Jim Harris: Saban Keeps Attention on Lowly Foe, Something Morris Could Try

Of all the differences between Nick Saban and Chad Morris as coaches, nothing spelled it out better than Saban’s reaction to one of his local reporters this week asking if Alabama’s game with downtrodden Arkansas would allow the coaches to “expedite” the development of Tua Tagovailoa’s younger brother, Taulia, in the quarterback position.

Saban naturally went off, using the moment to pretty well confirm he hates answering most questions from the media, judges many of the questions he’s asked as stupid, based on his facial contortions, and took that very opportunity this week to end the press conference by walking off, mouthing his disgust to further cement what we all knew were his obvious feelings on the issue.

Tua Tagovailoa, a junior, won’t play Saturday night against Arkansas because of a high ankle sprain suffered last week against Tennessee, a 35-13 Tide win that ran No. 1 Bama’s record to 7-0. Backup quarterback Mack Jones, who mostly mops up the Tide’s weekly destructions, will get the start. Obviously, the Alabama sports media figure anybody not named LSU or Auburn on the Alabama schedule is ripe for slaughter – easy for anyone to understand these days. So, with Arkansas going into Tuscaloosa a 35-point underdog (the Hogs have been five touchdown ’dogs vs. the Crimson Tide for three years running), it naturally figured someone might want to know the order of backups to Jones, including Tua’s sibling, a freshman who is listed as the third-string quarterback.

After 12 years of watching the Saban Show in Tuscaloosa, you had to know the reaction coming, and it always seems calculated. 

“We’re focused on winning the game, so we’re going to try to win the game,” Saban said in a tone of admonishment not only directed at the reporter, but the rest of the room. “We’re going to play the best players that we can play to win the game. We’re not assuming that it’s going to be an easy game. We’re not assuming we’ll have an opportunity to just play anybody that wants to play to ‘expedite’ anything except winning the game.

So we’re going to play everybody who can expedite winning the game. 

Saban may, in his heart, know that Alabama will outclass Arkansas at every position, annihilate them when it comes to second-teamers and the third-teamers playing special teams, and beat the Hogs at least 45-9, but he’s publicly keeping everyone focused on the task: Winning the game. 

Contrast that reaction to the apparent ease with which everyone in Fayetteville took the San Jose State matchup, following that huge 55-34 win over Colorado State and the Club Dub that ensued. Now, Chad Morris said he did not notice until the Saturday night’s pregame preparations that his team seemed unfocused for San Jose State. There’s no doubts here, either, that assistant coaches were constantly preaching to the young players that the Colorado State win was behind them and the full attention needed to be on San Jose State. 

And, yet, throughout that week you had veteran players volunteering hypothetical scores like “73-0, 100-0, 173-0” as they vocalized their hopes that the game would allow everyone on the squad ample playing time while the Razorbacks coasted to a ridiculously easy win. Morris said as much in the run-up, expressing the hope to play a lot of younger players. There apparently was no thought that Arkansas might actually LOSE the game to one of the consistently worst programs in the FCS over the past several years. 

Arkansas, it should be obvious now, is depleted enough in ability, focus and individual pride that it can lose to anyone, anytime. Alabama, which seemingly assembles a pre-NFL roster every season under Saban, would have a more competitive game with its backups than against Arkansas and quite a few other opponents on its schedule.

Yet, it’s college football’s best coach, Saban, who took the perfect opportunity this week to scold everyone in sight and remind his team that Goal No. 1 is winning, not who gets to play. Chad Morris missed the opportunity, and the shocking loss to San Jose State on Sept. 21, lumped in with what figures to be many more SEC losses this season on top of last year’s 0-8 in the league, is pushing many Razorback diehard fans to urge for his firing after just two seasons of massive rebuilding.

He makes it even easier with the coaching staff’s ridiculous reaches of desperation – for immediate example, last week’s incredibly silly fake punt play that became an instant Sports Center Not Top 10 to go alongside last year’s failure to cover a fake fair catch by North Texas – and what comes across as two years of mismanagement of the quarterback position: They’ve started five quarterbacks in two years, and maybe twice in 19 games has that particular game’s starter appeared adequately prepared to perform. It’s usually the backup who seems more ready to succeed, almost every time out. Ben Hicks came off the bench for Nick Starkel, because of injury vs. Texas A&M and because of incompetence vs. Kentucky, and guided the Hogs to within one score of winning both games.

So Hicks took back the starting role he had in weeks 1-2, and subsequently struggled against Auburn’s superb defense. Who on Arkansas’s roster of quarterbacks wouldn’t have struggled? But Morris didn’t even bother to go with a backup at any point while Hicks managed to complete just 19 of 39 passes with an interception and an early fumble, both setting up Auburn touchdowns in a 51-10 romp. Against San Jose State, Morris stuck with Starkel through four interceptions and Starkel somehow overcame a 17-point deficit, only to wildly throw a fifth pick to finish off that game, after the defense had surrendered a five-play drive for the go-ahead score in the final minutes. 

Playing for a national championship two years ago, Saban benched his starter, Jalen Hurts, and turned to Tua to bring Alabama back and beat Georgia in overtime for the crown. A year later in the SEC Championship Game, Saban flipped the script and benched a struggling Tua and summoned Hurts to save the day, which he did, before leaving for Oklahoma as a graduate transfer.

OK, we know: Let’s not confuse Tua and Hurts, either of whom could win this year’s Heisman Trophy, with Hicks, Starkel, Ty Storey or Cole Kelley. Nobody who has played quarterback for Arkansas the past two years, including the baseball pitcher Conner Noland, has allowed Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock much comfort at the position, but it’s still strange that as starters they all mostly struggled.

No one has to be convinced, too, that while Morris may have been an acclaimed offensive coordinator who supposedly – according to Clemson people – saved Dabo Swinney’s job when the Tiger program was struggling, he’s been no Saban in running the SMU program (now 8-0 under second-year coach Sonny Dykes) or the Razorbacks, who are at their lowest point in modern football history. 

Jim Harris is an award-winning writer who appears regularly on KTHV, Channel 11’s “Hogzone.” He has covered the Arkansas Razorbacks since 1976 for such news outlets as the Pine Bluff Commercial, the Arkansas Gazette and ArkansasSports360.com. Reach him at jim.harris@agfc.ar.gov.

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