HOOVER, Ala. — ESPN and SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy is slowly becoming one of the more respected voices when it comes to breaking down the SEC, and the former Alabama quarterback always has strong opinions about his former school, where he won a national championship in 2009.
McElroy spoke with SEC Country on realistic expectations for Alabama, why Lane Kiffin should receive the benefit of the doubt with Alabama’s quarterbacks, the biggest threat to the Crimson Tide and more. Below is a transcription of the interview:
Question: How do you see things shaking out with the quarterback race?
Greg McElroy: It’s tough to say. Obviously, there are a bunch of guys that are talented, highly-recruited and who were wanted by pretty much everybody. Cooper Bateman, given what he did in the Ole Miss game, I believe he can be a very good player in this league. He was 11-of-14. Yes, he made a bad decision that resulted in the interception. He was supposed to go to the left, he went to the right and it was intercepted. He also had an inaccurate throw to the right down in the red zone, but it was a touch pass and he was trying to guide it in there and it ended up behind him and ended up as an incompletion when it should have been a first down.
But really, I was very optimistic based on what I’ve seen. Given the platform, given the stage and how big that game was, it wasn’t an easy situation to be thrown into as his first start. I’m very encouraged by what he did. If I were to guess, he’d be the guy.
David Cornwell is very talented. More in the mold of AJ McCarron and Jake Coker — big guy, strong arm and can throw the ball down the field.
Of course, Blake Barnett coming from California. A redshirt freshman that did a great job running the scout team last year. They love him. They think he has an ‘it’ factor that you just can’t teach. The question is whether or not it translates to the field. It’s hard to win the team when you’ve never done it on Saturdays under the lights. Spring game is great, practice is great, that’s fine. But until you do it on Saturday’s under the lights, it’s hard to have the team rally around you. If in fact he were to win the job, I would assume he would have to get some playing time to see how he responds to being hit and see how he responds to the pressure of playing on an SEC Saturday.
Q: A lot is made every year about Alabama’s quarterbacks, but they’ve had success the last two years with two different guys. Is this one of those situations where people should just give Lane Kiffin the benefit of the doubt?
GM: Yes. He’s as good as it gets in college football when it comes to calling plays and putting together a game plan. He’s really, really special when it comes to getting the matchup that he wants. He’s a mad scientist in that regard. Moving players around and motioning out of the backfield — getting Calvin Ridley on safeties against Michigan State, not once, but twice that resulted in two big plays and one touchdown. He’s a mastermind when it comes to creating opportunities for his players. At the quarterback position, there are things that Jake Coker did very well. There are things that Jake Coker didn’t do so well, and those things were not in the game plan, ever. He was willing to say ‘Look, maybe I’ve done these things traditionally, but I’m not going to do them with this guy because it doesn’t fit his skill set.’ He did the same thing with Blake Sims as well. He adjusts the offense based on the personnel that he has. Not a lot of coaches do that so he deserves a lot of credit.
Q: Are the national championship expectations fair for this team?
GM: Every year. Absolutely they’re fair. If you count out Alabama in the national championship race, I think you’re doing yourself a disservice. Every year, they’re going to be as talented as anybody. You know they’re going to be as well-coached as anybody. They’re going to execute at a high level. The only thing that’s going to derail this team on an annual basis is complacency. Are they going to rest on their laurels? Are they going to pat themselves on the back after they win a big game? Will they continue to look forward? Those are the big questions. Lot of talented players that were lost off of last year’s team, but there are a lot of talented players waiting for an opportunity. They’ll always be considered in the national championship race, and I think this year is no different.
Q: Speaking of complacency, you were around for the 2010 season coming off the championship and you also got to see the program repeat in 2012. What’s the difference there in terms of getting over the hump and being able to repeat?
GM: If you look at the 2010 season, a lot of people look at it — and believe me, I have regrets about that season too. I wish we would have done more, I wish we could have done more. But we lost two games by a combined four points. One against Auburn against maybe the greatest player I’ve ever seen in college football in Cam Newton. We lost by three points in Death Valley which is a difficult place to play regardless of the circumstances. So if we win those two games and we’re sitting at 11-1 at the end of the season, we win the SEC West and if you win the SEC, you have a chance at the national championship. That team really wasn’t that far off. The biggest difference I think for every team is finding your own identity. Allowing the young players to get repetitions and get confidence early in the season. We weren’t able to do enough to be able to pull out close games in 2010, and it bothers me everyday.
Q: With Kirby Smart out and Jeremy Pruitt in, what changes do you expect to see with this defense?
GM: I don’t think it’s going to be very different. Jeremy Pruitt has been there before. He knows the system. He’ll do all the things that Kirby Smart did before him. The biggest question is how much will Nick Saban be involved in the defensive game plan? He was certainly involved in the week leading up, but on game days, it was Kirby Smart’s show. That was his team, that was his unit. He called the plays and did everything that Nick Saban wanted. Nick Saban was really watching the offense and the special teams and making executive decisions for the team. I think it’ll be the exact same relationship. Coach Saban trusts coach Pruitt an awful lot. I think figuring out that dynamic on game day is the one thing they’ll have to figure out.
Q: Who’s the biggest threat to Alabama in the SEC?
GM: I think LSU is very difficult. A very well-coached team, very effective and very physical. The game’s in Baton Rouge. Texas A&M is another team in the West that has given Alabama fits in the past. Granted, Johnny Manziel was at the helm for those two games, but with the way they can throw it, they can cause some difficult matchups on the outside if they get hot. Ole Miss, of course. They’ve beaten them two years in a row. You can’t sleep on what they’ve done.
Out of the East, Tennessee. They almost beat Alabama last year. They have an explosive quarterback that can run the football. And Florida because of how talented they are, and the fact that they have a chip on their shoulders. Jim McElwain, with a Colorado State team in 2013, gave them all kinds of fits. That was with Colorado State. Now, a similar mentality with the same coach who now has players who were 4- and 5-stars coming out of high school.