Functionally speaking, Jake Coker is to Alabama what Blake Sims, A.J. McCarron, Greg McElroy, and John Parker Wilson were before him: a cog in the greater Process.
Each of those quarterbacks had distinctive flourishes, of course. Coker made it to Alabama—and before that, to Florida State—on raw arm strength, which separates him from Sims's hare-like scrambles, McCarron's unerring poise, McElroy's moxie and resourcefulness, or Wilson's immaculate high school pedigree.
Still, those differences don't seem to matter much, not when the most glamorous and important position nearly everywhere else in football—quarterback—is anything but in Tuscaloosa. When Alabama and Clemson meet in tonight's College Football Playoff championship game in Glendale, Arizona, all eyes will be on the matchup between dynamic Tigers quarterback DeShaun Watson and the Crimson Tide's smothering defense. Meanwhile, is anyone even talking about Coker?
Watson is college football's best player at his position, and the Tigers head into the game as the sport's top-ranked team; the former unquestionably informs the latter. Watson will be expected to win the Heisman Trophy as a junior next year. After that, he'll probably be a first-round NFL Draft selection. Barring catastrophic injury, football fans will hear and recognize his name for years to come, no matter what happens in the title game—a game Clemson wouldn't even be playing without Watson's game-breaking run-pass abilities.
Contrast this to Alabama. The Crimson Tide are the college game's current standard-bearer, even though head coach Nick Saban has never enjoyed the campus equivalent of Tom Brady behind center. That seems to be by design: the ideal Saban game plan requires his quarterbacks to conform to the rhythms of a conservative, smash-mouth football game, not disrupt them.
Indeed, Alabama's eternal signal-caller mandate goes something like this: maintain possession, primarily through depositing the ball safely into the gut of whichever 220-plus-pound tailback-cum-mauler happens to be on campus that year; supplement those handoffs by throwing ropes to the super-talented, defense-breaking likes of Julio Jones, Amari Cooper, or Calvin Ridley; and above all, don't fuck things up for a perpetually punishing defense full of five-star high school recruits and future NFL Draft picks.
None of this precludes star-making turns, per se: McCarron's path to becoming a Crimson Tide icon and eventual Heisman runner-up began with an iconic performance in the 2012 National Championship game against LSU. Still, there's a reason why McCarron never even cracked first team All-SEC. Quarterbacks can be stars within the parameters set by Saban, but they'll never transcend them.
The Saban war machine will continue grinding bodies up long after Coker is gone. For all Alabama's success in his only season as a starter, Coker is highly likely to never play another moment of meaningful football after tonight. You won't see him anywhere near the top of the NFL draft boards; the only debate about his draft stock heading into his appearance in this month's Senior Bowl centers around whether he deserves to be invited at all.
Modern college football tells us that Jake Coker should be significant. All of us have internalized the rules of the Way We Play Now: quality quarterbacking wins games, especially when it comes by way of dynamic, spread-based sets. Prolific pro-style quarterbacks are a threatened species, hefty defensive fronts can't handle frenetic no-huddle looks, and, well, it's just easier to assimilate than to fight the long arc of history. Yet Coker is notable precisely because he is not: while Alabama hardly wins in spite of him, he is nowhere close to the catalyst for what could be the Crimson Tide's fourth title in seven seasons, an inarguably dynastic run.
Fairly or not, the Tigers, with their generational quarterback and their up-tempo offense, are touchdown underdogs in tonight's game, seen as inferior to Alabama's old-school pro sets and replacement-level quarterback. The Tide's overall breadth of talent plays a role here, certainly, but mostly the line reflects confidence in Alabama's ability to smother opposing innovation with relentless, overpowering convention.
Look, Alabama isn't stuck in the 1980s. Saban isn't stupid, and anyone who has peered above assistant coach Lane Kiffin's Denny's menu play card can make note of his quietly good work as offensive coordinator. Still, Alabama has a winning formula. Sims was a stylistic outlier, and Alabama tailored its offense to fit his gifts, but Saban is far more likely to tweak his old-school system than to overhaul it. Why change what's working, especially when all of your opponents' speeding up has done so little to slow you down?
As such, it's hard to envision Alabama needing its quarterback to matter, let alone matter at the level of a Watson. The right player very well could through sheer force of talent; redshirt freshman David Cornwell, in particular, has more tools than any of his predecessors. But season in and season out, players like Coker will do just fine. That's something of the Alabama way, a perfect fit for a program that claimed 13 national titles before it snared its first Heisman Trophy, and which until yesterday had not produced a quarterback that started a NFL playoff game since 1982.
Coker still bears watching tonight, because there is always a chance that he builds on a strong semifinal performance and transcends Alabama's limits one more time. Even if he doesn't—even if Alabama's entire offensive game plan is to let Henry rumble downhill 45 times—he's still the starting quarterback for a school in the middle of one of college football's best-ever runs. Sometimes it's better to be part of the machine than to fight it.