Nick Saban’s very curious gamble on Tyler Buchner is the talk of the SEC in 2023.
Matt Zemek, 14Powers.com
Has Nick Saban lost the magic touch? It’s a question many people are asking in the world of SEC football. Saban’s 2022 Alabama football team wasn’t quite as bad as the three-loss team in 2010, but it was close. Losing two regular season games and failing to make the SEC Championship Game is a very big disappointment in Tuscaloosa. Three or more losses is an absolute disaster, so a two-loss season isn’t rock bottom, but for Saban and the Alabama fan base, it certainly rates as a relatively empty journey. The saving grace of the season – beyond the Iron Bowl win over Auburn and the Sugar Bowl blowout of Kansas State – is that Alabama very easily could have lost four or five games. The Texas, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss games easily could have broken the other way with just one or two plays affecting the trajectory of those contests. The 2022 Crimson Tide therefore did a good job of damage control. The season could have been so much worse than it actually was. Nevertheless, the weakness of this particular Saban-coached team was conspicuous.
Now we arrive at a 2023 season in which Alabama will naturally be out for revenge against the teams it lost to, and for restoration on a larger scale. Typically, in the years when Saban has struggled, the next year is a fire-breathing stampede of dominance or, at the very least, a return to the national championship stage. Bama won the 2011 national championship after stepping on a rake in 2010. Alabama was beaten by LSU in 2019 and failed to make the College Football Playoff that season. The next year, the Tide averaged over 45 points per game and stormed to the national title with DeVonta Smith winning the Heisman Trophy.
Surely, Alabama is going to be very strong this year after briefly straying from the path the previous season … right? Surely the Crimson Tide, as reliable a national championship game participant as we’ve seen over the past 10 years of college football, are going to get back to where they know they belong … right?
It actually doesn’t feel like it. Not this year.
It’s all about the quarterback position, which goes back to the question of whether Saban has lost the magic touch.
Saban couldn’t do any better in the transfer portal than Tyler Buchner? Anyone who has watched Notre Dame football over the past few years knows that Buchner was not a very impressive quarterback. He did not show much of any upside. He might not have had the receivers, running backs, and offensive linemen Alabama has, but even then, Buchner did not make the players around him better. He was not asked to handle nearly as much of the workload at Notre Dame that Bryce Young had to handle as Saban’s quarterback the past two seasons.
Saban is riding with this guy? Saban is rolling the dice with this quarterback, believing that new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees – who worked with Buchner at Notre Dame – can get the most out of this player? Even if Rees does a relatively good job, this attempt at a restoration project feels like a process in which Rees is trying to raise Buchner’s floor as a quarterback. Buchner’s ceiling isn’t that high, or at least, nothing he has done as a college quarterback has offered any indication that his ceiling can be particularly lofty. It’s nowhere near Bryce Young’s very high ceiling. It’s not remotely close to what Mac Jones did with DeVonta Smith and the rest of the Alabama offense in 2020, when the Tide put up video-game numbers and made the sport look very easy.
Tyler Buchner? Really? That’s the solution to Alabama’s problems after a bumpy ride in 2022?
It is certainly true that last season, Alabama’s offensive line was not up to par. That is what caused Bryce Young to run for his life so many times. Young is rightly viewed as a wizard for being able to get Alabama to a 10-2 record. Other, less gifted quarterbacks would have gone 8-4 with the Tide. Young was a wonder-worker to minimize damage on last season’s Alabama squad. The offensive line – so powerful in 2020 – was not particularly strong in 2021 and got even worse in 2022. To be sure, that had a lot to do with Alabama’s erosion. If that position group can be strong in 2023, maybe the Tide can use a run-first, ball-control offense and a bonecrushing defense to regain the top spot in the SEC West and challenge defending national champion Georgia for the SEC title.
Yet, in order for Alabama to entertain realistic visions of competing for the SEC championship and getting back to the College Football Playoff, we need to see Tyler Buchner play at or near the level Stetson Bennett displayed at Georgia. Bennett was not a superstar, but he was above-average. He certainly did make the key plays in the big moments, answering the bell the way a great college quarterback manages to do. Bennett didn’t become an NFL draft sensation, but he certainly fit the niche of a great college winner, a player in the mold of former Georgia national champion Buck Belue (1980) or the great Alabama quarterback Jay Barker, who won his national championship in 1992. The talent and the stats might not have been overwhelming, but the clutch gene – the knack for making huge plays at the right time – was very much in evidence.
Alabama is certainly hoping to get that kind of quarterback play from Tyler Buchner, but does Saban – or any one of us, for that matter – have enough tangible evidence to realistically think such a best-case scenario is a distinct possibility?
Nick Saban has taken a very big gamble with his quarterback and his offensive coordinator in 2023. If this gamble unravels and goes in the wrong direction, a lot more people will be saying – at the end of the year – that Mr. Saban has lost his fastball.
That possibility alone makes this Alabama season uniquely fascinating to watch.