NCF Nation: A.J. McCarron


Michigan's offense has hopscotched under Brady Hoke, never establishing an identity despite repeated claims about a clear philosophy. We always hear about who the Wolverines want to be, but because of personnel, youth or fickle schematic decisions, we rarely see who they are.

Perhaps the best thing about Michigan's offensive coordinator transition was the lack of indecision. Hours after Michigan announced Al Borges had been fired, reports surfaced that Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier would be his replacement. Hoke knew who he wanted, targeted him and got the deal done (the team has yet to officially confirm Nussmeier's hiring).

It's up to Nussmeier to refine Michigan's offense for the 2014 season. Otherwise, both he and Hoke could be looking for jobs in December. It's that simple.

[+] EnlargeNussmeier
AP Photo/Butch DillHiring former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is a step in the right direction for a Michigan offense that has sputtered lately and struggled to find an identity.
Nussmeier is a proven coach with an impressive track record, most recently at Alabama, which defended its national title in his first year as coordinator and put up solid offensive numbers this past season as well (38.2 points per game, 454.1 yards per game). Regardless of whether Alabama coach Nick Saban let Nussmeier walk to pave the way for Lane Kiffin, Michigan seems to be getting a high-quality coach. CBSsports.com's Bruce Feldman reports that Nussmeier, who earned $680,000 in 2013, will become one of the five highest-paid coordinators in college football. That's fine, too, as Michigan makes more than any Big Ten team and has yet to translate all that dough to championships on the field.

Hoke's rhetoric about Big Ten-title-or-bust and Team OneThirtySomething rings hollow until his teams start showing they can live up to Michigan's storied past. Rivals Ohio State and Michigan State have bypassed Michigan, and 2014 is pivotal for Hoke and the Wolverines, who enter the same division as the Buckeyes. They need to go for it now, and the Nussmeier hire is a good sign that they are.

Nussmeier must take a group of players, some recruited by Rich Rodriguez's staff and some by Hoke's staff, and mold them into a unit that's easy to identify. Quarterbacks such as Alabama's AJ McCarron, Washington's Keith Price and Michigan State's Drew Stanton and Jeff Smoker have improved under his tutelage. He must facilitate similar upgrades with Michigan's Devin Gardner and/or Shane Morris.

A record-setting signal-caller at Idaho who played in both the NFL and CFL, Nussmeier knows quarterbacks, but his first priority at Michigan will be resurrecting a run game that went dormant the past two seasons. Michigan's young offensive line needs to grow up in a hurry, especially after losing left tackle Taylor Lewan, a first-round draft pick in April, as well as right tackle Michael Schofield, a three-year starter. Nussmeier isn't exactly inheriting the Alabama offensive line in Ann Arbor. Or Alabama's running backs, for that matter. There's some young talent at Michigan, but it needs to be coached up.

As much criticism as Borges received, some of it deserved, coordinators can't do much when their offenses are incapable of generating moderate rushing gains between the tackles. Michigan set historic lows on offense this year, becoming the first FBS team in the past 10 seasons to record net rush totals of minus-20 or worse in consecutive games (losses to Michigan State and Nebraska).

Nussmeier has worked in different conferences as well as in the NFL (St. Louis Rams), but his stint in the Big Ten at Michigan State should help him in his new gig. His basic philosophy as a pro-style coach doesn't differ dramatically from Borges -- or what Hoke wants -- and shouldn't turn off Michigan's 2014 recruits.

But his ability to evaluate the strengths of Michigan's players and tailor his scheme around them will determine his success or failure. When Borges built a game plan around what Gardner does best, as we saw against both Notre Dame and Ohio State, the results proved positive. But we saw too much tweaking, too many versions of the Michigan offense, too many attempts to show who is the smartest coach in the building.

Nussmeier is a future head coach and entered the mix for recent vacancies at both Washington and Southern Miss. It might be hard for Michigan to keep him, but the future beyond the 2014 season isn't really important.

Michigan acted quickly and decisively Wednesday night. Nussmeier must do the same in refining the identity of an offense that will determine a lot about where Michigan is headed under Hoke.

Allstate Sugar Bowl preview

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
11:00
AM ET
NEW ORLEANS -- Thursday night’s Allstate Sugar Bowl (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) matchup between No. 3 Alabama and No. 11 Oklahoma features two of the most storied programs in college football history. Here’s a preview of one of the most intriguing games of the bowl season:

Who to watch: Alabama's AJ McCarron, who, with two national titles, is one of the winningest quarterbacks in the history of the game. Even though the Crimson Tide came up just short of advancing to another national championship game, McCarron has put together another fabulous season. He was a first-team Walter Camp All-American, won the Maxwell Award and finished second in the Heisman voting. On top of owning virtually every passing record at Alabama, McCarron also has a career record of 36-3 as the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback. A win over the Sooners in his collegiate swan song would cap the finest quarterbacking career in Alabama history in fine fashion.

