The 2015 Grove Bowl lies epochs in the past. Chad Kelly has thrown and scrambled and steered his way into Ole Miss' starting quarterback job, and though the Rebs' current campaign is just two weeks old, one can plainly observe Kelly's comfort and command of Dan Werner's playbook. Alabama has no such luxury at quarterback, and heading into Saturday night's Bryant-Denny ballyhoo, the Rebels' stability at wheelman gives them a palpable offensive advantage over the Crimson Tide.
Alabama, for its part, can of course remain stolidly immune from fluid quarterback situations, insofar as Nick Saban's plan de guerre adheres rigorously to downhill rushing. Jake Coker and Cooper Bateman have so far shared under-center responsibilities this season, with Coker perhaps sliding into the role of full-time starter. Still, should this or that Tideman start hucking interceptions, Saban has absolutely no reservations about axing one in favor of the other for an entire half of gameplay.
Saturday's rematch of last year's sublime transcendentalism won't be won or lost solely by the arms of Kelly, Coker or Bateman. This much is fact. Still, push goes to the Rebels when it comes time to take things vertical.
|CHAD KELLY (Miss.)||29||40||557||6||1||72.5||13.9||278.5|
|JAKE COKER (Ala.)||30||47||427||2||1||63.8||9.1||213.5|
|COOPER BATEMAN (Ala.)||18||25||149||1||1||72.0||6.0||74.5|
Alabama: Too many quarterbacks?
Recruited to FSU, Jake Coker was edged out for the starting job by someone named Jameis Winston and so transferred to Alabama, where he eventually lost that starting job to Blake Sims. Now in his second year with the Tide, Coker is locked in a quarterback competition with Cooper Bateman, and Saban was underwhelmed at both players' performances last week.
In terms of bare production, Coker's 149.92 pass rating trumps Bateman's 127.26. Both have chucked ill-advised interceptions against Middle Tennessee: Coker's came on a long bomb overthrow into double coverage and Bateman fell victim to the detested misread-then-the-route-got-jumped-in-the-red-zone gaffe. Here's Bateman's very, very poor decision on that play:
What is Bateman even looking at there? Considering how little experience Coker and Bateman bring to bear on the Tide's quarterbacking game, it's nothing short of a miracle that such greenhorn boners didn't arise in the Wisconsin fracas. Indeed, on Coker's second passing play against the Badgers, he was duped when they dropped eight men into coverage and still managed the sack off a three-man front. Where did all those backs come from, Jake? Misreads and non-reads such as that provide opportunities which Ole Miss must surely exploit come Saturday.
That Coker and Bateman haven't coughed up, say, five interceptions after just two weeks on the job may in fact have more to do with -- dare I say -- Lane Kiffin's play-calling. Or, more likely, Lane Kiffin's play-calling as mediated by Nick Saban's quick-to-fly muzzle on Lane Kiffin's play-calling. Consider: Coker threw 15-26 for 214 yards and a touchdown while Bateman went 11-17 for 98 yards and a touchdown against Middle Tennessee, a seemingly healthy line of pass production if ever there were. But also consider, as Matt Zenitz points out:
A lot of the positive numbers were accumulated on screen passes and fly sweep touch passes that the quarterbacks deserve minimal credit for ... Excluding screens and touch passes, Coker was 11 of 22 for 122 yards with no touchdowns and the interception. Bateman was 5 of 11 for 47 yards with no scores and his interception.
Coker and Bateman cannot attack downfield. Coker has connected on three passes of more than 25 yards (his longest is a 69-yard bomb) to Chad Kelly's seven passes of 25 yards or more. With inexperience taking snaps in Tuscaloosa, Saban and Kiffin have elected for small ball offense when passing downs are on the table. Derrick Henry will no doubt carry the lion's share of Bama's offensive calls, but a de-fanged aerial attack could bite Saban in the ass on Saturday. Of last year's passing game Bill Connelly notes:
[T]he key to Alabama's title hopes could be the quarterback's ability to avoid untimely mistakes. Sims threw only 10 interceptions in 14 games, but four came in Bama's two losses. Playing the odds, Bama's passing game will probably be fine, but we don't know until we see it.
From what we have seen of Bama's passing game -- managerial against Wisconsin, testy against Middle Tennessee -- Ole Miss' defense presents the first real challenge Coker and Bateman will face this year, and should the Landsharks come hungry and smart, a big-time turnover here or there will go a long way toward opening up Swaggy C's offense.
Chad Kelly, film guru?
According to Ben Garrett, Chad Kelly has been studying the last two years of Alabama tape since the day he arrived in Oxford. If Swag wants to Clockwork Orange himself on Crimson Tide film, by all means, my dude. And anyway, Kelly already sounds well-versed in the hydra that is Kirby Smart defensive packages:
You are going to get their mixture of odd and even fronts. They have guys that can two-gap you on one play and then get on the edge on the next play. Their back ends are going to keep you guessing on whether it is man or zone and they disguise it well. Alabama's defense has not changed a lot, and they probably don't need to. They are very good at what they do. You may see a new pattern or blitz every now and then, though.
That's a pretty good synopsis of a scheme that Saban and Smart have been fine-tuning for years now. A scheme that, as Swag points out, may not comprise the sexiest bombing attack in the country, but dammit it's gonna execute better and smash harder than anyone out there. And further, Chad's already talking disguises, a seemingly unique Saban traduction to the college game, a defensive sleight of hand inherited from those fateful years in the NFL and applied in earnest to the college game, a mainstay of pass rushes everywhere as to be a ubiquitous, must-be-planned-for necessity.
So, superior statistical production, a reportedly obsessive study regimen, the confidence of two weeks slinging the football all over the place, and finally the trust of his coaches and teammates to do the job given him -- these sundry assets coalesce in the lone denominator of Ole Miss' Chad Kelly, who has only Bama to beat this week. Jake Coker and Cooper Bateman, they're still fighting for that starting job, and anyway neither can rival Swag currently.