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A.J. McCarron: Can We Just Acknowledge That He's Very Good?

A.J. McCarron SI CoverA.J. McCarron is quarterback for Alabama. Alabama is a great team. This has seen him thrust into the Heisman spotlight. Now Sports Illustrated appears to be asking whether he’s among the greatest of all time. It’s time to settle down with a healthy draft of perspective.

A.J. McCarron’s production has not been extraordinary. McCarron has posted some excellent numbers for his career. He completes 67-68 percent of his passes. He has thrown 67 touchdowns to 13 interceptions in 37 starts. In 2012, he finished first nationally in passer rating and third in yards/attempt. Those numbers impress, but should be qualified.

We credit agency over structure for quarterbacks. McCarron has played his entire career with first round linemen, first round skill players and players who will be first round picks. His coordinator, Doug Nussmeier, is among the sport’s best. Those factors did not make A.J. McCarron, but they impacted his development. Give him Logan Thomas’ surroundings (new line, all new running backs and wide receivers for two years running) the past couple years and he looks a lot different.

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McCarron’s numbers don’t blow away his peers. He’s about on par with every top-tier potential NFL quarterback prospect. He has never been the standout quarterback in his conference or even his division. Johnny Manziel won the 2012 Heisman and is having a better 2013. One can make a case for Zach Mettenberger having a strong year this year, as well as Tyler Wilson in 2011.

He has also been touchable at times. His numbers, as one would anticipate, dip against Top 25 defenses. Alabama has faced one of those this season, Virginia Tech. McCarron completed 10/23, averaged 4.8 YPA and had a 1-1 TD-INT ratio. See LSU games in previous seasons.

Nick Saban and AJ McCarron are so cute together

Winning is the only thing, but it’s overrated. McCarron supporters concede the point about his numbers, but argue it should be trumped by how much he has won. McCarron has a 35-2 record as a starter. He may win his third-straight national championship tshis season. That makes him accomplished, but not necessarily great. Even if you move beyond the tens of other guys contributing to team wins…

College football is structured to make every major program look like it is winning. Non-conference schedules are guaranteed wins. Even conference schedules have become watered down. Alabama is 10-0. They have played one game against a team that was a single-digit underdog, Texas A&M. Alabama played three teams that belonged on the same field in 2012, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M. They played one in 2011, LSU. McCarron went 4-2 in those games.

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McCarron does have the national championships. We call it that in college football to make it sound momentous and fuel TV ratings. But the sport, as constituted, is a popularity contest. More than half the FBS is precluded from the title before playing a down. A team doesn’t have to go undefeated (Alabama 2012) or even win its division (Alabama 2011). It doesn’t have to fight its way through a playoff. You become a champion by being popular, having things sort out your way at the season’s end and winning the right delayed exhibition game. It’s a nice achievement. Let’s not equate it with Super Bowl rings.

A.J. McCarron is a fine quarterback. It’s natural to view recent historical events as more significant. Superlatives play well when embracing debate. It feels like a slight, pointing out that A.J. McCarron is not one of the best college quarterbacks you will ever see. It shouldn’t. McCarron has had a very good career. He’s been among the Top 10-15 passers in the country his past two seasons. That has spurred Alabama’s recent run. Nick Saban is happy to have A.J. McCarron as his quarterback. So would just about every other coach in the country. That’s praise enough for a talented college football player.

Related: Matt Millen Thinks Missouri Belongs in the Florida State vs Alabama Discussion

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