Pros & Cons: Is AJ McCarron the best quarterback in the SEC?


In our new Pros & Cons feature, we’ll pose a question each week and offer reasons to back it up and tear it down. Enjoy.

AJ McCarron must at least be considered in the conversation of the whom is the SEC’s best quarterback.

McCarron closed 2011 with a thunderous boom, working as the clear leader in the game against LSU in the BCS National Championship game in January. He threw more passes in that game – 34 – than he did in any other game in the season and matched his career high in completions (23) en route to throwing for 234 yards.

Not a bad stat line for any game, but considering the competition, it’s not crazy to call it an outstanding stat line, and some of those completions were thrown directly over the head of LSU standout cornerback Tyrann Mathieu.

That’s much better than the numbers Aaron Murray put up just a month earlier against LSU in the SEC Championship Game, when the Georgia quarterback completed only 16 passes on 40 attempts for 163 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

Murray is also the guy many folks tagged going into the 2011 season as the top quarterback in the league, and given the ol’ eyeball test, that’s probably how preseason lists will go again this year: Something along the lines of (1) Tyler Wilson (2) Aaron Murray (3) AJ McCarron.

Here are three reasons why McCarron could emerge as the league’s best, and three reasons he may not:


Last season

When you break down the numbers, it’s hard to say which — Murray or McCarron — had the better season individually in 2011. Tyler Wilson had the best stats last season in the SEC, but will be working with a new coach and a few new receivers (I’m not an expert on Arkansas football by any means, but I don’t see a name I recognize on their spring depth chart at the receiver position).

Murray threw for way more touchdowns (35, compared to AJ’s paltry 16), but also threw for nearly three times as many picks – 14, compared to McCarron’s five. Murray couldn’t hand the ball off to Trent Richardson, either, and had to put the ball in the air much more than McCarron did (403 attempts for Murray; 328 for McCarron.)

Looking at the rest of the stats for McCarron’s 2011 season, it’s hard to believe he didn’t get more recognition. Chalk it up to being overshadowed by the likes of an all-star defense and a running back like Richardson.

The guy had a heck of a rookie season, though: His completion percentage was 66.8 and his QB rating was 147.3. The individual game stats tell a good deal, too. Against Auburn, he went 18 for 23 and threw for 184 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Against Vanderbilt he went 23 for 30 and threw for four touchdowns, no interceptions and 237 yards.

If the 2011 numbers are any sort of projection, McCarron could have a stellar season in 2012, especially with no learning curve or battle for the top spot this time around.


As noted in this week’s running back position breakdown, Alabama has a mighty backfield with depth and talent on deck for the 2012 season. With defenses keying in on this aspect of the offense, how much will they be able to game plan for McCarron and the passing game? It will obviously be second fiddle to preparing for the likes of Eddie Lacy, Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart and T.J. Yeldon. Also, since AJ won’t be responsible for carrying the offensive load, it takes the pressure off to perform well, and that breathing room may be good for his numbers.

The other 10 guys

McCarron will be surrounded by talent – blue-chip running backs behind him, very athletic and skilled receivers out wide and a large and dominant O-line in front.

He’s got the tools he needs to succeed. Kenny Bell was his favorite long-ball target last season, and he and AJ sparked a few fireworks at the A-Day game last month. DeAndrew White will be a redshirt sophomore this year, and showed flashes of greatness last season. Kevin Norwood’s been catching touchdown passes since early 2010, and Christion Jones proved himself as a potential big-time playmaker in the BCS Championship.

Michael Williams is also coming back for his third season at tight end.

McCarron gelled with the top three receivers returning last season, and with another year to work with together, they should be capable of making big plays in 2012.


Game plan

With a backfield like Alabama’s, why pass much? AJ’s more than capable, but Alabama Coach Nick Saban won’t throw more than needed to win ball games. If that means, like the last three seasons, feeding the ball to a five-star back on offense and pounding teams into submission on defense — hey, why fix what works?

Also, how many close games does Alabama find itself in this season in which it needs to pass to stay in the game? Moreover, how often does Alabama find itself behind and in a situation where it needs to pass to conserve clock and score quickly? More than likely, not many.

Both factors contributed to McCarron’s numbers (or lack thereof) last season and probably will in 2012, too.

Sophomore slump; new coordinator

Now-considered mastermind and former offensive coordinator Jim McElwain flew the coop at the end of last season and was replaced with an up-and-coming Doug Nussmeier of Washington. Though Nussmeier’s philosophy is much the same as that of McElwain, there will more than likely be issues to work out with a new coordinator running the offense.

Also, can AJ keep progressing the way he did last year? Surely he hasn’t peaked, but given his success as a first-year starter, he may need some time to come back to Earth before getting back in his groove.

Stiff competition

Tyler Wilson is going to be tough to beat statistically, regardless of the circumstances at Arkansas. Aaron Murray is also going to be in his third season and may give Wilson a run for his money. And both of them hail from pass-happy offenses where there’s just more opportunity to put up big numbers and get the attention of ESPN and the like.

Connor Shaw of South Carolina may be a small threat, too, if Steve Spurrier could ever get the run-n-gun to stick in Columbia. Tyler Bray might also thrive in a different environment (like, say, high school), but his size, frail stature and poorly coached team don’t really bode well for any endured success.

What say you? Was last season a fluke, a combination of other factors, or a sign that McCarron is ready to be the top passer in the Southeastern Conference?

Follow Jim on Twitter.