Is AJ McCarron the Best Quarterback in College Football?

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Is AJ McCarron the Best Quarterback in College Football?
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor
Nick Saban called AJ McCarron the "best quarterback in the country" after Alabama's win over LSU. Is he right?

It’s a tremendously rare accomplishment to get a cold, robotic, curmudgeonly coach like Nick Saban to form any sort of face that even closely resembles a smile, and not his normal intense glare of disdain. To get Saban so giddy that he runs and jumps into your arms, well, that’s truly a special feat—the likes of which are almost unimaginable.

That’s exactly what Alabama QB AJ McCarron was able to accomplish, however, after leading the undefeated Tide one step closer to the team’s third-straight BCS championship game berth with a 38-17 victory over No. 13 LSU on Saturday night.

Saban was obviously so thrilled with his senior signal-caller that he just couldn’t contain his excitement, as he gave viewers at home the image of a memorable leap into McCarron’s arms.

Yes, you read that sentence right. Nick Saban couldn’t contain his excitement

What caused the spontaneous expression of euphoria from the normally cantankerous coach?

It was McCarron, and the exciting moment he helped create with another big victory.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Saban has gone out of his way to defend and praise McCarron

After singing the praises of his third-year starter on College GameDay earlier in the morning, calling McCarron the “most underrated player in college football”, Saban watched as the sport’s winningest current quarterback backed up his endorsement and added another big “W” to his already heavily-stocked résumé.

In a postgame interview with CBS’ Tracy Wolfson, Saban, standing alongside McCarron, once again gleefully expressed his admiration for his highly successful signal-caller, calling him “the best quarterback in the country.” It only echoed the compliments he had bestowed upon him earlier on GameDay.

"People talk about statistics all the time, and maybe his statistics are not what somebody else's are. But really what you should equate things with are production, performance, efficiency, consistency and winning. That's really what it's all about. He's done that better than I think anybody in college football."

Production, performance, efficiency, consistency and winning—if that truly is the formula that you equate with a quarterback being the “best”, then it’s hard to argue with what Saban said.

Since McCarron took over as the starter in Tuscaloosa at the beginning of the 2011 season, he’s led the Tide to a 34-2 overall record and back-to-back national championships, all while being one of the most efficient and consistent passers in the country.

In his first year as a starter, it seemed like the fresh-faced, former 4-star recruit was simply along for the ride, as he relied on his supremely talented supporting cast to get the Tide to the promised land. Once there, though, he put together a clutch performance in a dominant 21-0 victory in a rematch against LSU in the BCS title game.

Last season, McCarron truly transformed from a “game-manager” into a “game-changer.”

He wasn’t the most prolific passer of 2012—that was an honor that belonged to Baylor’s Nick Florence, nor was he the most exciting overall playmaker at the position—a title clearly held by Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. Still, McCarron was one of the most consistent, efficient and productive passers in college football. He finished the season as the national leader with a 175 passer rating, and he had the most impressive touchdown-interception ratio (30-3) of any player in the country. Plus, he tied for third nationally with a 9.3 yards per pass average and tied for 15th in the country with a 67 percent completion percentage.

Saban may say that stats shouldn’t be what a quarterback should solely be judged on, which is true. Nevertheless, McCarron’s 2012 stats were pretty darn impressive, as was the fact that he led the Tide to a 13-1 record, including an SEC title and a huge 42-14 win over Notre Dame in the national title game.

His numbers this year are almost just as impressive. In nine games, McCarron has now completed 69 percent of his passes, averaged 8.9 yards per attempt and thrown 19 touchdowns compared to just three picks. In the win over the boys from Baton Rouge, he completed 14 of his 20 passes for 179 yards and threw three touchdowns. Admittedly, it wasn’t a spectacular performance that will drop the jaws of Heisman voters, but it was solid and steady nonetheless. It’s exactly the type of showing we’ve come to expect from the Tide’s leader on the big stage, which backs up the consistency claims made by Saban.

Sure, there have been some big spots when McCarron hasn’t been so magnificent. Last year’s loss to Texas A&M is a perfect example. Down 29-24, facing a 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line, McCarron rolled right, tossed the ball toward WR Kenny Bell and…

Interception!

Game over. The dreams of a perfect season had been dashed.