What to watch: How Oklahoma performs against the preeminent program from the preeminent conference in college football. Even though the SEC has reeled off seven straight national titles, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has questioned why the SEC is accepted as college football's top conference, even calling it "propaganda." Stoops also has suggested the SEC's defensive reputation has been overhyped, because of substandard quarterbacking in the past. Stoops, however, has never disrespected Alabama, and this week called the Crimson Tide the best team in the country despite their loss to Auburn. Still, the fact remains, the Big 12's reputation will be squarely on the line this game, especially after Baylor's disastrous showing against Central Florida in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Oklahoma's reputation will be on the line, too. The Sooners can prove on the national stage they're on their way back to standing alongside the nation’s elite programs. Or they -- and the Big 12 -- will take yet another perception hit heading into the College Football Playoff era, where perception will be paramount.

Why to watch: This will pit two of the most tradition-rich programs in college football history. Alabama and Oklahoma have combined for 17 national championships, including four in the BCS era. Despite their histories, the Crimson Tide and Sooners have met only four times before: the 1963 Orange Bowl, 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl and then a home-and-home in 2002-2003, which the Sooners swept. Nick Saban and Stoops, however, have faced each other only once, in the 2003 national championship game when Saban was at LSU. The Tigers won that game 21-14.

Prediction: Alabama 41, Oklahoma 17. The Sooners have thrived as the underdog, both in the past, and here late this season. But Alabama is another animal, and Oklahoma, which has been inconsistent offensively all season, will struggle to move the ball against linebacker C.J. Mosley & Co.
Alabama reporter Alex Scarborough and Big 12 reporter Jake Trotter break down the biggest storylines in Thursday’s Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup between Alabama and Oklahoma:

The last time the Crimson Tide just missed out on a national championship game and ended up in the Sugar, they didn't seem to be very motivated. Will they be motivated this time?

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron #10 of the Alabama Crimson Tide
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesIt's hard to imagine AJ McCarron and the Crimson Tide coming out flat against OU in the Sugar Bowl.
Alex Scarborough: With AJ McCarron and C.J. Mosley guiding their respective units, I don't think motivation will be a problem. The leadership on this team is too strong for Alabama to come out flat emotionally. There are too many seniors who don't want to go out on a sour note with back-to-back losses. Revenge, even though it can't come in the form of a national championship, is at play against the Sooners. That loss on the road at Auburn has eaten away at the Tide for a month now, and I believe this team is eager to get that monkey off its back and change the narrative of its season. As Brian Vogler told the media a short while back, this game is all about respect and proving again that Alabama is one of the best teams in the country.

Jake Trotter: I don’t think motivation will be a problem for Alabama. Then again, it could be. After all, the Crimson Tide have played in the national championship game in three of the last four years. Playing in the Sugar is a step down. One thing we do know is that Oklahoma will be motivated. This is the biggest bowl the Sooners have played in since the 2008 national championship game against Florida. As a double-digit underdog against the preeminent program in college football at the moment, it’s a guarantee Oklahoma will be fired up to play well.

For OU to pull off the upset, what is the one thing that has to happen?

Scarborough: Aside from Alabama surprising me and coming out flat, I think it comes down to the defense. McCarron, T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper will put up plenty of points on offense, but can Mosley and the secondary rebound after what was a testing season defensively? Alabama was excellent in terms of production this season, but our colleague Edward Aschoff was wise to focus on the importance of the Tide facing another zone-read team as both Auburn and Texas A&M had success moving the ball against them. Even Mississippi State had some success spreading the field and pushing the tempo. Alabama has to set the edge and stop the run early against Oklahoma, forcing Blake Bell, Trevor Knight or whoever plays quarterback for the Sooners into obvious passing situations. If Oklahoma finds itself in a lot of second-and-mediums and third-and-shorts, Alabama will be in trouble because while there's plenty of talent at safety with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Landon Collins, there's a significant drop off at cornerback once you look past Deion Belue.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesTrevor Knight and the Sooners need to get off to a good start if Oklahoma is going to pull off the upset.
Trotter: The Sooners have got to get off to a good start. Whether Knight or Bell (or both) is at quarterback, this is not an offense built to come back from behind. After falling behind early to Texas and Baylor, Oklahoma had to scrap the game plan and start throwing the ball. And the end-result was a pair of blowouts. Conversely, if Oklahoma can start fast, then hang in the game past halftime, the pressure will swing on Alabama, which is expected to win this game big. And like at Oklahoma State, the Sooners would be a successful trick play or big turnover away from taking the Tide to the wire.

Who is the player to watch in this game?

Scarborough: This is going to be a very interesting game for Alabama linebacker Trey DePriest. He's had a fairly solid junior season, but he hasn't done what many expected when the season began and there was speculation over whether he'd turn pro early. Well, he's already said he intends to return to school, and with Mosley moving on, he'll be the man leading and executing Kirby Smart’s and Nick Saban's defense in 2014. How he does against Oklahoma is an important step in that progression. He needs to show he can both lead his teammates, as well as show the sideline-to-sideline type of tackling that Mosley brought to the table. As more teams go to the zone-read offense, that part of the game becomes more and more important. And if I can add a second player to watch quickly, keep an eye on freshman tailback Derrick Henry. He's a talented big man at 6-foot-3, and the buzz is that he may be poised to pass Kenyan Drake for second on the depth chart.

