Alabama, LSU's biggest threat in SEC West, has questions before it can meet 'the standard'

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Imagine a young Nick Saban standing in front of his grandmother’s oven, staring at a cake and asking her when it will be ready.
This, Saban said Wednesday at Southeastern Conference media days, is relevant to one of the main questions facing Alabama: Who will start at quarterback?
“Grandma Saban used to bake the best cakes in the world,” Saban said, “and I used to stand by the oven when I was a kid and say, ‘When is this cake going to be done? When is this cake going to be done?’
“She said, ‘If I don't let it go through and take it out of the oven too soon, it will turn to mush and it won't be a really good cake.’ So, I think we have to sort of let this develop and make sure we let the cake bake until somebody separates themselves.”
The three “cakes” trying to replace Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Bryce Young are sophomore Jalen Milroe, Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner and redshirt freshman Ty Simpson. Saban said no one has emerged as the starter.
“I use the cake analogy because it's not done yet,” Saban said. “There's not a decision that needs to be made at this point in time, nor are we ready to make that decision.”
Quarterback tops the list of immediate questions, but there are broader concerns with the state of Alabama’s dynasty.
While Georgia won its second straight national championship last season, Alabama went 11-2 and missed the College Football Playoff despite having two of the top three picks in the NFL draft. The Crimson Tide lacked outside playmakers and discipline, ranking 126th nationally with 7.9 penalties per game.
For most teams, double-digit wins and a blowout Sugar Bowl victory would constitute a successful season. Not for the Crimson Tide. The Alabama contingent spoke often Wednesday about feeling unsatisfied by going two years without a title while Georgia overtook them and LSU re-emerged in the SEC West.
“It's not the standard,” junior offensive lineman JC Latham said. “Whether we win five, seven or 11 (games), if we don't win the national championship, it's not the standard.”
Throughout his tenure, Saban simply has reloaded to keep Alabama in annual contention. Assistant coaches and players leave. Schemes evolve. But Saban adapts, and his process stays in place. Just this year, Alabama signed a record nine five-star recruits in the third-highest rated class of all-time, according to 247Sports.
Alabama never has let three straight seasons pass without a national title since Saban arrived, but the team has undergone significant personnel changes. Defensive coordinator Pete Golding left for the same position at Ole Miss after five seasons, and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien joined the New England Patriots in the same role.
Saban replaced them with longtime defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. Though Saban often deals with coaching departures, this will be the fifth time at Alabama that he has new coordinators on both sides of the ball, including his first season.
Alabama did not win a national championship the previous four times.
“We have tried to mitigate the changes that a new coordinator would create for players by trying to keep the same system, and that's a little challenging sometimes when you have new coaches because they have to learn a certain amount to be able to implement the system so it doesn't change completely for the players,” Saban said. “But I'm really pleased with the two new coordinators that we have.”
Steele coached at Alabama twice before in various capacities, including as defensive coordinator at the beginning of Saban’s tenure. He has to construct a defense that lost star edge rusher Will Anderson, experienced safety Jordan Battle, starting linebacker Henry To'oTo'o and others. The Crimson Tide allowed 18.2 points per game last season, ninth-best nationally.
“Kevin Steele is showing a lot of the guys the true Alabama standard and the type of style we want to play on defense,” junior linebacker Dallas Turner said. “I feel like he's going to bring all the attributes that we need to have as a defense.”
Rees is the second-youngest coordinator of the Saban era. His Notre Dame offenses averaged 33.5 ppg over three seasons, and he has to give Alabama balance while managing the quarterback battle. The Crimson Tide averaged 35.1 rush attempts per game the last two seasons, which ranked 11th in the SEC.
Tommy Rees is one of the brightest young guys that I've seen in a long time in this business,” Saban said.
Alabama wants to reestablish its dominance, but these changes must mesh as the Crimson Tide replaces talent and settles an uncertain quarterback situation.
The cake continues to bake.
And as for Saban’s favorite flavor?
“Well, carrot cake,” Saban said. “That's easy.”

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