After all the big moments, big throws and, most importantly, big wins, AJ McCarron has one final game in what has been a record-setting Alabama career.
It’s not the way he hoped to go out or the way he expected to go out.
One of college football’s most accomplished winners, McCarron had his sights set on a third straight national championship. Instead, Alabama will face Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Thursday.
As consolation prizes go, it’s not a shabby one. But McCarron is accustomed to playing for the top prize only. In fact, this will be the first time as Alabama’s starting quarterback that his season hasn't ended in the national championship game.
It will be odd, for sure, but his legacy is untouchable, and according to those who came before him, he has very few peers in a renowned Alabama quarterback fraternity that includes the likes of Joe Namath, Ken Stabler and Bart Starr.
“I don’t think there are many quarterbacks in college football history, much less at Alabama, who have the resume AJ has,” said Jay Barker, who quarterbacked the Crimson Tide to the 1992 national championship.
“There have been other quarterbacks at Alabama who've been a part of back-to-back championships, but I don’t know if they've contributed as much as AJ has. He’s been a leader. He’s delivered in pressure situations. He’s played through injuries. I think you have to put him at the very top.”
McCarron owns virtually every career passing record at Alabama, at least the major ones. And in most cases, it’s not even close.
He’d already thrown more career touchdown passes than anybody at Alabama coming into this season. He heads into the Sugar Bowl with 75. Second place on that list is John Parker Wilson with 47.
McCarron also holds the school record for career passing yards (8,632), total offense (8,625 yards) and career completions (667).
In his last two seasons, he has thrown 56 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions. He led the nation in passing efficiency a year ago and is eighth nationally this season.
In truth, he has put up the kind of numbers that might not be touched at Alabama for a long time. But the numbers that mean the most to McCarron are 36-3, his record as the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback. The 36 wins are the most in school history and third most in SEC history.
“What he’s been able to accomplish there is amazing,” said Greg McElroy, who quarterbacked Alabama to the 2009 national championship. “It’s been fun to watch. One thing I can say is that it’s tough playing quarterback at Alabama, especially when you consider that AJ grew up in that state. The pressure can be overwhelming at times, but the level of consistency that he’s sustained has been nothing short of spectacular.”
His penchant for performing on the biggest stages has set him apart, whether it was his clutch drive in the final minutes at LSU last season, his four touchdown passes in the BCS National Championship last season or his Offensive MVP performance in the BCS National Championship two years ago.
“Everybody talks about him being a game manager, but that’s a part of that position. You have to be a good game manager if you’re going to be a good quarterback,” Barker said. “What I look at is AJ in big games and in big moments. He always seems to deliver in those moments.
“I know it’s not a fair comparison, although it’s a flattering one. But AJ reminds me of Tom Brady in the way he thrives under pressure and makes the plays that have to be made. There are a lot of quarterbacks who have good stats. But what separates the men from the boys at the quarterback position is being able to handle the biggest of moments.
“Those are the ones who are special, and AJ is in that class.”
Even though there’s not a national championship at stake in New Orleans, McCarron has made it clear to anybody who will listen that the Tide will be ready. The last time Alabama lost two consecutive games was the end of the 2008 season when the Crimson Tide fell to Florida in the SEC championship game and were then beaten handily by Utah in the Sugar Bowl.
“We slipped up one time. That’s football,” McCarron said of the bitter loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl. “You've got to let it go. It’s the next game. I don’t want to come out and just play a game and not win it. … I don’t really care what I’m playing. I want to win.”
And that’s precisely the way he’ll be remembered -- as a winner.
“Coach [Gene] Stallings used to always say, ‘Don’t confuse activities with accomplishments,’” Barker said. “In other words, if you’re not winning, who cares if you’re throwing for 300 yards and four touchdowns?
“Ask Johnny Manziel or any other quarterback who’s putting up big numbers if they’d rather have those stats or have some championships. They’d rather have the titles.
“Your job as a quarterback is to deliver the win, and that’s what AJ was so good at.”