HOOVER, Ala. — Remember how Deshaun Watson threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns against Alabama last January in the College Football Playoff national championship game?
Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban won’t forget. Saban on Wednesday at SEC Media Days said Watson had more impact than any quarterback Alabama has faced since Auburn’s Cam Newton, Watson’s buddy.
Would you guess Watson had the best Quarterback Rating in that 45-40 loss in Arizona?
Almost. The Heisman Trophy finalist’s QBR was 70.9, a cut below the 77.7 turned in by Alabama’s Jake Coker, an undrafted senior getting a free agent shot with the Arizona Cardinals.
True, the ESPN-conceived QBR stat is flawed; ESPN types privately complain about having to use it.
While Watson’s precise laser throws and shrewd decision making dazzled the football world, Coker (16 of 25 for 335 yards and two touchdowns) was good enough. So Alabama. So Saban.
Finding a new quarterback doesn’t have the sense of urgency in Tuscaloosa it does at other schools. Even without Heisman winner Derrick Henry, Alabama can win most player and coaching matchups every Saturday. And win the SEC championship for the third year in a row.
“I’m very confident,” senior tight end O.J. Howard said. “The last two years we’ve had new quarterbacks and (offensive coordinator Lane) Kiffin has put those guys in position to play effectively and allow our play-makers to make plays.”
Blake Sims wasn’t great but he helped the Crimson Tide get to the first College Football Playoff in 2014. Coker took over in 2015 and has a championship ring.
Heir apparent Cooper Bateman, a 6-3, 224-pound junior from the Crimson Tide recruiting hotbed of Murray, Utah, seems just as capable and vanilla.
Or Saban might pick from redshirt sophomore David Cornwell, redshirt freshman Blake Barnett and freshman Jalen Hurts.
The new guy can count on Howard as a best friend on the field. He caught his first two touchdown passes of the season in the national championship game while getting wide open for five catches that accounted for 208 yards. Knowing Clemson would have to play pick-your-poison defense against Henry and big-play wide receiver Calvin Ridley, Kiffin found seams for an NFL-caliber tight end under-utilized most of the season (38 catches).
Howard, Ridley and three returning offensive linemen give Alabama’s new quarterback a nice comfort base for an opener against Southern Cal in Arlington, Texas. The Crimson Tide plays at Ole Miss two weeks later.
Without Henry, Bateman (or another new guy) might have to play a little better than Coker did in 2015. But Alabama’s quarterback situation compares favorably within an SEC short on established passers.
Below former Clemson backup Chad Kelly of Ole Miss and Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs, the only other quarterback with significant experience is Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight, a senior who transferred from Oklahoma.
Knight led the Sooners to victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. A year later, he went 17-for-37 with three interceptions in a 40-6 loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl and in 2015 lost his job to Baker Mayfield.
Bateman is 0-1 as a starter, having stepped in for the 43-37 loss to Ole Miss last year. He looked mostly good in spring practice, which is only a warm-up for August practices.
“Somebody’s going to be a new quarterback for us,” Saban said. “Somebody’s got to win that job. Somebody’s got to win the team.”
If somebody does, everybody in the SEC is in trouble.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff