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Thursday, September 28, 2023

QB Change Does Little to Assuage Alabama’s Clear Offensive Issues

Alabama coach Nick Saban took a shaky quarterback situation and made it worse Saturday. The panic move to bench Jalen Milroe after the loss to Texas backfired badly against outmanned South Florida, with Tyler Buchner starting the game and Ty Simpson finishing it and the Crimson Tide looking farther away than ever from getting quality play at the most important position in football.

The Crimson Tide’s 17–3 victory over USF—a team that lost to Western Kentucky to open the season and was 4–29 the previous three seasons—was the worst win of Saban’s unparalleled tenure at the school. It calls into question whether No. 10 Alabama should even be ranked at this point; whether it should be favored next Saturday against Mississippi; and conceivably puts first-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’s tenure on the clock as well.

Yeah, it was that bad.

Bama’s 17 points were the fewest it has scored in a win since 2016, and its fewest in a regular-season, nonconference game since ’07, Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa. And the Tide didn’t score their second touchdown of the game until the final minute. Despite that, Saban put a positive spin on the game afterward, perhaps sensing that his struggling team needs a lift more than one of his trademark “ass chewings.”

“I know that we struggled a little bit on offense,” he said. “… But I’m really proud of our players for the way they competed in the game.”

This was never expected to be a close game, with Alabama coming into Tampa as 34.5-point favorites. But it was evident from early on that a Crimson Tide offense that wasn’t great in two games with Milroe would be considerably worse without him.

Simpson (15) and Buchner were sacked five times and the Tide managed just 107 yards through the air.

Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA TODAY Sports

Buchner, a Notre Dame transfer who was pedestrian there, surprisingly got the start. He completed five of 14 passes for 34 yards before being benched in the second quarter. Simpson was marginally better but still far from efficient, completing five of nine passes for 73 yards. Simpson made a couple of nice throws but also took several sacks and notably slid down five yards short of a first down on third down. Alabama completed just one pass for longer than 14 yards.

The school whose previous three QB starters were Bryce Young, Mac Jones and Tua Tagovailoa looks fresh out of high-quality signal callers now. When Rees brought Buchner with him from Notre Dame it seemed like a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency move. But when Alabama went deep into preseason camp without naming a starter it seemed like a warning sign—both that Milroe might be struggling and that Buchner might be the other option. Going this quickly to Buchner can’t be good for Milroe’s confidence, nor was it good for Alabama’s offense.

“We’re going to evaluate the guys that played today and we’re going to evaluate Jalen Milroe in terms of how he played [the first two games],” Saban said. “And we’ll decide this week who gives us the best opportunity to be successful.”

Going back to Milroe would make sense—more sense than the decision to bench him in the first place. He was not great against Texas, but he also made some big plays in that game and certainly seems like the Alabama quarterback most equipped to put some spark into the Tide attack going up against Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss next week.

But Alabama’s issues extend far past a quarterback quandary. The error-ridden team of 2022 has been replaced by an even more error-ridden team in ’23, turning costly penalties into an art form.

In the past two games alone, the Tide have had four touchdowns wiped off the board by penalties—two against Texas and two against USF. The first Saturday was a 100-yard kickoff return called back on an egregious hold, and the second was a hold on a running play that actually only delayed an Alabama TD instead of preventing it.

Alabama’s offensive line finally started to lean on the Bulls in the fourth quarter, springing Roydell Williams for a couple of big runs on his way to 129 rushing yards on the night. But the running game was pretty punchless in the first half and the line did not do a good job protecting Buchner or Simpson, surrendering five sacks. The Tide now have allowed 12 sacks in three games, after giving up 22 all of last season.

It’s a matter of debate whether Alabama’s offensive struggles are a personnel problem, a scheme problem or a play-calling problem—most likely a combination of all three. That puts some pressure on Rees, all of three games into his Tide tenure. When your offense struggles to score 17 against an opponent that gave up 41 to Western Kentucky and 24 to Florida A&M, that’s alarming.

Would Saban make an in-season change there? It seems unlikely, but he’s already hit the panic button once. He does have experienced offensive coordinators in analyst roles on the staff right now in Derek Dooley, Ken Whisenhunt and John McNulty.

This much seems sure: Next Saturday will be one of the biggest games Alabama has ever had against Ole Miss. If the Tide want to show they can still be a Southeastern Conference contender and not a fading power, there is a huge amount of work to be done between now and kickoff Sept. 23.

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