Trotter: Receiver/returner Jalen Saunders is Oklahoma's X-factor. In the Sooners' upset victory over Oklahoma State, Saunders unleashed a 61-yard punt return touchdown, a 37-yard reverse rush that set up another score and a game-winning, 7-yard touchdown grab in the corner of the end zone in the final seconds. For the Sooners to have a chance, Saunders must deliver another monster performance.

SEC players to watch this bowl season

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
9:00
AM ET
Bowl season is fast approaching and there are plenty of reasons to tune in, especially to your favorite SEC squads. Today, we take a look at five players to keep your eye on during the bowl games:

Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
Outback Bowl

[+] EnlargeOdell Beckham
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsOdell Beckham is a thrill a minute. The LSU wide receiver is a threat to score from everywhere on the field.
Beckham has been one of the best pure playmakers in the SEC this season. The receiver/return specialist excels in both of those roles, catching 57 passes for 1,117 yards and eight touchdowns while logging 806 yards on 30 kick returns, 141 yards on punt returns and a 100-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown. His all-purpose yardage total -- 2,222 -- broke LSU's single-season record previously held by Domanick Davis (2,120). As a result of his stellar season, the honors have rolled in for Beckham: third-team Associated Press All-American, first-team Football Writers Association of America All-American, and the Paul Hornung Award, which goes to the nation's most versatile player.

Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
Chick-Fil-A Bowl

He hasn't declared for the 2014 NFL draft yet, but many believe he will soon enough, which means New Year's Eve will be Johnny Football's last hurrah (how fitting is it that it's on the biggest party night of the year?). By several statistical measures (passing yards, yards per attempt, completion percentage, touchdowns), Manziel has been a better passer than he was in his Heisman Trophy-winning season and, let's be honest, you never know what he's going to do on the field. He puts on a show almost every time he's out there and provides great theater on top of his stellar play, which earned him a return trip to New York City as a Heisman finalist this year. He is in the top 10 nationally in eight different QB-centric statistical categories and is one of college football's best and most entertaining players in recent memory. Watch him while you can.

Tre Mason, Auburn
VIZIO BCS National Championship Game

Mason made a late run at the Heisman Trophy and earned himself a spot at the finalists' table, and deservedly so. When the games have been big, so have Mason's performances: 132 yards and two touchdowns at LSU; 178 yards and a touchdown at Texas A&M; 164 yards and a touchdown versus Alabama and a whopping 304 yards and four touchdowns in the SEC championship game against Missouri. Mason has 1,621 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns and finished the regular season as the SEC's leader in both categories, something virtually nobody predicted coming into the season. His running mate, quarterback Nick Marshall, has been stellar also, so watch both of them as they make a dynamic duo that has been difficult for most to defend.

AJ McCarron, Alabama
Allstate Sugar Bowl

This will be the senior quarterback's final game, and his list of accomplishments is impressive. He started at quarterback for two national championship teams, has a 36-3 record as a starter and has a career touchdown-to-interception ratio of 75-to-13. He has made plenty of big throws, led some critical drives, set records and won big games throughout his collegiate career. He hauled in several honors this season, including the Maxwell Award, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, and finished second in the Heisman voting. After the Crimson Tide beat LSU this year, Alabama coach Nick Saban said of McCarron "All he does is win and he does what his team needs him to do to win ... I think he's the best quarterback in the country."

Michael Sam, Missouri
AT&T Cotton Bowl

Sam was named a first-team All-American on all five major All-America squads (only the second Mizzou player to achieve that feat) and was the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year. Those honors are well deserved as the senior finished the regular season with 45 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss, 10.5 sacks, nine quarterback hurries, two pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He was part of a Missouri defense that led the SEC in sacks (38) and was in the top 10 nationally in that category. He's one of those diamonds in the rough who came to Missouri as an unheralded two-star recruit and has turned into a bona fide star and one of the country's best pass rushers. He'll leave Columbia as one of the most decorated seniors in Mizzou football history.

Inside McCarron's memorable month

November, 5, 2013
11/05/13
1:00
PM ET

Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesA.J. McCarron is playing mistake-free football for Alabama.

AJ McCarron quietly had the best statistical month of his career.

He completed nearly 71 percent of his passes during October and had 10 touchdowns and no interceptions in 99 attempts.

It was the fourth-highest touchdown percentage for any FBS player with at least 70 attempts and tied for McCarron’s most touchdowns in any four-game stretch during his career.

McCarron has been playing virtually mistake-free football. Since Oct. 1, he is the only FBS quarterback with at least three starts who has not been sacked, and he is one of five such quarterbacks who have no turnovers. McCarron and Middle Tennessee’s Logan Kilgore are the only players in the last three seasons to throw 75 passes in a month without being sacked or intercepted. Kilgore did it last November.

