With the exception of one weird, single-digit, rough-and-tumble game against LSU on Nov. 5, 2011, Alabama doesn’t make a habit out of losing by virtue of defense and running the football. Rather, the losses come almost exclusively as the result of quality quarterback play.
Think of all-conference talents such as Deshaun Watson, Chad Kelly, Johnny Manziel and Cam Newton carving up Nick Saban’s defense. Or recall career-type performances from Cardale Jones, Trevor Knight, Bo Wallace and Stephen Garcia.
Since 2010, quarterbacks who have beaten Alabama have averaged 243.8 yards per game, 64.9 percent completions and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 5.2 to 1. By comparison, losing quarterbacks average 174.1 yards per game, 51.5 percent completions and throw far more interceptions (105) than touchdowns (64).
What may seem like a fairly obvious observation could tell us something, though. Last season -- and really the season before, too -- Alabama reached the playoff feasting on mostly subpar quarterbacks. Remember, Sam Darnold wasn’t yet the starter at USC during the season-opener and if not for an unheard of three non-offensive touchdowns, Kelly would have beaten Bama for the second time in a row. During the playoff, the Tide successfully tied Washington's Jake Browning in knots, but let Watson run roughshod during the national title game.
The message is simple: To have a shot against Bama, you must have a difference-maker at quarterback. And therein lies the possible answer for how everyone’s preseason No. 1 team might be knocked off its perch atop college football this season.
It has been proclaimed on this site and others that this is the Year of the Quarterback in college football, and though Alabama has one of its own to feel good about in sophomore Jalen Hurts, the Tide’s schedule is a reflection of the rise in talent at the position around the country. With the likes of Deondre Francois and Jarrett Stidham featured, it could be the best group of quarterbacks Saban’s defense has faced in quite some time.
Francois might have gotten knocked around a bunch as a redshirt freshman at Florida State last season, but he still threw for 3,350 yards. What’s more, his ability to escape pressure with his feet could give Alabama’s defense fits during the season-opener in Atlanta.
Stidham, on the other hand, is garnering Heisman Trophy buzz during his first season at Auburn. The former Baylor transfer has all the tools to thrive in Gus Malzahn’s offense, and he’ll have the benefit of a good group of receivers (see: Nate Craig-Myers, Kyle Davis) and an even better tandem at running back (see: Kamryn Pettway, Kerryon Johnson).
But it’s much more than those two passers whom Alabama has to be concerned about. Up and down the schedule, there are playmakers at the position.
Across the state, Mississippi State brings back Nick Fitzgerald, who was the most productive quarterback in the league in terms of total yards in his first season as a starter.
Austin Allen, who threw for 400 yards against Alabama last season, is back at Arkansas for his second year as a starter.
Going a step further, if Alabama reaches the SEC Championship Game for the third year in a row, the defense might not get another Treon Harris or Austin Appleby to toy around with. Rather, Florida likes what it has in redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks and Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire, and if Georgia reaches the title game, it will bring Jacob Eason, whom many regard as a first-round NFL talent.
Saban might have the best defensive back in college football in Minkah Fitzpatrick and one of the hardest hitters in the SEC in safety Ronnie Harrison. Getting veteran corner Anthony Averett back helps, too. But with an overhauled front seven and so many good quarterbacks to face, it's not going to be easy.
It won't be one or two good quarterbacks standing in Alabama's way to reach the playoff this time around. Instead, it will be more like a handful ready to try their hand against the vaunted Tide defense.