TUSCALOOSA — Nick Saban didn’t actually use the term, but the veteran head coach may have well as described any insight into Alabama’s ongoing quarterback competition as “fake news.”
Within minutes of the Crimson Tide’s Week 1 depth chart for Saturday’s opener against Louisville being released — which included junior incumbent Jalen Hurts and sophomore Tua Tagovailoa named as co-starting quarterbacks — a visibly-annoyed Saban pushed back after four of the first five questions at his weekly Monday news conference centered on the same positional debate that has raged since the second half of January’s national championship game.
“I think there's competition whether there's a depth chart or not, or whether we have a slash or not,” Saban said, referring to the forward slash that indicates either could start on Alabama’s weekly depth chart. “So I know that's hard. You believe the written word. You believe the written word, even though sometimes, I don't know if you can believe the written word that I read … from you (reporters).”
Of course, the question still had to be asked, and it was, in several roundabout ways, including whether or not fans would have to wait until kickoff to know who will start at quarterback.
“I don't think you should assume anything,” Saban said with a faint tinge of humor. “If I'm ready to tell you, I'll tell you. If I'm not, I won't. So you can assume that. Is that fair?”
Saban wouldn’t even confirm whether he intended to play both quarterbacks in Orlando.
“Nobody said that. I mean, I don't know where did that come from, just to be clear,” Saban said. “Look, none of that's been decided yet. I wish we could talk about something else because I don't really have anything else to say about it.”
And neither did any of the veteran players Alabama made available Monday morning.
“That seems to be the topic everyone wants to talk about, obviously,” senior center Ross Pierchbacher joked. “I don’t really know what to say. I don’t have much (to say) on it.”
Added senior running back Damien Harris: “I think we’ve gotten kind of tired of (the question).”
Of course, like with most things, there’s a method behind the madness for Saban.
If effect, not formally naming a starting quarterback serves a dual-purpose — protecting them from the public pressure that inherently comes with being the starter at Alabama’s most important position, as well as keeping those involved on edge and competitively challenged.
For Saban, complacency is the most significant adversary for any team trying to reach its ultimate potential.
“The worst thing you can have on your team is not have competition where guys think, 'I've got this,’” Saban said, “‘I don't have to practice hard, I don't have to work hard, I don't have to prepare very well because I'm going to play no matter what happens.'”
It’s for that reason Saban doesn’t formally announce a starting quarterback before the first game.
It didn’t happen seven years ago between A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims. It didn’t take place when Blake Sims and Jake Coker were vying for the starting job in 2014 and 2015. And it didn’t happen two years ago between a then-freshman Hurts and redshirt freshman Blake Barnett, who subsequently — and rather abruptly — transferred a month into the season after losing the starting job to Hurts.
Because, according to Saban’s way of thinking, not announcing a starter before the first game allows each player involved to make their own case on the field “when the bullets are flying.”
“Just because you guys look at this depth chart like, ‘OK, these guys are starters until something bad happens to them and they can't start anymore, then the next guy gets a chance to play,’” Saban said. “(But) the next guy still has a chance to beat him out. The next guy is still competing. The next guy still wants to play.
“That kind of competition, I think, helps the other players play better. And helps you play better because you're more challenged.”
It’s how Hurts became Alabama’s starter after coming off the bench in 2016 in place of Barnett against Southern California.
And if either Hurts or Tagovailoa are going to win the starting job this season, it’ll be because of what happens on the field Saturday — and potentially in any subsequent games — until one of them firmly establishes themselves as “the guy.”
But until then, Saban isn’t placing any undue pressure on either quarterback by naming them the “starter.”
“We don't expect anything different from them as any other game, any other preparation or any other player on our team in terms of how they prepare for the game,” Saban said, “and what they go out there and do every day in terms of their execution and continuing trying to win the confidence of the players around them, that they do a good job at their position of distributing the ball and that to me is what the quarterback needs to do.”