Staying positive
Arguably the most important thing McCarron has done was keep Alabama out of negative plays.

The Tide have an FBS-low nine plays that lost yards since Oct. 1. McCarron was under center for only one of those plays, a screen pass for -2 yards to Amari Cooper against Tennessee.

Super-strong starts
McCarron has started games strong during this stretch. His five first-quarter touchdowns since Oct. 1 are tied for the fourth most in the FBS.

If he continued his first-quarter pace for a full game, he would average 369 passing yards and five touchdowns. His best performance came in his last game, when he completed 9-of-12 attempts in the first quarter for 131 yards and two touchdowns against Tennessee.

Key to winning: Third-down effectiveness
The key to McCarron’s recent success has been improved play on third down. His 98.5 third-down Total QBR since Oct. 1 ranks second in the FBS behind Winston.

During that stretch, he has completed 76.5 percent of his third-down passes and converted a first down on 65 percent of his third-down passing plays (sacks plus pass attempts). Both stats ranked in the top 3 of the FBS.

In his first four games of the season, McCarron completed 70.6 percent of his third-down passes, but only converted a first down on 33 percent of his third-down passing plays, tied for 76th best in the nation. His third-down Total QBR (56.9) was two points below the FBS average.

Best in the game?
If you put it all together, the result is an FBS-high 92.5 Total QBR for McCarron since Oct. 1. He posted a Total QBR of at least 85 in each of his four games during that stretch.

Florida State’s Jameis Winston is the only FBS player with a longer such streak this season (5 games).

To be fair, McCarron has not faced a defense ranked in the top 50 of the FBS in points per game since Week 1 against Virginia Tech. In that game, he posted a season-low 23.4 Total QBR. McCarron will get his second crack at a top 50 defense Saturday with No. 13 LSU coming to Tuscaloosa.

If McCarron can continue his excellent play of late, he might start to make some noise in the Heisman race.

Tide, Tigers contrast in QB stability

November, 5, 2013
11/05/13
9:00
AM ET

When AJ McCarron steps behind center on Saturday night for Alabama's first offensive snap in its showdown against LSU, he'll be making his fourth start against the Tigers.

The senior has been the picture of stability the last three years as Alabama’s starting quarterback. His first start against LSU was Nov. 5, 2011, dubbed "The Game of the Century," one that LSU won 9-6 in overtime at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, McCarron's counterpart on Saturday night, will make his second start against the Tide. LSU hasn't quite enjoyed the same stability that Alabama has, though Mettenberger has provided a steady hand and productive play this season, making LSU's offense the talk of the program for once; hard to do in a program known for its defense.

[+] EnlargeLSU/Georgia
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsZach Mettenberger was 28-of-35 for 298 yards and a score in his first start against Alabama.
But in the same time span that McCarron has served as Alabama's lone starter in the Tide-Tigers showdowns, LSU has had three different starting quarterbacks. Mettenberger started last season's game but when the teams met twice in 2011 – in November and in January for the BCS championship – the Tigers had a different starter each time.

That's simply a microcosm of these two power programs. Both are championship-caliber teams that are annually in the BCS national championship discussion. Both have stable coaching staffs and a foundation built on great defense and the ability to run the football. Both recruit at a high level and, of course, play in the same division, the SEC West.

But since the Nick Saban took over at Alabama in 2007, the Tide have had just three quarterbacks start against LSU: McCarron, Greg McElroy (2009-10) and John Parker Wilson, who predated Saban and started for the Tide from 2006-08.

In that same time span, the Tigers have had a different starter vs. Alabama six times. In 2007 it was Matt Flynn, who was a senior. Jarrett Lee started the 2008 game, while Jordan Jefferson started in 2009 and 2010. In 2011 Lee started the November "Game of the Century," and Jefferson started the BCS national championship later that season. Though the Tigers have had four different quarterbacks in that span, it's been rare that the same one has started twice in a row against the Tide like Mettenberger will do Saturday.

Despite that contrast, the series has been back-and-forth. Alabama has won four times since 2007, LSU three. The Tigers' success despite quarterback turnover is even more fascinating in an age where quarterbacks dominate the headlines and up-tempo spread offenses are en vogue.

Take last season as an example, one in which the Tigers didn't make a change at quarterback but didn't get strong play from the position either. Florida (3rd), Oregon State (13th) and Kent State (25th) were the only schools other than LSU with a Total QBR of less than 55 for the season to finish in the top 25 of the BCS standings at the end of the regular season. The team with the worst QBR of thos, LSU (38), finished eighth in the final BCS standings last season.

Even in 2011, when the Tigers went 13-1 and went to the BCS title game before falling to Alabama, the quarterback situation was far from stable. Lee made nine starts that season, Jefferson made five. There was even discussion in the aftermath of the 21-0 title game loss to the Crimson Tide about LSU coach Les Miles' decision to not play Lee at all that night and leave Jefferson in, which Miles later said was because he wanted a mobile quarterback who could avoid Alabama's tenacious pass rush in the game.

