Take Two: Big-game AJ McCarron?

November, 5, 2013
11/05/13
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Alabama senior quarterback AJ McCarron is 33-2 as a starter and is trying to make it three straight national championships before he leaves the Capstone.

Despite his success, McCarron has been overshadowed this season by several other quarterbacks, namely Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel.

With LSU coming to town this weekend, we thought we'd throw open the great debate: Is McCarron a marquee quarterback who shines in big games, or is he more a product of having great personnel around him?

ESPN.com colleagues Chris Low and David Ching tackle that question in a Take Two debate.

Take 1: Ching -- Best in big games? Not so fast

Let me start by saying that I think McCarron is a good quarterback. He absolutely deserves to be mentioned among the best quarterbacks in the SEC alongside Manziel, Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesAJ McCarron has two national championship rings, but some still doubt his big-game credentials.
The reason this point-counterpoint column exists is that Mr. Low and I were on a phone call the other day, when he opined that McCarron is the best big-game quarterback in the country, and I disagreed.

Now, did McCarron play great in the last two BCS National Championships? Absolutely. Without question, he deserves credit for his performances against LSU and Notre Dame with a national title at stake.

But think back over Alabama's other big games over the last couple of seasons. How often was he more than a solid player on a great team? Not often enough to declare him the nation's best big-game quarterback.

Sure, he torched Texas A&M's defense earlier this season, but who hasn't? Does the opener against Virginia Tech count as a big game? Because if it does, he went 10-for-23 for 110 yards, one touchdown and one interception against the Hokies.

I'm sure you're asking, “What about his clutch passes last season?” No, I haven't forgotten about the key touchdown drives against LSU and Georgia in 2012. But do you recall what McCarron did in those games prior to his late heroics?

He was bad for a good chunk of the LSU game, completing 10 of 23 passes for just 93 yards prior to Alabama's last drive, which he conducted brilliantly and capped with a screen pass to T.J. Yeldon for the game-winning touchdown with 43 seconds to play.

Likewise, the play we remember from the win against Georgia was McCarron's game-winning touchdown pass to Amari Cooper. Not his two lost turnovers, including an interception in the Georgia end zone. Not that McCarron had passed for just 117 yards in the game prior to the pass to Cooper, or that the reason Alabama was able to come back and win was that Alabama's coaches largely took the game out of his hands in the second half and let the Crimson Tide's dominant running game take over.

You might also recall that Alabama's lone loss in 2012 -- to Texas A&M -- essentially ended when McCarron threw an interception in the end zone.

Listen, I don't want to sling mud at McCarron. He's a good player and he perfectly suits what Alabama needs from its quarterback. That's why his career has been so successful.

But is he the best big-game quarterback in the nation? I don't think so. There are other quarterbacks on good teams who carry much more of the production burden -- like Manziel, who had 562 yards and five touchdowns, against Alabama's defense -- and deserve this label more.

That's all I'm saying.

Take 2: Low -- How is this even a debate?

Really want to stoke McCarron’s fire?

Refer to him as a good game manager, which he is, by the way.

The fifth-year senior is terrific at getting Alabama out of bad plays against a particular defense and into good plays. He’s equally adept at taking what the defense gives him, and he rarely turns the ball over (only six interceptions in his last 25 games).

Moreover, he’s excellent at spreading the football around and using all of his offensive weapons.

But above everything else, McCarron delivers in big moments and on big stages.

He might not be the best quarterback in the country, even in the SEC, and he might not be the game’s most talented or entertaining quarterback.

But there’s not a better big-game quarterback in college football than McCarron, and he’s proved that time and time again.

When the Crimson Tide have needed him most, he has almost always delivered, which is why coach Nick Saban has so much faith in McCarron.

Saban has said repeatedly that McCarron doesn’t get the credit outside the program that he deserves. Then again, McCarron will gladly take rings over credit.

But deep down, he stews over any suggestion that he’s more game manager than playmaker.

This just in: If you are playing quarterback for Saban and aren't very effective at managing the game, you’re going to be doing more watching than playing.

To me, McCarron is a little bit of everything you want in a quarterback. He’s tough, playing through dislocated ribs toward the end of last season. He is a leader and isn't afraid to get in anybody’s face, and he’s one of those guys who never gets caught up in the moment.

That's why the Alabama coaches felt comfortable enough after the 2011 regular season to put so much of the game plan on his shoulders in Bama's 21-0 win over LSU in the BCS National Championship, a performance that earned him Offensive MVP honors.

That's why he shredded Notre Dame for four touchdown passes last season in the 42-14 rout of the Irish in the BCS National Championship.

And even when McCarron hasn’t been at his best for the first three quarters of a game, he’s been money in the fourth quarter. He hadn’t done much of anything against LSU’s defense in last year's regular-season meeting. But when the Tide got the ball back with under two minutes to play, McCarron calmly marched them down the field for the winning touchdown, capped by his memorable screen pass to Yeldon.

A few weeks later, in the SEC championship game, he connected with Cooper on a 45-yard touchdown pass with 3:15 to play, which wound up being the winning points. Up until that clutch throw, he’d been average at best.

But, again, when Alabama desperately needs a play, he is there to deliver it.

And let’s not forget his four-touchdown performance at Texas A&M earlier this season. The Aggies were up 14-0 before anybody could blink. But in vintage McCarron fashion, he guided Alabama to 35 unanswered points, a spree that started with three consecutive McCarron touchdown passes.

As Bill Parcells used to famously say, you are what your record says you are.

McCarron’s record says that he’s a winner -- period.

Chris Low | email

College Football

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