Power Ranking: The Best Quarterbacks to Play for Nick Saban

Christopher Walsh@@WritingWalshCollege Football National ColumnistJune 11, 2014

Power Ranking: The Best Quarterbacks to Play for Nick Saban

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    Previous to the 2013 season, Nick Saban had coached an All-American player at every position minus three: Tight end, punter and, believe it or not, quarterback.

    That ended when the University of Alabama’s AJ McCarron was named a first-team selection by both the Walter Camp Foundation and the American Football Coaches Association, two of the services the National Collegiate Athletic Association uses to determine consensus and unanimous status.

    Obviously, Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston of Florida State ended up the consensus first-team selection, but McCarron ended his career with two national championship rings as a starter (three overall), the Maxwell Award as college football’s most outstanding player and the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award for best quarterback 

    Along the way he set numerous program records including for career passing yards, touchdown passes and wins despite being labeled as primarily being a game manager.

    “To me, you can't be a good quarterback unless you're a good game manager, because you've got the ball in your hands every time and you're making some kind of choice and decision of what to do with it, whether you hand it off, what play you hand it off on, where you throw it in the passing game,” Saban said during last season. “You've got to process a lot of information quickly and make quick decisions. I don't think it's fair to AJ that because I said he's a really good game manager for us that it's like that means he doesn't do anything. He does everything.”

    That included breaking Tim Tebow’s Southeastern Conference record for interceptions per pass attempt (62.2, 2006-09), but with two pickoffs during his final game finished at 68.4 to fall short of the national record held by Fresno State’s Billy Volek (77.8, 1997-99).

    To help put that into perspective, consider that during his collegiate career in the 1960s, Joe Namath completed 203 of 374 passes (54.3 percent), for 2,713 yards, 24 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. Even in the 1990s, Jay Barker was 402 of 706 (56.9 percent), for 5,689 yards, 26 touchdowns and 24 interceptions. Their career ratios were one every 18.7 attempts, and 29.4, respectively.

    With 77 touchdown passes compared to 15 interceptions, McCarron’s touchdown-to-interception ratio of 5.13 to 1 was the best in Crimson Tide history, although Alabama doesn’t include it in the record book. The key was the 2012 season when he posted an outstanding 10.3 to 1 ratio:

    No Alabama starting quarterback has had more interceptions than touchdowns since Saban's arrival in 2007:

    Quarterbacks ,TD/Int, ratio
    2013 AJ McCarron 28/7; 4 to 1
    2012 AJ McCarron 31/3; 10.3 to 1
    2011 AJ McCarron 16/5; 3.2 to 1
    2010 Greg McElroy 20/5; 4 to 1
    2009 Greg McElroy 17/4; 4.25 to 1
    2008 John Parker Wilson 10/8; 1.25 to 1
    2007 John Parker Wilson 18/12; 1.5 to 1 

    Here’s how that compares to some other Alabama quarterbacks since 1940:

    2005 Brodie Croyle 14/4; 3.5 to 1
    2001 Tyler Watts 10/3, 3.3 to 1
    1997 Freddie Kitchens 11/4; 2.75 to 1
    1994 Jay Barker 14/5; 2.8 to 1
    1985 Mike Shula 16/8; 2.0 to 1
    1975 Richard Todd 7/3; 2.3 to 1
    1973 Gary Rutledge 8/4; 2.0 to 1
    1966 Kenny Stabler 9/5; 1.8 to 1
    1965 Steve Sloan 10/3; 3.3 to 1
    1962 Joe Namath 13/8; 1.6 to 1
    1961 Pat Trammell 8/2; 4 to 1
    1953 Bart Starr 8/6; 1.3 to 1
    1945 Harry Gilmer 13/3; 4.3 to 1 

    With that in mind, the following's the top 10 quarterbacks to play for Saban, based primarily on what they accomplished while under the direction of the coach at Toledo (1990), Michigan State (1995-99), LSU (2000-04) and Alabama (2007-13):

10. Marcus Randall

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    As a sophomore he started six of LSU’s last seven games, completing 87 of 181 passes for 1,173 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions, but the Tigers only went 2-4 in those games.

    Randall went back to being a reserve in 2003, when he still played in nine games, and took over as the starter a year later. The senior played in all 12 games, with eight starts, completing 106 of 162 attempts for 1,269 yards with nine touchdowns and sixth interceptions.

