Last year's Iron Bowl pinned an Alabama Crimson Tide team en route to a National Championship against an Auburn Tigers team that was winless in the SEC. Alabama rolled, 49-0.
This year's No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Auburn matchup is more compelling, but quarterback AJ McCarron will make sure the result is the same.
He'll do so by taking care of the ball, following Nick Saban's game plan.
McCarron should be salivating at the thought of Auburn's pass defense, which is ranked No. 13 in the SEC in terms of yards per game. When McCarron faced Texas A&M, who is the 12th best team in SEC pass defense, he threw for 334 yards and four touchdowns.
The most important stat for McCarron is interceptions. In the Tide's only loss in the last two seasons, McCarron threw two picks. Since that loss, here's how McCarron has fared in four big games:
|AJ McCarron after 2012 Texas A&M Loss|
|2012 SEC Championship||UGA||162 yds||1 TD||1 INT|
|2013 BCS Nat'l. Championship||ND||264 yds||4 TD||0 INT|
|2013 Regular Season||Texas A&M||334 yds||4 TD||0 INT|
|2013 Regular Season||LSU||179 yds||3 TD||0 INT|
Here's a visual aid from the BCS National Championship to accompany those numbers:
What makes McCarron so successful in these situations? Preparation.
"I have the utmost respect for Alabama's offense and the fact that AJ is running it at a level we haven't seen in a long time," said ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit via Rachel Axon of USA Today. "He's the closest thing we have in college football to Peyton Manning and Tom Brady as far as the preparation that you do."
That preparation allows McCarron to excel with limited mistakes.
Lead by McCarron, Alabama has the best team QB rating against AP-ranked opponents in the SEC this season. Expect McCarron to continue improving on that metric against Auburn by forcing the Tigers to play the run and then taking his shots when the moment is right.
As CBS analyst Bruce Feldman points out via Twitter, McCarron has led Alabama to some great wins:
Some call that game managing, others call it conservative; but McCarron and Alabama call it winning.
"Call him boring. Call him a game manager. Call him whatever you want to call him," said Tony McCarron, AJ's father, via Axon of USA Today. "At the end of the day, he's going to beat you. You're going to walk off that field and you're going to be mad because you just got beat by boring."
Boring is best for Alabama, who has the No. 1-ranked scoring defense in the nation. They don't need flashy.
McCarron and the Tide won't put up gaudy statistics, but what they will do is methodically pick apart the Auburn defense. McCarron will produce when he throws against Auburn's notably weak secondary.
That's the same secondary that allowed Georgia's Aaron Murray to throw for over 400 yards two weeks ago. Murray and McCarron run different game plans, but that's a good sign for the aerial attack of the Crimson Tide. McCarron should thrive against Auburn.
Thriving for McCarron might not mean 300-plus yards, but it will mean leading TD drives. McCarron's selflessness is perhaps his best attribute and will be the reason Alabama claims victory.
While other QBs put up huge numbers, McCarron runs plays that are best for the team and put Alabama in the best position to win.
"Forget about how many yards he's thrown for, how many touchdown passes and all that," Nick Saban said via Andrew Gribble of AL.com. "He's a team guy, he's always been a team guy, he's always done what we've asked him to do."
What McCarron will be asked to do against Auburn is take care of the ball and lead a balanced attack against the Tigers defense. And he'll do just that. Expect McCarron to have no turnovers in the Iron Bowl.
That's how he wins tough games.
"He's poised. He leads them," said Auburn tackle Nosa Eguae via Joel Erickson of AL.com. "He does everything you want in quarterback."
What if McCarron is asked to shoulder the load? No problem.
When the game doesn't go Saban's way, McCarron is asked to throw the Tide back into the game. That's exactly what he did this year against Texas A&M. Down 14-0, McCarron led three consecutive drives that resulted in passing TDs. McCarron's three drives start at 0:25 in the video:
McCarron's stats generally depend on what type of game it is. Will Alabama be able to run the ball, churn clock and contain Auburn's offense? Or will Alabama fall behind early and rely heavily on McCarron?
Either way, expect the boring game manager from Alabama to be victorious.
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