Editor's note: Every day from now until kickoff in Miami, TideNation will break down the match-ups position-by-position. Today we'll look at the battle of the quarterbacks.
AJ McCarron: The strong-armed junior from South Alabama took his game to another level this season, going from a steward of the offense to a creator and orchestrator under center. He's shown the ability to make all the throws: the dump off, the intermediate pass and the deep ball. But more importantly, he's exhibited a willingness to take whatever the defense gives him. He's not forcing anything this year, leading to his No. 1 passer rating in all of college football.
McCarron has become a leader in addition to his progress as a passer. He's been a calming force to an offense that was almost completely overhauled at wide receiver. It's hard to believe he's just a junior given the number of big games he's already been a part of. He led Alabama back against LSU and made the game-winning pass to Amari Cooper in the SEC championship. Facing Notre Dame will just be the next challenge.
"This one game is for everything, everything we play for," he said. If you’re not ready to come out and practice every day, or not wanting to, to finish strong, then I don’t know what you play the game for."
McCarron will go against arguably the best defense he's faced all season in Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish, who rank No. 1 in points allowed, are young in the secondary but dominant up front. Brian Kelly's squad will likely try to replicate the pressure Georgia put on McCarron in the conference title game, a tactic that led Alabama to nearly abandon the passing game at points in Atlanta. How he stands up to the pass rush and avoids negative plays will be key to his success in Miami.
Everett Golson: Alabama coach Nick Saban put it best. The sixth-year coach has spent weeks watching film on Notre Dame's quarterback and had a message for anyone who doubted his abilities as a passer.
"The guy's a really good player," he said. "He's a very good athlete, first of all. He can extend plays. He can run. He can scramble. He's not typically a guy that just wants to take off. He's a very effective passer. So anybody that thinks he's not capable as a passer is totally missing the boat."
Golson may be in just his first year as a starter, but his play under center has improved dramatically throughout the season. He threw for more than 200 yards once in the first six games. He's broken that mark in each of the last four contests, tossing for a career-high 346 yards and three touchdowns against Wake Forest.
But Golson's biggest asset is his athleticism. Notre Dame likes to get him outside of the pocket on boot plays and in designed runs. He's rushed for five touchdowns this season. The last quarterback with his set of skills was Texas A&M fab freshman Johnny Manziel, who handed Alabama its only loss of the season.
"I’ve watched a lot and he’s very good," UA linebacker Nico Johnson said of Golson. "He’s able to throw, he’s able to run, so we gotta be on our P’s and Q’s because the last quarterback we played that was able to do that, we lost."
Final Verdict: McCarron is the winner of this matchup, but not by the margin you might think. McCarron has struggled down the stretch, while Golson has continued to improve. It's easy to say McCarron has the better numbers and more experience. You might even argue McCarron has the stronger arm and has more refined passing skills. But Golson is dangerous. He has a powerful arm and can do things that could greatly disrupt the Alabama defense. On top of that, he's efficient. He doesn't force anything and rarely turns the ball over. Alabama thrives on quarterbacks who do just that, and while Golson has not faced a defense the likes of Alabama's, he does show the confidence in big games to stand up to the challenge. Remember that it wasn't long ago McCarron was being called the unknown wildcard in the national championship against LSU, and we all know how that turned out. Could Golson experience the same kind of career moment to cap his sophomore year, too?