The reason the Tigers were able to succeed despite a sometimes uncertain quarterback situation is their defense. LSU finished in the top 12 nationally in total defense each season from 2010-2012 and had a 34-5 record in that time span. They've also had a reliable running game to turn to move the chains offensively.

Alabama has enjoyed the fruits of both of those traits during their run of three BCS titles in four seasons, but the stability at quarterback is evident. The Tide have finished the season with a better QBR than LSU each of the last five seasons.

Stable or not, life is tough for the quarterbacks in this game. During the Saban era, Alabama quarterbacks have a QBR of 42.8 against LSU, while LSU's is 33.1 against the Tide. The touchdown-to-interception ratios aren't pretty (8-to-6 for Alabama, 7-to-11 for LSU) as the defenses take center stage in this matchup.

But the Tigers have shown that even in this era of offensive dominance, good defense can still get you far. And now, they just might have the quarterback to knock off the nation’s top team.

Manziel, Aggies good but flawed

September, 14, 2013
9/14/13
11:58
PM ET
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — There was no plan for Johnny Manziel to speak to the media on Saturday.

In fact, win or lose, Texas A&M officials made it clear before the game that the Heisman Trophy winner would not be available for postgame interviews. Earlier this week, coach Kevin Sumlin noted that Manziel's family and attorneys advised him not to speak publicly this week.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel produced more than 500 yards but admitted there were a couple of throws he wished he could take back.
But Manziel wasn't going to be told no. He approached Sumlin and Texas A&M associate athletic director for media relations Alan Cannon and said he was going to speak. When Cannon mentioned the objections from Manziel's parents and lawyers, Manziel said, according to Cannon, "My team didn't quit on me, so I'm not quitting on them."

The No. 6 Aggies showed no quit in their 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama on Saturday at Kyle Field in one of the most highly anticipated games in school history. What they did show is that they're a good team with a lot of flaws that still need ironing out.

The message from Manziel, who played brilliantly for much of the day but had a couple of throws he'd like to have back, was that the Aggies had to keep playing -- both on Saturday and moving forward.

"My initial reaction is that I'm just proud of these guys," said Manziel, who threw for 464 yards and five touchdowns and ran for 98 yards. "I kept telling them that no matter what point in the game it was, we were never out of it. Didn't matter what [Alabama] did. I told the offense that going into it, that no matter what happened on the defensive side of the ball, no matter what happened on special teams, we felt like we could come out and score points. So I was proud initially more than anything else, proud of the way they kept fighting until the very end. I mean, we're a young team. That's impressive to me."

The Aggies (2-1) were down by as many as 21 points in the third quarter after taking a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Alabama roared back with 35 unanswered points and used its power running game and efficient passing attack behind AJ McCarron to eat up yardage and extend drives to score points while keeping the Aggies' offense on the sideline.

The biggest flaw seen on Saturday was on defense. The Aggies' front seven was hammered by the Alabama offensive line -- a unit that struggled in its season opener against Virginia Tech -- to the tune of 234 rushing yards and 6.3 yards per carry, led by T.J. Yeldon's 149-yard effort. McCarron was rarely pressured in the passing game and wasn't sacked a single time; only one player on the Aggies defense, Kirby Ennis, recorded a quarterback hurry. There were big plays given up in the passing game as well, as the Tide threw for 334 yards.

"We've got to get some things shored up in our front defensively," Sumlin said. "We're playing a lot of young guys in there. [Gavin] Stansbury was back and [Steven] Jenkins was back [from suspensions], so they were a little rusty. We didn't have Isaiah Golden today because of the tragedy [involving the death of a family member] earlier this week. That put a lot of pressure on Hardreck [Walker] to handle that type of stuff with Kirby. We just have to get those guys in a routine, a steady routine and a rotation and shore some things up up front."

Mike Evans, who already was considered one of the country's better receivers, made his case to be considered among the best after catching seven passes for a school-record 279 yards and a touchdown. He beat man-to-man coverage consistently, ran good routes and was an asset for Manziel when scrambling.

"I couldn't be prouder of him," Manziel said. "Last night in the hotel, me and him, we're roommates, and we were just talking about how the game was going to play out. I knew he was going to come out and play really well."

Manziel wasn't perfect. A fade pass to Ja'Quay Williams in the end zone was intercepted by Cyrus Jones in the second quarter ("We probably could have run a better route," Sumlin said). He tried to squeeze a pass in to Travis Labhart early in the third quarter but it was tipped by Alabama defensive back Jarrick Williams and intercepted by Vinnie Sunseri, who returned it 73 yards for a touchdown.

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
AP Photo/David J. PhillipMike Evans set a school record with 279 receiving yards, including this 95-yard touchdown.
"I had a couple throws that I want to have back, two in particular," Manziel said. "Coach Sumlin always says there's no regrets. Leave it all out on the field. I think that's what we all did. I know I did."

But he was, like the Aggies, still very good. He set the single-game school record for passing yards and put up the second-most total offensive yards in a game (562), second only to his own total (576) against Louisiana Tech last year.

