Alabama football has a problem not even Nick Saban can solve

Sep 16, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA;  Alabama Crimson Tide punter head coach Nick Saban leads warms ups before a game against the South Florida Bulls at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
By Ari Wasserman
Sep. 18, 2023

Every Saturday night, Ari Wasserman and David Ubben react to the weekend’s slate of games on “Until Saturday.” On Mondays, they revisit the biggest takeaway from Saturday night’s instant reaction. This week: Alabama suddenly has a seemingly insurmountable problem at the sport’s most important position.


There were moments during the Alabama-USF game when Nick Saban looked like he was in pure anguish. The many sideline faces of Saban have always been a trip — even when the team he’s put on the field is playing brilliantly — but Saturday was different. These faces, er blank stares, were coming from a man who seemed numb. It felt like he was nonverbally asking the question: “How did we get here?”

How did Alabama get here?

How did Alabama — the most talented team on paper in the modern era of college football — get to a place where it doesn’t have a functional quarterback?

That’s a complicated question to answer because it’s not like Alabama didn’t give itself options, both through traditional high school recruiting and the transfer portal. Alabama came into the season with five quarterbacks on the roster, each ranked among the top 160 players nationally in the 247Sports Composite as a recruit. Among Jalen Milroe, Tyler Buchner, Ty Simpson, Eli Holstein and Dylan Lonergan, someone had to figure it out, right? Yes, they are all from different places, having varying experience levels and with different styles of play, but it was so easy to just assume the great Saban would find one of them to lead this ultra-talented team back to the College Football Playoff.

It turns out Alabama has a problem not even Saban can solve.

This might be in part because of Saban, even if he’s the greatest coach in college football history. Sometimes coaches, even the great ones, hit a lull and that can lead to some uncomfortable moments on Saturdays. This isn’t to say Saban lost his fastball or no longer knows how to recruit the quarterback position. This could be a result of constant assistant turnover on his staff, but it has become increasingly clear there’s a disconnect between the players they are recruiting and the output they have gotten on the field. This seems to be an evaluation and developmental issue.


That might seem harsh, and there are a few caveats we have to get out of the way first. Yes, Alabama has played only three games without Bryce Young, so there is still time for the players on the roster to right the ship. And yes, Lonergan and Holstein are true freshmen so it would be asinine to call them recruiting misses or misevaluations. But the product Alabama has put on the field the last two weeks? I’m not sure anyone could watch that and say with a straight face that something isn’t going wrong. And it’s not as though this is a numbers issue, that the Tide failed to sign a QB in a class or had multiple players transfer out.



Saban names Milroe QB, says Steele remains Bama DC

So what gives? These aren’t the normal growing pains a program experiences when it transitions from a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback to someone new. This is what it looks like to go from elite to bad.

You might have been able to convince yourself the Texas game was about a program trying to find what’s next. Milroe, who played in spots last year when Young was injured, has always shown he can be special with the ball in his hands — and he is good for one 50-yard dime a game that makes your jaw drop — but he lacks the consistency in the intermediate passing game to get the job done against equally talented foes. Texas beat Alabama in large part because it figured out Milroe.

So Saban made a change for the USF game. He inserted Buchner, the Notre Dame transfer, and Alabama somehow looked worse. The game featured a 34-point spread against an overmatched opponent that shouldn’t have been able to stop anyone playing quarterback at Alabama. With Buchner — who completed only 5 of 14 passes and led zero touchdown drives — Alabama was almost shut out in the first half. Saban moved to his third quarterback of the season, Simpson, a five-star prospect.

Simpson looked fine playing his first significant snaps at Alabama, completing 5 of 9 passes for 73 yards. He also rushed for a touchdown and had zero turnovers. All of the Tide’s points came on drives he was quarterbacking. But it didn’t look like Alabama finally solved its issues. It was a serviceable performance from a green quarterback who was fortunate enough to escape Tampa with a victory.


We’re talking about the same coach and program that put a true freshman into the national championship game at halftime and let him fling it. It didn’t take Tua Tagovailoa long to show everyone he was a star. What’s going on with these top-tier prospects on Alabama’s roster?

This isn’t meant to criticize Simpson because he still has time to be great. But if the natural progression had taken place, Simpson would have shown this offseason that he was the next man up for greatness at the quarterback position. He would have been the reason Alabama didn’t need Buchner through the portal.

Simpson didn’t do that. Neither did Milroe. Lonergan and Holstein are young so they get a pass, but Tagovailoa was pretty young when he won Alabama a national title with his left arm.

What’s truly bizarre is why Milroe didn’t play at all in the USF game. Through all the agony coming through on the television, you’d think the Crimson Tide would have turned to the most experienced quarterback on the roster who surely could have made plays with his legs to win the game. Instead, it seemed like a prolonged experiment from Saban to see whether someone — anyone — could quarterback this team.

If you’re wondering why nobody on The Athletic college football staff picked Alabama to make the College Football Playoff before the season, this is why: There was no quarterback to believe in — and not enough skill to prop up the QB who won the job. There was also some concern about the offensive line.

It took sincere willpower for anyone not to give in to the temptation of Alabama during the preseason, though.

When it came time to pick who would make the College Football Playoff and win the national title, there sat the disrespected version of the Crimson Tide looking at us like some sad puppy. Like actual, real-life disrespected Alabama, not something Saban contrived to trick his roster into feeling like underdogs.


According to the 247Sports Team Talent Composite, the 2023 Crimson Tide has the deepest collection of high school recruits ever assembled and is led by the greatest coach of all time. Those two facts alone should have made Alabama a layup to be the preseason favorite to win it all. But it wasn’t. That’s real disrespect.

Most of us didn’t take the bait. The amount of self-discipline it took to ignore that Alabama is the first team in modern recruiting history to have a 90 percent blue-chip ratio was immense.

But Alabama didn’t have a quarterback. We didn’t know how dire it was until Saturday, but we know now.

Talent, legendary coaching, incredible fans, intimidating stadium, the lore of being one of the best programs in college football history? None of it matters if you don’t have someone special taking the snaps. Look at the entire SEC — the conference seems down because the quarterback play has been down. Look at all of the nonconference games the SEC has lost this season. In almost every single one, the team that beat the SEC squad had an advantage at quarterback.

The good news for Alabama is that Julian Sayin is on his way next year, and Saban will have another crack at finding an elite quarterback for a deep and talented roster. Maybe Saban will hit the portal earlier than he did this past offseason to find someone to plug and play. Maybe Lonergan or Holstein will be the guy. Maybe Sayin is one of those special true freshmen. Don’t call for the end of the Saban dynasty, not a year after the man signed a recruiting class comprising a record nine five-star recruits. The over/under for future national titles for Saban should still be set at 0.5.

But even the greatest coach of all time can’t solve the issue of not having a top-level quarterback, even if he is to blame for the problem.

That’s what Alabama is dealing with this year.

(Photo: Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

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Ari Wasserman

Ari Wasserman is a senior writer for The Athletic covering college football and recruiting nationally. He previously spent 10 years covering Ohio State for The Athletic and, starting on the Buckeyes beat in 2009. Follow Ari on Twitter @AriWasserman