    A dangerous scrambler, he also had 617 career rushing yards and ran in five touchdowns. 

    Randall’s biggest claim to fame was throwing the game-winning touchdown as time expired at Kentucky in 2002, now known as the “Bluegrass Miracle.”

9. Josh Booty

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    Josh Booty was an incredibly gifted athlete and was named the national high school football player of the year by numerous organizations, only to sign with baseball’s Florida Marlins in 1994 for a then-record $1.6 million bonus.

    Five years later he came back to football, enrolled at LSU and beat out Craig Nall and Rohan Davey for the starting job during Gerry DiNardo’s final season. He subsequently started nine games for Saban, passing for 2,121 yards with 17 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, and was named All-SEC.

    Booty, who had been the fifth-overall selection in the 1994 Major League Baseball draft, was taken in the sixth round of the 2001 National Football League draft by the Seattle Seahawks. He spent three years with the Cleveland Browns (2001-03), but never attempted a pass during a regular season game.

8. Tony Banks

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    Instead of going to college out of high school, Tony Banks played baseball in the Minnesota Twins organization, but after two seasons with the Class A Fort Myers Miracle went back to football. He enrolled at San Diego Mesa College and two years later transferred to Michigan State in 1994.

    During his one season under Nick Saban, Banks sustained a leg injury, but rejected the option of taking a medical redshirt and played through it as best he could. In nine games he passed for 2,089 yards, with nine touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

    With Banks as his quarterback, Saban became the first coach in Michigan State history to beat Michigan during his first season and play in a bowl game. Ironically, the Spartans played LSU in the Independence Bowl.

    Banks was the first quarterback selected in the 1996 NFL draft when St. Louis took him in the second round, No. 42 overall. He went on to have a 10-year career, threw for more than 15,000 yards and won a Super Bowl.

7. JaMarcus Russell

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    It’s difficult deciding where to place JaMarcus Russell on this list because most of his success came under a different coach at LSU. He went 21-4 as a starter and was named MVP of the 2007 Sugar Bowl, but only played in 11 games for Nick Saban in 2004 with just four starts.

    In high school he was a Parade All-American Team for Little B. Williamson High School in Mobile, where he broke Brodie Croyle’s state passing record with 10,744 yards en route to being named Alabama's Mr. Football.

    He went on to win the 2006 Manning Award and was a first-team All-SEC selection by both the media and coaches before being the first-overall selection of the 2007 NFL draft by the Oakland Raiders. After three seasons with the Raiders, with a 7–18 record as a starter, he was released. 

6. Bill Burke

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    Bill Burke is still listed among the Michigan State all-time leaders in total offense, passes attempted and completed, passing yards and passing touchdowns. He also had a reputation for being a big-game quarterback.

    In 1998 he went 7-7 his first year as a starter, but the 28-24 upset at Ohio State was Nick Saban’s first win against a No. 1-ranked opponent. Burke passed for 323 yards led a 92-yard touchdown drive to score the decisive points when the Buckeyes’ final effort was stopped short of the end zone.

    "It's the kind of thing you'll never forget," Burke, an Ohio native, said after the game. "It was a game that you like to play in, that you dream about as a kid."

    Burke also led the 1999 Spartans to a 10-2 finish and 37-34 victory over Florida in the Citrus Bowl after Saban left for LSU. The left-hander was also first quarterback in Michigan State history to have a 400-yard game (255 to wide receiver Plaxico Burress), during a 34-31 victory at Michigan.

5. John Parker Wilson

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    Although the quarterbacks to follow him were the ones to get the championship rings, John Parker Wilson was a third-year quarterback during the 2008 season that changed everything at Alabama.

    After beginning the season No. 24 in the Associated Press preseason poll, the Crimson Tide went undefeated during the regular season before losing 31-20 in the SEC Championship Game to Florida, which was led by Coach Urban Meyer and quarterback Tim Tebow.

    “I think we have kind of turned things around from the first few years I was here,” Wilson said after his last game, a loss to Utah in Sugar Bowl. “We won six games and then seven games. This year we were able to win 12 games. I think we changed the attitude, the mentality of the team, that we can go out there and play with anybody.

    “You know, it was a lot different my freshman and sophomore year than it is now. With the kind of guys, the kind of attitude we have, everybody has bought into the system and everybody tries hard. We had a bunch of young guys that played this year and had every opportunity to excel and be leaps and bounds better than we were this year.” 