He made what many would call an ill-advised throw in the second quarter after magically evading a sack while in the grasp of Alabama defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan, heaving a jump ball 40 yards downfield while falling backward. The ball wound up in the hands of a leaping Edward Pope for a first down that sent the crowd into a frenzy. The gain was only 12 yards; Manziel retreated back far to evade pressure.

At some point, it seems it might just be worth chalking it up to a little Manziel magic, since he has seemingly found an uncanny ability to make jaw-dropping plays of the sort each week. It's part of what captivated the college football world en route to his Heisman Trophy last year.

For those who said Manziel's eventful and sometimes tumultuous offseason would come back to haunt him when the games started this year, none of that seemed to be a factor. Though there were some mistakes made on the field, Manziel's play is hard to criticize, especially against the team that was No. 1 in the country last season in total defense. Manziel said afterward that it wasn't a factor.

But for all the flash, the bottom line was that Manziel and the Aggies fell short of their goal on Saturday. They were beaten by a better team.

The disappointment could be heard in the voices of the players afterward; they wanted Saturday's win badly. But with nine games to go in their season, they feel that what they want -- an SEC West title, SEC title and BCS title game berth -- is still within reach; it's just more difficult to obtain now that they're 0-1 in SEC play.

But if the Aggies are still serious about pursuing those goals, there's still much work to do.

"Just got to go game by game," Manziel said. "Just like last year, continue to get better, week by week, and the result was what happened in the Cotton Bowl. For us this wasn't the end of our season. This wasn't the Super Bowl. This wasn't the last game of the season.

"Alabama lost a game last year and still went on to win a national championship. They lost to LSU the year before and still went on to win the national championship. Our season isn't over. Anything can happen. This is college football. Some of the craziest things happen every week. So you never know. All we can do is take care of ourselves, take care of what's in this locker room and continue to get better as a team."

Plenty to prove for Aggies' defense

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
8:30
AM ET

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When Texas A&M went into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and upset No. 1 Alabama last November, the Aggies' offense, and specifically quarterback Johnny Manziel, were lauded for their efforts in taking down the Crimson Tide.

Often overlooked was the play of Texas A&M's defense, which was integral in the Aggies' ability to jump out to the 20-0 lead that paved the way for the eventual 29-24 victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

While nobody would confuse the Aggies' defensive efforts with that of the 1985 Chicago Bears that November day, A&M was opportunistic and effective.

On the first three drives of the game, the Aggies held the Crimson Tide to two three-and-outs and a turnover. The offense capitalized by scoring after each of those defensive stops to take the commanding three-score lead.

Turnovers were key for the Aggies throughout the game. They came up with three, the most the Crimson Tide committed since a 2011 season opener vs. Kent State, when Alabama committed five. Quarterback AJ McCarron hadn't thrown an interception in 2012 going into the game and threw two against the Aggies.

In several ways, the Aggies' ability to come up with stops and turnovers at key times was representative of what the unit accomplished as whole last season under defensive coordinator Mark Snyder. The defense came into the 2012 season with questions about depth and competitiveness in a line-of-scrimmage league like the SEC.

Those questions were answered resoundingly as the Aggies ranked highly in several key categories in 2012. They had the nation's 26th-best scoring defense (21.8 points per game) and one of the best third-down defenses, allowing conversions just 32.4 percent of the time (16th nationally, fourth in the SEC).

They were No. 1 in the SEC and No. 5 in the country on third-and-5 or fewer yards (44.6 percent conversion rate).

[+] EnlargeTexas A&M's Deshazor Everett
AP Photo/Dave MartinDeshazor Everett, whose interception against Alabama last year clinched the victory, expects the Aggies defense to keep getting better.
This season, with six key defensive players serving suspensions for part or all of the season opener against Rice and four more serving penalties for all or part of the second game against Sam Houston State, the numbers have taken a dip. On third down, the Aggies are tied for 73rd in the country, allowing a 39.4 percent conversion rate. On 3rd-and-5 or fewer yards, the Aggies are in the middle of the pack (59th, 52.9 percent conversion rate).

The Aggies are averaging 6.16 yards allowed per play, up from 5.22 last year.

Having almost the full complement of defensive players, including the return of starting linebacker Steven Jenkins, starting cornerback De'Vante Harris and starting defensive end Gavin Stansbury, should help the Aggies' defensive efforts.

"It'll be interesting once the game gets started," Snyder said. "They've got to knock a little bit of rust off. We've got a couple days here of practice first to get some of the rust knocked off. It was really good [Monday] to have our first unit out there together. It was very, very pleasing to see."

Starting safety Floyd Raven Sr. (collarbone) will miss the game because of his injury, and starting defensive end Julien Obioha's status is up in the air also. Cornerback Deshazor Everett said the country hasn't seen the Aggies' "real defense" yet.

"We can only progress, so I'm not going to say they've seen the real defense," Everett said. "But we have to get better, and we'll keep getting better, and this week of practice is crucial. But as a whole defense, we'll keep progressing and getting better."

