For the first time since Nick Saban took the Alabama job in 2007, he did not release a depth chart on the Monday of the first game week. Part of the reason could be that Alabama has one of the most heated quarterback battles in college football this offseason.
Alabama is no stranger to quarterback turnover as they've had now six quarterback competitions under head coach Nick Saban. Despite this, 2023 may have been the strangest one under Saban. Alabama has Jalen Milroe, who is entering his third season with the Crimson Tide, but appeared to struggle when replacing Bryce Young in roughly a game and a half in 2022. Milroe took the place of an injured Young when he injured his shoulder in Fayetteville against the Arkansas Razorbacks, and he got the start during the following week at home against the Texas A&M Aggies.
Against the Razorbacks, Milroe was 4-for-9 passing with 65 yards and a touchdown with no turnovers. Milroe struggled even more against the Aggies, going 12-for-19 passing with 111 yards and three touchdowns. While the yardage isn't what Bama fans might've hoped, three touchdowns was a nice performance, except that Milroe paired it with three turnovers, including an interception and two fumbles.
Now, with Young as the school's first-ever first-overall pick in the modern draft era, Alabama is on the hunt for a new signal caller. Are the Crimson Tide in a tight race between Milroe and redshirt sophomore Ty Simpson, or is it really an open race between four guys on the roster?
As previously mentioned, Milroe seems like the starter, having been at Alabama the longest of all the signal callers, and as the only one with real-time game experience. During 2022, he had 297 yards passing with five touchdowns, along with 263 yards rushing with one touchdown. Milroe's ability to extend plays outside of the pocket with his legs is a skill that seems vital for teams in the playoff hunt. Milroe's explosiveness as a runner could be the key to unlocking Alabama's offense. With runs like he had against Arkansas, Milroe is a true dual-threat quarterback that, if he can fine-tune his throwing and his accuracy, could immediately become one of the best quarterbacks in college football en route to yet another playoff appearance for Saban's Crimson Tide.
The other quarterback on the roster who seems to be challenging Jalen Milroe is redshirt sophomore Ty Simpson. Simpson appears to be the more polished passer but seems to have been unable to take the starting job from Milroe. In the only chance Alabama fans had to see Simpson as a passer during Alabama's Spring A-Day game, Simpson injured his thumb on his throwing hand during the first drive, altering his performance. Even still, he went 12-of-26 passing with 155 yards.
Simpson was then out for a few weeks while he recovered from his injury. Simpson's calling card may be his accuracy, but he also has the ability to make plays with his legs. Simpson won the Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year his senior year when he passed for 2,827 yards and 41 touchdowns while also running for 862 yards and 11 touchdowns, leading Westview High School to the Tennessee 2A State Championship.
Tyler Buchner's situation appears to be a strange one. Buchner is the only quarterback on the roster with experience playing for new Crimson Tide coordinator Tommy Rees. Buchner was the preferred starter for Rees during their time at Notre Dame, but suffered an injury in his non-throwing shoulder that sidelined him for most of the season in 2022.
Buchner returned to the Irish starting lineup for their bowl game against the South Carolina Gamecocks, leading them to a 45-38 win behind a 273-yard passing performance and three passing touchdowns. While Buchner had three interceptions in the game, he also accounted for 61 rush yards and two touchdowns on the ground, being named the Taxslayer Gator Bowl MVP. Buchner then promptly lost his starting job to transfer quarterback Sam Hartman. Once it was announced that Tommy Rees would be the offensive coordinator for Alabama in 2023, there was already smoke about Buchner transferring to the Crimson Tide.
Where there's smoke, there's fire, as Tyler Buchner transferred to Alabama on April 27 with three years of eligibility remaining. Buchner entered the quarterback battle late, but he shouldn't be counted out. As previously mentioned, Buchner was Rees's preferred starter at Notre Dame and ended the season by showing the ability to work through adversity in a tightly contested win over the Gamecocks. Could Buchner's past experience with Rees, and prior knowledge of his type of offensive play style, give him the upper hand in the quarterback battle?
The Long Shot
Never say never, but Nick Saban has never started a true freshman quarterback in the first game of the season during his time at Alabama. The closest Saban ever got was in 2016 when true freshman Jalen Hurts took over for a struggling Blake Barnett in what ended in a 52-6 win over the USC Trojans. Despite this stat, Dylan Lonergan has picked up a lot of steam during fall camp for the Crimson Tide. Lonergan had a solid performance during the Crimson Tide's spring A-Day game, with eight completions on 14 attempts for 79 yards and a touchdown. Lonergan had 3,9323 total yards and 39 total touchdowns as a junior starter for Brookwood High School. Could the true freshman do what no other Alabama quarterback under Nick Saban has done...start the first game of the season as a true freshman?
Nick Saban emphasizes seniority and experience in his signal caller position. As talented as a player like Dylan Lonergan is, he simply does not have the game reps to start as a true freshman. After he plays at the end of games and gets acclimated to the college speed, the conversation could start for Lonergan. However, with Texas rolling into Tuscaloosa Week 2, Alabama will want someone experienced under center. Tyler Buchner has the most "starting" experience of the remaining three quarterbacks, but Milroe and Simpson have both been at Alabama for longer, giving them more experience and more insight into what Coach Saban wants out of his starting quarterback.
So the competition comes down to two guys: Jalen Milroe and Ty Simpson. Will the Crimson Tide go with the guy who has a true dual-threat ability with a cannon for an arm, or will the Crimson Tide go with the accurate passer who can dissect a defense with his arm?
With such an intense regular season matchup so early on the schedule, I believe Saban will go with what he already knows and will start Jalen Milroe as the quarterback for Alabama. Despite Milroe's probability of getting the opening day start, Saban has also said that the quarterback competition will not end just because someone takes the first-team reps. It is also highly likely that Ty Simpson will get meaningful playing time during the opening game of the season against Middle Tennessee State.
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