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September 4, 2011

HURT: Not much resolved in QB debate

TUSCALOOSA | It's not that people don't like to debate. Generally speaking, the opposite is true. There's something uplifting in finding a topic that can stir you to passionate partisanship, something innate in human beings that seems to require we stake out a territory and then defend it ferociously.

It's just that the two University of Alabama quarterbacks who played against Kent State on Saturday didn't generate that much heat. It's not that they were awful. AJ McCarron, the sophomore who started the game, did pretty well. Phillip Sims, the redshirt freshman who alternated with him, at least until he started the second half with two interceptions on two series, had good moments, too, mixed in with some plays where he looked as shaky as a tambourine in an earthquake.

But will there be heated discussion of the pair's performance as Alabama prepares for Penn State?

Probably not.

Nick Saban didn't proclaim the quarterback race was over after Alabama's 48-7 win. He didn't criticize either candidate harshly. He acknowledged McCarron, by virtue of "having a little more experience," subsequently "played with a little more poise." But he hastily added "we have a lot of confidence in Phillip and in most cases, he plays extremely well."

Disappointingly, we didn't hear any self-evaluation from McCarron or Sims, neither of whom was available in the postgame interview session. Their absence, along with Saban's carefully crafted comments, may indicate there is still some evaluation ahead before a starter is actually named. The offensive players who did come for interviews seemed fine with the rotating system, although it wasn't very likely they would say anything else, especially in the wake of a 41-point win.

Raw statistics scream McCarron (14 of 23 for 226 yards) ruled the day, but Crimson Tide watchers are frequently cautioned by Saban (and experience) not to rely on raw statistics. Saban made that point explicitly in discussing the game's four UA interceptions, two thrown by each quarterback.

"I think that sometimes there are good interceptions and sometimes there are bad interceptions," Saban said. And it was not hard to tell one from the other. For instance, Sims had one pick that bounced right off the hands of tight end Michael Williams. On the other hand, he had another that should never have been thrown, and led to the only Kent State points of the day.

"Those are things you learn from," Saban said.

Again, it's not the quarterbacks were bad. They are young, and have promise. They weren't bland, either, with some good-looking throws on each side of the ledger. But people were expecting - perhaps unrealistically - a fierce battle of gladiators, each one setting the bar at a lofty point that the other would have to match. That didn't happen.

McCarron had the better of it, based on personal opinion and the observations of several people who know the nuances of quarterback play. It's hard to imagine McCarron not getting the start next week at Penn State, and it's pretty easy to imagine him playing the whole game in Happy Valley, although Saban absolutely hasn't said so.

It's just that, with neither quarterback having a flawless, future-Heisman kind of day, there isn't much fuel for the raging fires of debate. Instead, we are left in what the New York Times' A.O. Scott (writing about movies, not quarterbacks) called "a happily boggy terrain of tepid subjectivity. What did you think? Not bad. Not so great. Yeah, cool. Whatever."

There are a couple of reasons for that shrugging reaction. For one thing, if this Alabama team is going to rise to a championship level, it isn't going to happen primarily because of quarterback play.

It will happen because of a great defense and a strong running game. In fact, the comparison between the first two running backs, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, was more intriguing than the alternating quarterbacks.

The offensive line wasn't consistent (that's an issue, too, although to be fair, it was the first game). But it seemed to cause more frustration for Heisman candidate Richardson - despite his three touchdowns - than it did for Lacy, who looked positively Ingramesque on a few of his runs. That's something to watch in the next couple of games. It should also help the offense when Duron Carter and Darius Hanks are added to the wide receiver unit along with Marquis Maze and promising freshman DeAndrew White.

Saban hinted strongly that Carter, who did not play, might see the field sooner rather than later, and Hanks is already ticketed to return in time for the Southeastern Conference games on the Crimson Tide schedule.

That will help the quarterback or, if it's still the case, the quarterbacks. Until then, Alabama fans will sit back and hope for maturity with a patience imposed from understanding that the Great Quarterback Audition might only produce another supporting player in the offensive cast.


Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil.hurt@tuscaloosanews.com



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