Though the Aggies were able to intercept McCarron in the last meeting, Snyder said he expects the quarterback to be poised and confident coming into Saturday's game.

"He is a leader," Snyder said. "He runs their offense. He knows where his checkdowns are and obviously he is a great leader for them, because they have won a lot of football games. He drives that engine. He's the guy that's driving the car. And you can see his poise and patience, and it's hard to get him rattled. And if you do get him rattled a little bit, he has the ability to go over and sit down and get unrattled and come back out and play in his game. That's what I see in him."

The players know the national perception is that it's easy to move the ball on the Aggies, and because of the evidence presented by Rice (306 rushing yards) and Sam Houston State (240), it's hard to argue that, extenuating circumstances notwithstanding. But the players know the way to change what people think is by improving their play, starting Saturday.

"Yes. I think everyone looks at it that way," Everett said. "You can look at what a defense does well and what a defense doesn't do well, and you go off of that basically and see where you want to attack and what their weaknesses are. That's what we're trying to improve on, what our weaknesses are."
Who is this year’s Johnny Manziel in the Pac-12? In other words, which player could come out of nowhere and win the Heisman from the conference? Well, if we knew, he wouldn't be coming out of nowhere in the preseason, now, would he?

Perhaps it is better that the Pac-12’s elite players are coasting below Mr. Heisman's persnickety radar. After all, front-runner status hasn't been kind to the Pac-12 the past couple of years. Two seasons ago it was Andrew Luck -- a shoo-in from the day he announced his return to take home the Heisman. Last year, it was Matt Barkley who had the unpropitious front-runner title pegged on him.

Luck carried the title much longer in his final season. Barkley, however, quickly gave way to Geno Smith, who in turn gave way to Collin Klein, who in turn fell to Johnny Football.

[+] EnlargeMarion Grice
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsArizona State's Marion Grice averaged 6.6 yards per carry and had 11 touchdowns last season.
So how about the Pac-12?

Marcusy Football?

Marqy Football?

DATy Football?

Ka’Deemy Football?

Bretty Football?

Not exactly phonetically pleasing.

Within the Pac-12, there aren't many dark-horse candidates. There are some front-runners who immediately come to mind: Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas, USC’s Marqise Lee, Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey and UCLA’s Brett Hundley. But none of them are considered national front-runners with Manziel (maybe?) back to defend his title, Braxton Miller coming off a perfect season, AJ McCarron and his ridiculous 30-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year and Teddy Bridgewater soaking up his share of hype.

You can make a case for all five in the preseason. Mariota and Thomas will be playing for a top-five team, which always helps garner the necessary attention from the national media, and they should continue to put up video game numbers. Hundley is one of the most exciting players in the league, and with a year of maturity, many are anxious to see just how far he can lead the Bruins. Lee was last year’s Biletnikoff winner and is arguably the top skill player in the country. Carey was last year’s national leader in rushing. Solid credentials for all.

But this is about the sleepers. The guys who are so under the radar they're practically stealth. So who are they?

You have to start with ASU’s Marion Grice, who is going to continue putting up fantastic dual-threat numbers as a runner and receiver. He’s packed on more weight and ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said they've expanded the playbook now that he and quarterback Taylor Kelly are a year into the system. (Probably not a bad idea to keep an eye on Kelly, either).

Stanford’s Kevin Hogan could also be a sleeper. Like the Oregon duo, he’ll be on a high-profile team that is going to get plenty of national exposure with showdowns against Oregon, UCLA, USC and Notre Dame on the 2013 docket. He’s not as flashy as the other players and his numbers might not be as lofty, but he’s asked to do a lot more behind the scenes than a lot of other quarterbacks. That was Luck’s brilliance, as well as his Heisman curse.

The appearance of Manti Te’o in New York last year proved defensive players aren't immune to getting some attention in the spread era. So UCLA’s Anthony Barr and ASU’s Will Sutton certainly deserve to be in the conversation if we’re talking defensive players. Both should be atop the national defensive rankings in sacks and tackles for a loss. But both will have to play well enough to surpass the well-deserved hype of South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and overcome the public perception of the Pac-12 when it comes to defense. As I’ve written previously, the Heisman is all about subjectivity and perception. (Full disclosure, I have Clowney No. 1 on my preseason Heisman ballot).

Finally, a guy who I think is really a long shot -- but should be getting more love than he is -- is Oregon State running back Storm Woods. In the Beavers’ first six games against FBS opponents in 2013, they face only one defense that ranked in the top 20 last year in total rushing yards allowed (Utah), and only one other in the top 50 (San Diego State). The opportunity will be there early in the season for Woods to make a name for himself. He’s got four of five offensive linemen coming back (including an outstanding center), an offense that wants to be more balanced, and a quarterback-to-be-named who is a veteran and knows the offense. He’s also really, really good.

It’s probably best not to put all your hopes into one of these guys winning the Heisman. For now, it’s safer to track the conference front-runners. But don’t sleep on these guys, either.

The next Stormy Football is just waiting to breakout.
2013 may be the season of the quarterback in college football, because a lot of good ones are coming back.

