Dallas — Being the starting quarterback at a school like Alabama usually assures you’re living in a pretty intense spotlight.
The Crimson Tide are one of college football’s historic powers, having won three national titles under coach Nick Saban, and they’re making their second straight appearance in the College Football Playoff when they face Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl on Thursday.
So it would seem natural that the quarterback would be a household name.
That is, unless, you spend an ample amount of time handing the ball to the Heisman Trophy winner.
Or your defense is one of the most dominant units in America.
Or your coach is the biggest name in the game.
Essentially, that is life for Jake Coker.
And it apparently fits the Alabama senior just find. He’s content to give the ball to Derrick Henry as the junior running back has piled up nearly 2,000 yards on the ground and 23 touchdowns.
He’s happy driving his old GMC Sierra pickup truck. And he’s OK with the fact he doesn’t often get noticed around town.
“Whenever I’m compared to somebody, it’s usually these guys making fun of me,” Coker said of his teammates on Sunday. “It’s somebody that looks really goofy that I don’t want to look like.”
Ribbing from his teammates is easy to deal with, and so, too, is the fact many outside the Alabama program have a tendency to look past Coker.
However, that’s not the way Michigan State is approaching Thursday’s game that will send the winner to the national championship game.
“Maybe by others (he’s overlooked), but not by us,” Michigan State co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. “We’ve realized Coker is a good player. Somebody has to make it go. Somebody has to throw the ball to (Calvin) Ridley and all those guys. He is a good football player that manages the game well and does what coach Saban and (offensive coordinator Lane) Kiffin want him to do, and that’s not turn the ball over, dink and dunk and take shots when appropriate.”
It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for Coker, and Michigan State linebacker Riley Bullough used the tag most quarterbacks don’t like to hear.
“He’s a great game manager,” Bullough said. “He does exactly what they want him to do.”
There could be worse things than managing the game for the No. 2 team in the country. One would be not playing at all, and three games into the season, Coker found himself on the bench.
He had been the starter in each of the first two games but was told heading into the SEC opener against Ole Miss that Cooper Bateman would get the call.
“I can’t tell you I was happy about it,” Coker said. “I was pretty angry. But one of the things I didn’t want to be was a distraction to the team or anything like that. They knew I had to be unhappy about it, but I didn’t act like it or complain about it.”
What he did do was rally the Tide when he replaced Bateman, throwing for 201 yards and three touchdowns while running for another score in the 43-37 loss. In the process, he proved to Saban and Kiffin that he deserved a shot to win the job back.
He did that by being efficient over the next few weeks, leading Alabama to key wins over Georgia and Texas A&M before leading a game-winning drive over Tennessee in the fourth quarter.
Over the last nine games, Coker has completed 71.6 percent of his passes (154-for-215) for 1,703 yards and nine touchdowns. And it was the Ole Miss game — Alabama’s lone loss this season — that turned things around.
“I think that’s a critical moment for Jake, the way he responded, the way he played, and really how he won his team over,” Kiffin said. “It was not by finesse. It was by playing extremely hard, taking a linebacker mentality to the position. And I think that he was not only winning over his offense at that point but winning over his defense. And he has done a great job for us, a great year for him.”
It’s the sort of production that has come slowly for Coker, who backed up Jameis Winston at Florida State in 2013 when Winston won the Heisman Trophy and Florida State went on to win the national championship. He transferred to Alabama the next year and was expected to step in right away for the Crimson Tide. However, Blake Sims won the job and Coker saw only spot duty.
So when Coker became No. 1 guy this year, as a fifth-year senior, he had no starting experience. That, Kiffin said, was the reason for some early struggles.
“You’re a freshman until you play,” Kiffin said. “And even though Jake is a senior, he hadn’t really played. So I think you see him make mistakes early like anybody would, just like a rookie would in the NFL, and then learn from those and get better. And he’s done a much better job in the second half of the year handling the defense, changing protections, being the quarterback instead of just trying to win that specific play, managing the play, and managing the entire offense.”
And now he has his team a game from playing for the national title.
Not bad for a game manager.
Alabama vs. Michigan State
Kickoff: 8 p.m. Thursday, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Records: No. 2 Alabama 12-1, No. 3 Michigan State 12-1
Line: Alabama by 10