Ranking Alabama’s starting quarterbacks during Nick Saban era

By Creg Stephenson
There is as much uncertainty around the quarterback position at Alabama this preseason as there has been in a half-decade or more.
Whether the Crimson Tide’s starter this year is Jalen Milroe, Ty Simpson or Tyler Buchner, he will enter the season as a largely unproven commodity. It hasn’t always been that way, of course, as the Crimson Tide has had a number of high-profile and star-quality quarterbacks during Nick Saban’s 16 years on the job.
So who was the best of the bunch? And how do the other stack up?
Here’s a ranking of the 12 men who have started at least one game at quarterback for Alabama during the Saban era:
12. Cooper Bateman (2015)
A surprise starter for Alabama’s Week 3 game vs. Ole Miss in 2015, Bateman went 11-for-14 for 87 yards and an interception before being pulled in favor of Jake Coker just before halftime. Coker rallied his team but could not overcome the deficit as the Crimson Tide lost 43-37, its only loss of a national championship season. Coker was re-installed as the starter the next week and never left the lineup again. Bateman later transferred to his home-state school of Utah, where he finished his career as a third-stringer.
Alabama Football 2016 - G01 vs USC
11. Blake Barnett (2016)
Not everyone remembers this now, but Barnett actually started the 2016 season-opener against USC as a redshirt freshman. The former 5-star recruit from California completed 5 of 6 passes for 100 yards and a touchdown in the Crimson Tide’s 52-6 victory, but lost his starting job to Jalen Hurts — seemingly in the middle of the game. Hurts started every other game that season, and Barnett transferred to Arizona State before finishing up at South Florida.
10. Jalen Milroe (2022)
Milroe took over for an injured Bryce Young during the second quarter of Oct. 1 victory over Arkansas last season, then started the following week vs. Texas A&M. The Texas native completed 12 of 19 passes for 119 yards and three touchdowns with an interception vs. the Aggies, and also added 81 yards on 17 carries as the Crimson Tide held on for a 24-20 victory. Young returned from his shoulder injury the following week and took every important snap the rest of the way, but left after the season to become the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL draft.
9. John Parker Wilson (2007-08)
Wilson started every game at quarterback during the 2006 season under Mike Shula, and also was under center for Saban’s first two seasons with the Crimson Tide. The former Hoover High School star completed 56 percent of his passes for 5,119 yards and also rushed for 10 touchdowns during his two years under Saban, but had just a 28-to-20 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He was the starting quarterback when Alabama’s true turnaround began, however, engineering Alabama’s SEC West championship in 2008.
8. Greg McElroy (2009-10)
After two seasons as Wilson’s understudy, McElroy took over as starting quarterback during his redshirt junior year and led the Crimson Tide to the first of their six national championships under Saban. The Texas native was an efficient passer, completing 65.8 percent of his attempts for 5,495 yards and 37 touchdowns with just nine interceptions in two seasons. He offered little in the running game, however, but was the consummate game manager who generally wouldn’t lose games for his team.
7. Jake Coker (2015)
A one-year starter after transferring from Florida State and sitting behind Blake Sims for a year, Coker has the distinction of never losing a game as a starter. The Crimson Tide went 14-0 with the Mobile native under center, losing only when Bateman inexplicably started the Week 3 loss to Ole Miss. The consummate statuesque (6-foot-5) strong-armed pocket passer, Coker completed 66.9 percent of his passes in 2015, for 3,110 yards and 21 touchdowns with eight interceptions. Most importantly, he led his team to a national championship.
6. Blake Sims (2014)
Sims will long be held up as the prime example of the genius of Lane Kiffin, who helped mold a 6-foot-tall former running back into a second-team All-SEC quarterback while Alabama’s offensive coordinator in 2014. Sims completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 3,487 yards and 28 touchdowns with 10 interceptions, leading the Crimson Tide to the SEC title and a College Football Playoff berth in his lone season as a starter. The Georgia native also added a dimension as a runner, totaling 350 yards and seven scores.
Jalen Hurts, Nick Saban
5. Jalen Hurts (2016-17)
Hurts had his limitations as a passer during his time at Alabama, but still put up big numbers and was SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a true freshman. He completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 4,861 yards and 40 touchdowns with 10 interceptions during his two seasons as a starter, and also added 1,809 yards and 21 touchdowns rushing. He’s remembered nationally for getting benched in favor of Tua Tagovailoa during the 2017 national championship game and later transferring to Oklahoma, but has a special place in the hearts of Crimson Tide fans for coming off the bench in place of the injured Tagovailoa to save the 2018 SEC title game. Now an MVP candidate with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, Hurts seems to be getting better every year.
4. AJ McCarron (2011-13)
This might seem too low to place a two-time national champion who very nearly competed for a third, but it speaks to the quality of quarterbacks who have come after McCarron at Alabama. The Mobile native started three full seasons under center for the Crimson Tide, never missing a game (and rarely missing a snap) due to injury. During his time as a starter, McCarron completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 8,630 yard and 74 touchdowns with just 15 interceptions. He won national titles in 2011 and 2012, and had the 2013 Alabama team undefeated and ranked No. 1 before it was derailed by Auburn and the Kick Six in the Iron Bowl.
Mac Jones
3. Mac Jones (2019-20)
After starting four games down the stretch in 2019 after Tagovailoa was lost for the season due to injury, Jones became the full-time starter in 2020 and put up one of the greatest quarterback seasons in SEC history. He completed 311 of 402 passes — a phenomenal 77.4 percent — for 4,500 yards and 41 touchdowns with just four interceptions. The Crimson Tide went 13-0 and won the national championship, completing what is widely regarded as the best season-long performance by an Alabama team in the program’s history. The Florida native left after that season to become a first-round pick of the New England Patriots the 2021 NFL draft, not bad for someone who was considered a recruiting afterthought when he signed in the same 2017 class as Tagovailoa.
2. Tua Tagovailoa (2018-19)
In an alternate universe where he stayed healthy his entire career, there’s no telling what kind of numbers and championship performances Tagovailoa could have posted. As it was, he was still incredibly good. After coming off the bench to rescue the Crimson Tide in its 26-23 overtime victory over Georgia in the 2017 national championship game, the Hawaiian lefty took over as the starter the following year. He completed 69 percent of his passes for 3,966 yards and 43 touchdowns with just six interceptions, staying largely healthy until suffering a high ankle sprain in the SEC championship game, which might have cost him the Heisman Trophy. Tagovailoa returned the next year to complete 71.4 percent of his passes for 2,480 yards and 33 touchdowns with three interceptions in just eight games before his season — and his Alabama career — ended with a broken hip suffered against Mississippi State in early November. He recovered in time to be the No. 5 overall pick by the Miami Dolphins in the 2020 NFL draft.
1. Bryce Young (2021-22)
Young sat behind Jones in 2020, but took over as starter the next year and became Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. The Californian completed 66.9 percent of his passes for 4,872 yards and 47 touchdowns with seven interceptions, leading Alabama to the SEC championship and a berth in the national title game. He battled a shoulder injury the following year, but completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 3,328 yards and 32 touchdowns with five interceptions in a year in which he didn’t have the line protection or skill-position teammates enjoyed by some of his predecessors and often had to carry the offensive load nearly by himself. Young was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers, a first for the Crimson Tide and making him the third straight Alabama starting quarterback to go in the first round.

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