    Wilson finished his career as Alabama’s all-time leader in total offensive yards (8,099), total offensive average (179.98 per game), passing yards (7,924), pass attempts (1,175), pass completions (665) and touchdown passes (47).

4. Matt Mauck

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    Matt Mauck will always be a favorite among LSU fans if for no other reason than the 2001 SEC Championship Game. After starter Rohan Davey took a pair of vicious shots to the ribs, Mauck came off the bench to run in two touchdowns for a 31-20 that cost No. 2 Tennessee a shot at playing for the national championship at the Rose Bowl.

    “Everyone dreams about doing it,” said Mauck, a 22-yard-old freshman at the time who had spent three years as a catcher in the Chicago Cubs organization. “For it to actually happen is something that is very special to me.”

    Mauck beat out Marcus Randall and Rick Clausen to be the starting quarterback in 2002, but was sidelined midway through the season by a broken foot. After a 5-1 start, the Tigers finished 8-5 without him.

    He came back his junior year to complete 229 of 358 passes for 2,825 yards, with 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. LSU went 11-1, beat Georgia in the SEC Championship Game and topped Oklahoma at the Sugar Bowl, 21-14, to win Nick Saban’s first national championship.

    With Mauck as the starting quarterback, LSU went 18-2. 


3. Rohan Davey

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    Just mention the name “Rohan Davey” to an Alabama fan and he or she will probably say something that’s not very nice.

    In 2001, LSU was coming off a nasty 35-24 home loss to Ole Miss, and at 2-3 in conference play had reached the do-or-die point of the season. A trip to Alabama, where the Crimson Tide would celebrate homecoming was next on the schedule and Nick Saban was looking for something to turn things around.

    Boy did he find it.

    With Davey connecting with wide receiver Josh Reed 19 times for 293 yards, both SEC records, LSU destroyed the home team, 35-21. The quarterback ended up with 528 passing yards which remains the most of any Saban-coached game.

    Although he got some starts during the 1999 and 2000 seasons, Davey didn’t become the full-time starter until his senior season when he set school records for completions (217), 3,347 passing yards (3,347) and total offense (3,351). 

    He led LSU to its first Top 10 finish since 1987 and its first SEC Championship since 1988. For his collegiate career, Davey threw for 4,415 yards and 29 touchdowns (compered to 15 interceptions), and was subsequently selected in the fourth round of the 2002 NFL draft by New England. 

    Most single-game passing yards by a Saban-coached quarterback

    Yards, Name, School, Opponent, Season
    528 Rohan Davey, LSU vs. Alabama, 2001 

    444 Rohan Davey, LSU vs. Illinois, 2001 (Sugar Bowl) 

    400 Bill Burke, Michigan State vs. Michigan, 1999 

    387 AJ McCarron, Oklahoma, vs. Oklahoma, 2013 (Sugar Bowl)
    383 Rohan Davey, LSU vs. Kentucky, 2001 

    377 Greg McElroy, Alabama vs. Auburn, 2010 

    363 John Parker Wilson, Alabama vs. Tennessee, 2007 

    359 Rohan Davey, LSU vs. Arkansas, 2001 

    359 AJ McCarron, Alabama vs. Kentucky, 2013
    356 Rohan Davey, LSU vs. Tennessee, 2001 

    Most single-season passing yards by a Saban-coaching quarterback

    3,347 Rohan Davey, LSU, 2001
    3,063 AJ McCarron, Alabama, 2013
    2,987 Greg McElroy, Alabama, 2010
    2,933 AJ McCarron, Alabama, 2012
    2,846 John Parker Wilson, Alabama, 2007
    2,825 Matt Mauck, LSU, 2003
    2,707 John Parker Wilson, Alabama, 2006

    2,634 AJ McCarron, Alabama, 2011
    2,595 Bill Burke, Michigan State, 1998
    2,507 Greg McElroy, Alabama, 2009


2. Greg McElroy

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    When he landed at Alabama, quarterback Greg McElroy was primarily known for two things: 1) Being from Texas, and 2) The quarterback former coach Mike Shula landed after losing the recruiting battle with Florida for Tim Tebow.

    Not only did McElroy top Tebow in the 2009 SEC Championship Game, where he completed 12 for 18 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown to earn the MVP trophy, but he subsequently led Alabama to its first national championship since 1992. It’s Saban’s only undefeated season.

