When No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Texas A&M clash in College Station this Saturday, much of the pre-game hype will fall on the starting quarterbacks. Forget, for a moment, the off-the-field stuff with the Aggies’ Johnny Manziel. Just think about on the field, him running around and making plays, him winning the Heisman Trophy last season as a freshman.
Think about the Crimson Tide’s A.J. McCarron, the stalwart senior who already has been under center for two national championships and who remembers that as a child his mother dressed him up in an Alabama football uniform and that he struck the Heisman pose.
If the game is close, there’s a good chance one of them will be the hero. There’s also a chance one will be the goat. And this would be true if their teams were not ranked and were winless instead of undefeated. In sum, a quarterback can’t hide. Trailing by, say, four points with just enough time on the clock for a game-winning touchdown drive, teammates will know when the quarterback comes into the huddle if victory is possible or not.
Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron has two national championships under his belt. He is part of an impressive crop of SEC quarterbacks who are altering the league’s image.
(AP Photo/Dave Martin)
“It’s amazing how calm he is,” Aggies offensive lineman Jake Matthews said of Manziel. “You can just tell, looking at him, that he’s not afraid of the moment. He embraces it.”
The quarterback league
Despite the resumes Manziel and McCarron brought into this season – and Manziel led the SEC in rushing (1,410 yards) and McCarron in passing efficiency rating (175.3) – SEC coaches voted Georgia’s Aaron Murray (36 touchdown passes and on pace to become the league’s all-time passing leader) the preseason first-team SEC quarterback.
“The depth of quarterbacks in this league, to be honest with you, could turn the tide to more of an offensive league then defensive league this season,” said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen.
And at some level, the fraternity of quarterbacks would like for that to happen.
“This conference has been known for its defensive prowess,” said LSU QB Zach Mettenberger. “I think quarterbacks will get their shot this year to see what they can do in the SEC.”
Mettenberger fired five touchdown passes last week in a runaway victory over UAB. Manziel, even when suspended for the first half of the Rice game and benched before its end by coach Kevin Sumlin for drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, threw three TD passes.
With Alabama replacing three starters on the offensive line this season, the expectation is that Nick Saban will open the offense for McCarron.
“Can’t give away secrets,” McCarron said before the season when asked if this was true.
But he also said this, and if you weren’t there to hear it in person, it’s hard to understand how well McCarron communicated confidence but not arrogance:
“Me personally, I think I’m the best player in the country on that field. I know our offense thinks the exact same way. I expect us to think that way. One of my biggest idols growing up was Brett Favre. Not so much the way he played, but you never saw Brett Favre not smiling. It always seemed like he got the best out of his teammates. He was just that type of guy. That’s what I’m trying to do, bring the best out of my teammates.”
As is every quarterback, even if there is less they can do, less the team can do. It’s relative. Murray came back to school instead of entering the NFL draft because he couldn’t get past the close SEC title game loss to Alabama last season.
“I came back to win championships,” he said.
Other quarterbacks, including Bo Wallace at Ole Miss, are coming off injuries and deemed critical to their team’s chances. The Rebels are ranked No. 25 going into Texas this Saturday. Coach Hugh Freeze, hoping to keep Wallace healthy, has made great use of backup and MUS graduate Barry Brunetti in running situations (20 rushes for 115 yards and three TDs).
As for Wallace, he played much of last season with an injured shoulder and after off-season surgery not only had to go through rehab but rebuild his throwing motion. That compromised throwing style – he had a hitch – contributed to a few of his interceptions last year.
“To win more games, I can’t throw 17 interceptions,” Wallace said. “You’re not gonna win many games doing that. It’s just learning to anticipate better because those holes in the SEC, they close quick.”
Always a target
Those big guys on the defensive line live for one thing: sacking the quarterback. So much the better if the quarterback is college football’s most dynamic player.
“Mr. Johnny, that’s someone I would love to hit,” said Kentucky defensive tackle Donte Rumph, a mere 320 pounds of football player.
Fans and media will take their shots, too.
“The rudest comment I got last year was from one of the Mizzou fans,” Tigers quarterback James Franklin said. “I don’t want to say what he said, but it was the worst thing I heard all year.”
All around college football this Saturday, victory and defeat will bring overdone praise and unfair blame for quarterbacks. The bigger the game, the more this will be magnified.
Texas A&M offensive lineman Jake Matthews has made the point that he’s his own man, saying, “You’re not gonna see me doing any of the stuff (Johnny) does.” But more important than whatever Matthews thinks about Manziel off the field is what he thinks about him on the field.
“He’s always giving 100 percent. He rallies guys to get behind him,” Matthews said. “He’s so hard on himself, he never wants to make a bad play. All those things make him a guy we want to follow.”