On the first day of the short-term course "The History of College Football," University of Alabama professor Ed Frost asks his students three questions: What's their favorite football team, favorite game and favorite Alabama player.
The fact that the name Tyler Watts appeared on Frost's survey as more than one student's favorite Alabama football player before Watts even stepped on campus and enrolled at school, almost before he officially had accepted the scholarship offer to play for Alabama, shows the current state of Crimson Tide football.All Watts, the much-heralded incoming freshman quarterback from Pelham, Ala., can do is laugh.
"I don't know about that," Watts said. "It's a complicated situation. College is such a different level. The guys are bigger and faster, and the speed of the game is so much quicker. You sell yourself short if you think you can walk in to a place like Alabama, or any place in the SEC, and think you're going to start your first game."
The truth, however, is that Watts will get the chance to compete for the starting job as a freshman. It is a sign of how far down the Alabama program has fallen that the battle to lead the offense has come down to four players with little to no experience: fifth-year senior John David Phillips, redshirt freshman Andrew Zow and incoming freshmen Watts and Luke Tucker.
"We had essentially eight practices in the spring, and that's not enough to determine who is the No. 1 quarterback," Alabama coach Mike DuBose said. "We'll try to get all four quarterbacks - Phillips, Zow, Watts and Tucker - enough reps in the first two or three days of practice this fall, and then decide who the top two are and go from there.
"I know there is a lot of attention on Tyler. He might come in and prove to be head and shoulders above the others. Or Luke Tucker might. I don't know that Tyler would be getting the kind of attention he's getting if we were a real good football team. It's unfair to Tyler. It's unfounded. What I hope is that we can bring Tyler and Luke along slowly."
From DuBose's comments last week at SEC Media Days, he has toned down his talk of turning to an offense that throws the ball 80 percent of the time, a plan that would put tremendous pressure on the quarterback.
"We have talent at quarterback," DuBose said. "We've got everything you look for (at that position) except experience, and the only way to get experience is to play.
"What you have to understand is that the role of the quarterback, early in the season, will be to keep from losing the game and let guys like (tailback) Shaun Alexander be the ones who win games."
Alexander understands the hype that surrounds Watts, though he came to Alabama at a time when the football program was winning and the expectations for him were not as high.
"Tyler is going to be good," Alexander said. "I've seen him throw. I've seen him work out.
"He's being put into a situation where he thinks he's got to be the messiah. I'll be the first to tell him he doesn't have to do that. Hopefully, I'll be there to take the pressure off whoever the quarterback is."
After a spring in which the offense worked almost exclusively on the passing game, it sounds as if the Crimson Tide will enter the fall with the idea of being balanced.
"I hope we can throw the ball effectively," DuBose said. "We made a commitment to throw in the spring. We've been a running team. If we can throw and get in the one-back and spread the field, we can be effective.
"I hope we're balanced. . . . Florida and Kentucky can beat you running the football. Look at Steve (Spurrier). His teams usually wind up 50-50 (run-pass). We want that type of effectiveness. . . . But we've got to make sure we stay committed to what we're working on."
Alabama isn't the only SEC school looking hard at breaking in a young quarterback this fall. Vanderbilt coach Woody Widenhofer, who plans to start a rookie quarterback, says, "This is probably the year to do it." Added Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer: "Sooner or later, everyone has to play a new quarterback. We played Andy Kelly as a sophomore. It was the same with Heath (Shuler). Peyton (Manning) was a true freshman."
You can win with a rookie quarterback. Maybe not a national championship, but a team can do better than 4-7, Alabama's record last season.
And for all of his complaints about the high expectations being placed on Watts, DuBose is equally unhappy with the expectations that Alabama might not be much better than a 4-7 team this year.
"My concern is that we may have lowered expectations too much," he said. "If we can stay healthy and build momentum early, I think we've got a chance to be good. I think our record indicates we have a chance to be a better team."