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With QB situation unsettled, Alabama finally feels more uncertain under Nick Saban

Alabama is going to be good.

Is Alabama going to be good?

The first sentence you could reliably state across the last 15 years, as Nick Saban led the Crimson Tide to 187 victories (12.5-per-year average), 10 SEC titles and six national championships.

Alabama was college football’s constant, the immovable object atop the sport.

Yet heading into the 2023 season, the second of the aforementioned sentences is being bandied about. And it’s not so much that Alabama might not be good this season — it’s whether it will be good at the level that Alabama has established.

Namely, national contender good.

The Tide lost twice last season, albeit both times on the road via last-possession plays. They enter this one with all sorts of mystery and concern at quarterback, a new offensive coordinator and a general sense that the Georgia has at least equaled them, if not passed them, as a program. It’s the Bulldogs everyone is talking about, not the Tide.

Alabama is further staring at a typically robust schedule, which includes not just the mighty SEC West and perceived rising opponents in LSU and Tennessee, but a visit by Texas in two weeks. And that’s before the postseason.

Meanwhile, Saban has refused to release a depth chart, which among Alabama fans has been seen as either a sign of secretive genius (he’s earned the benefit of the doubt) or alarm that this QB situation may get ugly.

“Guys, look,” Saban told the assembled media on Tuesday, “you're going to ask me about the quarterbacks every day. Every day I'm going to tell you the same thing. Everybody's getting reps at the position. Somebody's got to take the bull by the horns. Somebody's got to separate themselves. When that happens, we'll tell you. We'll be glad to tell you.”

Does this mean none of Alabama’s five quarterbacks have looked good, or is it that some number of them have all looked equally good?

There’s no telling, although Saban has never shied away from naming a starter in the past. Of course, each of his last four quarterbacks — Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones and Bryce Young — will be NFL Week 1 starters.

Alabama coach Nick Saban has another talented team in Tuscaloosa. Will it reach the College Football Playoff though? (Johnnie Izquierdo/Getty Images)
Alabama coach Nick Saban has another talented team in Tuscaloosa. Will it reach the College Football Playoff though? (Johnnie Izquierdo/Getty Images)

Redshirt sophomore Jalen Milroe was Young’s chief backup last year. Redshirt freshman Ty Simpson saw time as well. Tyler Buchner was brought in from Notre Dame to add competition — his offensive coordinator with the Irish, Tommy Rees, is now in the same position in Alabama. Then there are talented true freshman recruits: Eli Holstein and Dylan Lonergan.

It’s created plenty of consternation, reality based or not.

Of course, do the Tide need a great QB? The 247Sports composite talent rankings have Alabama ranked No. 1 in the country, by a fairly significant margin over Georgia, Ohio State and others. So on paper, this is the best team in the country.

Saban has 18 former five-star recruits to work with, including a whole bunch on the defense. He won national titles with game manager-type QBs and a plethora of running backs. Maybe this is the year the Tide go back to their Saban roots.

“Our identity is being physical on offense,” running back Jase McClellan told reporters. “Something that we are focused on is having balance passing the ball and running the ball. We want to show people that Alabama is still the standard.”

Or maybe it’s the year when there are too many hurdles — in the division, out of conference and from Athens across the way — to remain at the peak.

Saban is 71, but still looks in his prime. He said he spent this preseason camp preparing his team the same way he always has, via a process to produce perfection.

“What every season comes down to is a play here and a play there,” Saban said. “The problem is, you never know when those plays are coming up, so you've got to be prepared to play every play, regardless of the circumstances and the situation of the game.”

If he’s worried, it isn’t showing. He has smiled noticeably more this preseason than past ones, or at least noticeably enough that AL.com put a stopwatch to it and concluded he’s spent 3.42 percent of his media time with a grin on his face. Last year — the two-loss year — he smiled just 1.04 percent of the time.

Is there a smile-to-victory correlation? Probably not. Saban smiled just 0.43 percent in 2020 and the Tide were undefeated national champs.

Is this a reminder how ridiculously, wonderfully serious they take things in Alabama? Yes.

And that’s why so many eyes are cast on Tuscaloosa, this time with the slightest of worries.

Alabama is going to be good.

But is Alabama going to be good?

Saturday against Middle Tennessee we begin to find out.