So there inside AT&T Stadium on New Year's Eve was Alabama's so-called albatross carving up a highly touted defense that a month earlier had stifled Ohio State's star quarterback J.T. Barrett to 9-of-16 passing for a measly 46 yards.
Yeah, maybe a lot of pundits were a little off in their assessment of Jake Coker. The Cotton Bowl MVP completed 25-of-30 passes for 286 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in Alabama's 38-0 rout of Michigan State in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
Oh sure, the accolades have rolled in by the truckload this season. For the Alabama defense. For Alabama running back Derrick Henry. For Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley. For the Alabama offensive line. For Alabama head coach Nick Saban. Coker? He's the guy people like to pick on. Pick apart. And put down.
The former Florida State backup who transferred to Alabama in 2014 is supposedly the reason this Crimson Tide team isn't a complete juggernaut across the board. Of the four Playoff quarterbacks, Alabama's signal-caller was viewed as the fourth-best when the pairings were announced. And that's only because there were four teams. Had it been an eight-team playoff, Coker would have probably been regarded as the eighth best.
Yet, the guy who has never lost a start at Alabama just keeps making plays when called upon. And that last part is the important part — when called upon.
With Alabama's defense and running game so good, Coker hasn't been asked to air it out a whole lot this season. But when Alabama was down big to Ole Miss back in September, the 6-foot-5, 232-pounder very nearly passed (and ran) the Tide to a come-from-behind win. And when offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin decided to craft a game plan against a stingy-against-the-run Spartan defense that featured Coker's arm, the Mobile, Ala., native delivered.
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Other than those two contests, Coker has really only been called upon at periodic junctures throughout the season as Alabama's passing game settled into a backseat role to Henry and the defense.
But backseat doesn't mean bad. Far from it, actually. And the numbers show that.
On the season, Coker has completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 2,775 yards and 19 touchdowns against eight interceptions. For a little perspective, that's a better completion percentage, more passing yards and more TD passes than both Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron had in their first seasons as Alabama's starting quarterback in 2009 and ‘11, respectively.
But numbers don't tell the whole story of Coker's season. It's the intangibles, too. Over the course of the last four months, No. 14 has grown into a leader for this Alabama football team.
"Jacob certainly has won our team over," Saban said Saturday in Phoenix. "I think that's pretty obvious by him being elected captain by his teammates, and I think he did it because of the toughness that he plays with and the great competitive spirit that he has. I think it's recognized by everybody on our team, and I think his example of how he competes probably is the thing that affects the other players on the team as much as anything, And I think it's been a real key to any success that we've had as a team."
Said Coker: "Ever since I got here I've had a good idea of what (Saban) wanted and what he needed out of this team and especially the quarterback position. Really ever since the beginning I've been trying to do my best just... whatever he says that's what I'm gonna do. And I tried to do that as well as I could."
McElroy and McCarron's first seasons under center ended in national titles for Alabama. Coker's first (and final) season as Alabama's starting quarterback could end the same way. Coker and the No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide meet undefeated and No. 1-ranked Clemson for the national championship Monday night in Glendale, Ariz.
There's been plenty of buzz surrounding a quarterback heading into Monday's title tilt, and, not surprisingly, it's focused on the one not wearing crimson and white – Clemson's Deshaun Watson.
Ah, but if Alabama wins...
Maybe then the kid who grew up dreaming of playing for the Crimson Tide will finally be seen as something other than a weak link. Maybe he'll be seen as a winning, championship-caliber quarterback. Funny thing, that's actually what he's been all season long.
Even if few happened to notice.
— Written by Erik Stinnett, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Stinnett is an experienced college football beat writer who has been covering Alabama since 2009.