It was a critical miscue and a detrimental mistake for sure. Still, not to sound too nonchalant—it happens. If you play in enough big games like McCarron has, there will be times when you come up short and make bad plays in critical spots.

If you don’t believe me, go look back at the career history of some of the best quarterbacks to ever buckle up a chinstrap, especially some of the recent ones. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers have all made big mistakes in big games which they wish they could have back.

Obviously, though, one bad play shouldn’t diminish a career’s worth of success and accomplishments.

In fact, you could easily make the case that McCarron’s game-winning 45-yard touchdown pass against Georgia in the SEC title game a few weeks after the loss to Texas A&M pretty much negated the goal-line interception against the Aggies.

Those are all plays in the past, though. The focus now is on Saban’s uncommonly complimentary comments, and whether or not one can make the case that McCarron does really reign supreme over the sport’s other top quarterbacks.

It’s not tough to figure out what the main argument of McCarron’s critics for why the quarterback isn’t the top player in the country at his position.

The argument is, of course, that he plays on a talent-stocked team, which, according to his detractors, is the main reason why he’s been so successful. In this case, the exterior circumstances (i.e. how much talent Alabama has)—something McCarron has no control over—is the main criticism he has to deal with.

“He’s only wins so much because he plays on the best team in the country!” is what the critics say.

Yes, there’s no denying Alabama is an absolute powerhouse. In this current era, no other program can even compare to the Tide, which have captured three national titles since Saban took over in 2007. At its essence, Saban’s squad is basically a football factory, which constantly sucks in blue-chip recruits and churns out prodigious pro prospects. During his first two years as a starter, McCarron played alongside 17 players who went on to be selected in the 2012 and 2013 NFL drafts, including seven first-round picks.

This year, his supporting cast once again features plenty of prominent players such as RB T.J. Yeldon, WR Amari Cooper, OT Cyrus Kouandjio, LB C.J. Mosley, DT A’Shawn Robinson and FS Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix, who will all likely ultimately be first-round picks at some point in the next few drafts.

So?

How many quarterbacks have won championships and experienced great success without having the help of quality surrounding pieces?

Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman all have a lot in common. They’re three of the most successful quarterbacks in NFL history. They’re also three quarterbacks who were blessed with great supporting casts, which clearly aided in their success.

Do Montana, Bradshaw and Aikman not belong in Canton just because they shared a locker room with plenty of players who also have a bust right alongside their own?

Saban has recently alluded to the fact that McCarron may not be a highlight-reel player, who puts up awe-inspiring stats, but he gets the job done when it counts the most. He’s handled the role of being the face of college football’s most talked-about and scrutinized program without any sign of weakness or fear whatsoever. Poise, leadership and maturity—McCarron has always consistently displayed all of those three key traits throughout his illustrious collegiate career.

As someone who has always been a big fan of sports talk radio and has always been eager to listen to call-in sports shows, I’ve always found it fascinating when I hear callers complain and criticize a quarterback, whether it be at the NFL or collegiate level.

The gripes can, for the most part, all be placed into the same category.

“He’s not clutch.”

“He folds in crunch time.”

“He can’t get it done in big games.”

Well, if those are your qualms with quarterbacks, then AJ McCarron would seem to be a sensible solution to the problem you have with signal-callers.

Clutch?

Check

Doesn’t fold late in the game?

Check.

Can get it done in the big spot?

That’s an emphatic double check.

Now, if you’re looking for the flash factor, McCarron can’t even come close to comparing to other star quarterbacks such as Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota. However, in this era, when spread offenses have become all the rage and dual-threat quarterbacks have emerged as the sport’s new dominant force, it’s almost refreshing to see a pro-style pocket passer like McCarron have the type of success he’s had.

That sustained success over the long haul is why he clearly belongs in the conversation concerning college football’s “best” quarterback, and it’s why he’ll deserve an invitation to the Heisman ceremony if the No. 1 Tide win out as expected.

Up to this point in the season, players like Manziel, Winston and Mariota have all received much more Heisman hype than McCarron. However, after his big win over the Tigers, the senior quarterback should be able to start building more momentum and garnering more award buzz over the next few weeks.

He’s already got the full backing and support of Saban—the best coaching mind in all of college football. Now, it’s time for the rest of the college football world to recognize McCarron’s talents and true value and give him the proper respect he truly deserves.

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