the coach said. "If he stays healthy, he's everything you're looking for wrapped into one."

Two-minute drill


• Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson feels better about his defense than he did at any point a year ago. The Tigers should be much more physical in the defensive line and plan to play Montravius Adams a good bit at end. “He’s 315 pounds and can flat run,” Johnson said. Johnson said Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost make up the best starting linebacker combo he has ever coached. The big concern is at the hybrid “star” position. There’s no timetable for when the Tigers will get Robenson Therezie back because of an eligibility issue, which means Justin Garrett has to stay healthy. Last season, that was a struggle for Garrett, who has had a terrific preseason camp.

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsArkansas' Alex Collins rushed for 1,026 yards and four TDs in his freshman season.
Alex Collins burst onto the scene last season at Arkansas and ran his way to SEC Freshman of the Year honors with 1,026 rushing yards, but the Hogs’ coaches think sophomore running back Korliss Marshall (6-foot, 205 pounds) is the most explosive of the group. Junior Jonathan Williams is also back and rushed for 900 yards last season.

• Tennessee’s Curt Maggitt plans to move between end and outside linebacker, as the Vols need him to be a disruptive presence. The concern with Maggitt is whether he can stay healthy. He missed all of last season with a knee injury and has battled a high-ankle sprain in camp. The Vols’ most consistent pass-rusher this preseason has been true freshman Derek Barnett, who will play a key role Sunday night in getting after Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton.

• One of the best matchups of the opening weekend will be Georgia’s running game against a Clemson defensive line that’s as deep, talented and experienced as any in the country. Todd Gurley won’t have to go it alone. The word out of the Dawgs’ camp is that Keith Marshall looks as good as new after suffering that nasty knee injury last season. Interestingly enough, they also want to play both true freshmen, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. They are that good, although dividing carries among four running backs gets tricky.

• Why does Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen think this is his best team? For one, this is the most depth he’s had, and he also has a quarterback in junior Dak Prescott who’s the best fit he’s had in Starkville for the offensive system he wants to run.

Chris Low | email

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