    McElroy played in 35 games during his Alabama career, making 27 starts, and set numerous Crimson Tide records while completing 436 of 658 (66.3 percent) passes for 5,691 yards, with 39 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

    He was 24-3 as a starting quarterback and named the 2010 ESPN/CoSIDA Academic All-American of the Year in addition to being a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship and Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year.

    “I want people to remember me as just a teammate,” he said when his college career ended. “I want them to remember me as caring for the team, caring about winning, putting all individual accomplishment aside and just worrying about success of the football team. If people remember me as a winner, and people remember me as doing everything I possibly can to help the program succeed and the university succeed, then I’ll have done my job here.

    “Quite frankly, Alabama owes me thing. I owe everything to Alabama, and the opportunity to play here definitely shaped my life in a way I never could have imagined.”

1. AJ McCarron

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    The first starting quarterback to win back-to-back consecutive titles since Nebraska's Tommie Frazier in 1994 and 1995, AJ McCarron went 36-4 as a staring quarterback to set the Crimson Tide record for wins.

    He also posted the first 3,000-yard passing season in Crimson Tide history, and finished with 9,019 passing yards, 8,969 total offensive yards, 686 completions, and 77 touchdown passes — all school records.

    In terms of total passing yards by a Nick Saban-coached quarterback, McCarron had almost twice as many as anyone else:  

    Name, School, Years, C-A, Yards
    AJ McCarron, Alabama, 2010-13, 226-336, 9,019 

    Greg McElroy, Alabama, 2007-09, 436-658, 5,691 

    Bill Burke, Michigan State, 1996-99, 416-766, 5,463 

    John Parker Wilson, Alabama, 2007-08, 442-785, 5,119 

    Todd Schultz, Michigan State, 1995-97, 359-591, 4,266 

    Rohan Davey, LSU, 2000-01, 255-426, 3,924 

    Matt Mauck, LSU, 2001-03, 310-529, 3,831 

    Marcus Randall, LSU, 2001-04, 216-385, 2,854 

    Tony Banks, Michigan State, 1995, 156-258, 2,089 

    Josh Booty, LSU, 2000, 145-90, 2,121

    Like the NCAA, which uses passer efficiency to determine the annual passing champion, Saban considers it to be probably the best statistical gauge of a quarterback’s performance. Here’s how his primary starters have fared:

    AJ McCarron, Alabama, 2012, 175.3*
    Greg McElroy, Alabama, 2010, 169.0
    AJ McCarron, Alabama, 2013, 167.2
    Matt Mauck, LSU, 2003, 148.2
    AJ McCarron, Alabama, 2011, 147.3
    Rohan Davey, LSU, 2001, 146.5
    Greg McElroy, Alabama, 2009, 140.5
    Marcus Randall, LSU, 2003, 139.7
    Todd Schultz, Michigan State, 1996, 131.7
    Tony Banks, Michigan State, 1995, 128.4
    Bill Burke, Michigan State, 1998, 127.3
    Bill Burke, Michigan State, 1999, 124.7
    Todd Schultz, Michigan State, 1997, 124.0
    John Parker Wilson, Alabama, 2008, 122.3
    Josh Booty, LSU, 2000, 120.4
    John Parker Wilson, Alabama, 2007, 114.6
    Kevin Meger, Toledo, 1990, 114.1
    Marcus Randall, LSU, 2002, 109.7
    *led the nation

    Finally, the career passer rating for those quarterbacks (Saban years only):

    AJ McCarron, Alabama, 2010-13, 162.5
    Greg McElroy, Alabama, 2007-10, 155.4
    Rohan Davey, LSU, 2000-2001, 151.4
    Matt Mauck, LSU, 2001-03, 135.7
    Tony Banks, Michigan State, 1995, 128.4
    Marcus Randall, LSU, 2001-04, 127.6
    JaMarcus Russell, LSU, 2004, 127.2
    Bill Burke, Michigan State 1996-99, 125.9
    Todd Schultz, Michigan State, 1995-97, 125.3
    Josh Booty, LSU, 2000, 120.4
    John Parker Wilson, Alabama, 2007-08, 117.8
    Kevin Meger, Toledo, 1990, 114.1

    Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All statistics were complied by the author from team sites and sports-reference.com.

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