Although his numbers may not back it up, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron has grown immensely as both a college football player and a leader since making his first start against LSU.
In fact, the senior’s entire career can be tied to his three previous performances against those pesky Tigers.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane.
LSU 9, Alabama 6: The Wake Up Call (Nov. 5, 2011)
In his first season as the starter in Tuscaloosa, McCarron helped lead the Tide to an 8-0 record and the No. 2 ranking in the nation.
The team had already proven its worth against three ranked opponents up to that point—No. 12 Florida, No. 14 Arkansas and No. 23 Penn State. McCarron did his part decently enough in those games, throwing for 503 yards and three touchdowns on 60.5 percent passing.
However, the matchup against the No. 1-ranked Tigers would be a true measuring stick game for the then-sophomore.
In a defensive battle, McCarron seemed lost. He struggled with accuracy, completing just 16-of-28 passes for 199 yards and an interception. The pick bailed out a struggling LSU offense, setting them up at the Alabama 15-yard line.
The team would convert a game-tying field goal before going on to win in overtime.
It was a game that taught McCarron a valuable lesson.
He learned that having one of the nation’s elite defenses and best running backs wasn’t enough. Any successful team also needed a quarterback who could manage the game.
A quarterback that was more of an asset than a liability.
McCarron took that thought to heart and helped the Tide win their remaining three contests. That includes throwing six touchdowns and just 10 incompletions over the team’s final two contests.
Paired with other favorable results, Alabama was rewarded with a rematch against the Tigers in the BCS title game.
Alabama 21, LSU 0: The Birth of a Leader (Jan. 9, 2012)
It’s not too often that a team finds itself with a second chance in college football. However, McCarron and the Tide found themselves with just that in 2011.
This time around, they made sure to make the most of it.
Much like the first meeting between these two teams earlier in the season, field goals made up most of the scoring. But there was one difference: McCarron was making his presence noticed.
Time and time again, he made big plays to help Alabama move the ball down the field, setting up one field goal after another.
Although McCarron never found the end zone, his passes also never found the hands of a Tigers defender. McCarron finished with 234 yards—the third-highest total in his career at that point—on 23-of-34 passing, helping the Tide hold onto the ball for nearly 36 minutes.
McCarron’s performance earned him Offensive MVP honors.
It was a storybook ending for McCarron’s inaugural season under center. One that not only returned Alabama to the top of college football, but one that also established McCarron as the leader of this football team going forward.
Alabama 21, LSU 17: The Emergence of a Game-Changer (Nov. 3, 2012)
Backed by the confidence and experience of winning the BCS title, McCarron and the Tide began the 2012 season on quite a roll.
The team raced out to an 8-0 start—including victories over No. 8 Michigan and No. 11 Mississippi State. But even more impressive, Alabama’s offense looked as good as it ever had, scoring 33 points or more in each of its first eight contests.
For his part, McCarron looked spectacular, throwing for 1,684 yards, 18 touchdowns and no interceptions on 68.9 percent passing. The hesitancy and inaccuracies that plagued him the year before were nowhere to be seen.
McCarron was eager to show off his newfound proficiency through the air against a familiar foe in the Tigers.
However, the game went anything but how the Tide had expected. Not only would the team be held under 30 points for the first time all season, but Alabama was in real danger of suffering its first loss of the year, trailing 17-14 late in the fourth quarter—the first time it had trailed all season.
With the ball on their own 28, McCarron and the offense took over with just under two minutes remaining.
This was it. Could McCarron prove he was much more than a game-manager?
Up until that point, it looked doubtful. He had completed just one pass in the entire second half and had only thrown for 93 yards all game.
But against all odds, McCarron methodically led the Tide down the field on a five-play, 72-yard touchdown drive, capped off by a 28-yard screen to T.J. Yeldon.
It was with that drive that the Mobile, Ala.-native finally shredded the tag of game-manager and became a game-changer.
Although Alabama would fall to Texas A&M, 29-24, the following week, the team rebounded and captured its second-straight BCS title. That included another game-winning drive from McCarron against Georgia in the SEC title game and a 264-yard, four-touchdown performance against undefeated Notre Dame in the BCS championship game.
McCarron finished 2012 with 2,933 yards, 30 touchdowns and three interceptions on 67.2 percent passing. But most importantly, he staked his claim as one of the best quarterbacks in school history.
Nov. 9, 2013: ??????
In five years at Tuscaloosa, McCarron has become one of the most decorated quarterbacks in school history.
He’s thrown for 7,818 yards, 65 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. He’s racked up an impressive 33-2 record as a starter. But most importantly, he has three BCS national championship rings to boast.
If McCarron can lead the Tide to an unprecedented third-consecutive BCS title, what’s to stop him from being dubbed the greatest college football quarterback of all-time?
If you ask ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, he wouldn't take anybody else:
I can feel his energy. I can look in his eyes when I'm watching games and see how important this is to him and the growth that he needs to be able to have every week, every day," Herbstreit said. "And so he's not resting on what he's already accomplished. I think he's trying to continue to raise the bar. Just for that alone, I have a lot of respect for AJ. I think he's at a whole different level today than where he was last year and the year before...
I'll take him in my huddle any single day because of the experience he has and the competitive nature that he plays with.
McCarron has grown up right in front of our eyes. He has transformed from yet another Nick Saban-coached quarterback overshadowed by an imposing defense to the most important piece on a squad on the verge of becoming the most successful team in the BCS era.
It only makes sense that one last showdown with LSU stands in the way.
All stats and rankings used in this article are courtesy of NCAA.com.