COLLEGE STATION, Texas—Facing 3rd-and-goal from the 5-yard line late in the fourth quarter holding on to a seven-point lead, Alabama coach Nick Saban asked AJ McCarron what play he wanted to run.
Saban, notorious for having total control over every minute detail (according to AL.com’s Matt Scalici, Tom Rinaldi reported on ESPN’s College GameDay that when Alabama arrived to find no air conditioning in its locker room, Saban brought in extra A/C units before the players arrived), was turning over the keys to his star quarterback in the game’s most critical moment.
“AJ wanted to call the play,” running back Jalston Fowler said. “He was telling coach, ‘I want to run this play, I want to run this play.’”
The play was simple misdirection—a fake handoff to T.J. Yeldon that left Fowler, who was lined up at fullback, wide open coming out of the flat for the game-sealing score.
It was McCarron’s fourth touchdown toss of the day. The redshirt senior from Mobile, Ala., finished the day 20-of-29 for 334 yards and four touchdowns in Alabama’s 49-42 win over Texas A&M that solidified the Crimson Tide’s place as the No. 1 team in the country.
And after his lackluster performance in the season opener, McCarron could be thrust right back into the Heisman race, where he was frequently talked about before the season.
“AJ played a fantastic game. He got us in the right plays,” Saban said. “He was accurate with all but a couple of throws. I thought he played fantastic. Great leadership out there as well.”
At first, it looked like the game would be a repeat of 2012, when A&M jumped out to a 20-0 lead en route to an upset of the then-No. 1 Crimson Tide.
This time around, Alabama didn’t lose composure when it fell behind 14-0. And a big reason was McCarron.
Eleven of the next 12 plays were passing plays. McCarron went 7-of-11 for 140 yards and two touchdowns on the next two drives, and the Crimson Tide were right back in the game and never let up.
“All game, AJ kept his composure,” senior wide receiver Kenny Bell said. “Just a great leader, obviously. This is his fifth year, so you wouldn’t expect anything less. He showed his resilience as a quarterback and a team leader.”
The first touchdown was a perfect sideline touch pass to Kevin Norwood, who dragged his feet and reached the ball over the goal line.
The second was a play that Saban likes to break out about once a year—the flea-flicker.
With fans clamoring for Alabama to run the ball, it did—at first. Fowler took the handoff, then tossed the ball back to McCarron. McCarron then found a streaking DeAndrew White well behind the Texas A&M secondary for 44 yards that tied the game.
McCarron’s third touchdown was a 51-yard screen pass to Kenny Bell, who blew past the A&M secondary after the catch with some help from his fellow wide receivers blocking.
“We had a really good week of practice. AJ made sure everybody’s head was on straight,” Bell said. “He just came in and played as good of a player as he is. Johnny Manziel came in and did his thing and AJ just did his thing too.”
After a furious Aggies comeback and the game on the line, McCarron chose his play and executed it to perfection.
“All the credit goes to my teammates,” McCarron said. “O-line, none of that’s possible without them. Receivers, unbelievable job of making big-time catches, yards after the catch. They deserve all of the credit. They make my job easier. I just have to throw it up there and they catch it.”
McCarron can deflect attention all he wants, but the two-time national champion quarterback will be in the conversation for the Heisman as long as he keeps this pace up. McCarron is the best quarterback on the best team in the country and has shed the “game manager” label that he carried for his first season as a starter and some of his second.
But now, McCarron is the clear-cut leader of an offense that is capable of scoring 49 points—including 35 straight—in one of the toughest road environments in the SEC.
He has the weapons around him to finally put up the numbers a Heisman-contending quarterback needs.
The only thing that could stop him might be his coach.
Unlike teams like Oregon and even Texas A&M, Alabama under Saban has never been a team that will run up the score in the 50s or 60s in blowout games. When the Crimson Tide get a comfortable lead, they are content to just pound the ball, chew the clock and choke their opponent into submission (something they does rather well, too) instead of keeping their foot on the gas.
So McCarron won’t have the video game-like 500-yard, six-touchdown games that guys like Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd or Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater will have. But playing for a national title-contending team with the visibility of Alabama gives McCarron a platform that nobody else in the country—outside of Manziel—has.
Games like Saturday’s against A&M and last year’s against LSU show the country what he’s capable of.
“I don’t worry about that,” McCarron said. “My job is to go out here and play football. That’s all I want to do. That’s all I’ve ever done since I was four years old. I don’t care about awards and notoriety. As long as our team wins, I’m great.”