In the SEC, there's Alabama's AJ McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, who won the 2012 Heisman Trophy. Louisville has Teddy Bridgewater, and Clemson offers Tajh Boyd. In the Pac-12, there's UCLA's Brett Hundley, Stanford's Kevin Hogan and Arizona State's Taylor Kelley.

But the best one coming back is Oregon's Marcus Mariota.

How so? Well, for one, that was the assignment: Make a case for the best quarterback in your conference being the best in the nation.

But it's not too difficult to make Mariota's case.

As a redshirt freshman, he ranked seventh in the nation in passing efficiency. He completed 68.5 percent of his passes for 2,677 yards with 32 touchdowns and six interceptions. He also rushed for 752 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 7.1 yards per carry.

He threw a touchdown pass in every game and one interception in his final seven games. He was named MVP in the Fiesta Bowl after leading a blowout win over Big 12 champion Kansas State, which capped a 12-1 season and a final No. 2 ranking for the Ducks.

He earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors after leading an offense that ranked second in the nation in scoring (49.6 PPG) and fifth in total offense (537.4 YPG). The Ducks scored 11 points per game more than any other Pac-12 team.

The 6-foot-4, 196-pound Honolulu native is an extremely accurate passer who might be the fastest quarterback in the nation -- see his 86- and 77-yard runs last season. Against USC on the road, he completed 87 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. He tied a school record with six touchdown passes against California. He rushed for 135 yards at Arizona State.

Of course, his 2012 numbers aren't mind-blowing. A lot of that isn't his fault. Oregon blew out so many opponents -- average halftime score of 31-9 -- that it didn't require many plays from behind center after the break. For the season, Mariota threw just 24 passes and rushed eight times in the fourth quarter, compared to 227 passes and 71 rushes in the first half.

Manziel, for the sake of comparison, threw 62 passes and rushed 33 times in the fourth quarter. Bridgewater threw 86 passes and rushed 13 times in the fourth.

The good news is folks are probably going to see a lot more of Mariota this season. With running back Kenjon Barner off to the NFL, the Ducks might skew more toward the passing game after being run-centric under Chip Kelly. New coach Mark Helfrich, who was the Ducks' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach last year, is expected to throw the ball around more because he has an experienced quarterback and a strong, experienced crew of receivers.

That means more numbers for Mariota as he leads a team in the national title hunt. The potential combination of stats and wins might be enough to get Mariota to New York in December for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

AJ McCarron mesmerizing in play-action

January, 4, 2013
1/04/13
5:30
PM ET

Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsIt was appropriate that this throw was the decisive one for Alabama in its SEC-title win.
AJ McCarron and his Alabama Crimson Tide teammates broke the huddle with a fresh set of downs after T.J. Yeldon's 5-yard run on third-and-5 kept the drive alive against the Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC Championship.

With 3:40 remaining and facing a 3-point deficit, Alabama lined up at Georgia's 45 with two tight ends on the line and two wide receivers set to the same side. It was the same formation the Crimson Tide had used on 20 of their 22 plays after Georgia took an 11-point lead with 6:31 remaining in the third quarter.

Twenty of those 22 plays were runs that gained 167 yards and two touchdowns, including Yeldon's drive-sustaining run.

Georgia lined up defensively with one deep safety on this play, leaving one-on-one coverage on the outside for Amari Cooper.

When McCarron took the snap, he faked a handoff to Yeldon, looked left and threw the ball 43 yards in the air to Cooper, who went untouched into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

It was McCarron’s 11th touchdown pass off play-action this season and his ninth such touchdown on first down. In 2011, McCarron had a total of five touchdowns off play-action.

Alabama's running game has set up McCarron all season. He leads FBS in pass efficiency (173.1), and play action has been the key.

McCarron completes nearly 70 percent of his passes thrown after a run fake and is averaging an SEC-best 11.9 yards per attempt. He has not thrown an interception off play-action in 130 attempts, with his last one coming in last season's loss to LSU.

McCarron's average throw after a run fake travels 11.7 yards downfield, and he completes 76 percent of his deep throws that are set up by play-action. On such passes, he has eight touchdowns and no interceptions in 21 attempts.

As he was against Georgia, Cooper has been McCarron’s favorite target on those downfield throws, catching 11 of 14 passes thrown 20 yards or longer when he was the target. Eight of those receptions were off play-action, including four touchdowns.

McCarron will face a Notre Dame Fighting Irish team in the BCS Championship Game that leads the nation in scoring defense (10.3 PPG).

The Irish have given up two touchdown passes on play-action all season, tied for third fewest against an AQ team, and one touchdown on a pass thrown 20 yards or more.

On paper, it will be the biggest test that McCarron has faced this season. A passing grade could give McCarron his second straight BCS Championship, something no quarterback has accomplished.

Alabama powers its way to SEC title

December, 1, 2012
12/01/12
11:29
PM ET

John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsEddie Lacy ran for 181 yards for Alabama.

Alabama won its first SEC championship since 2009, handing Georgia an SEC championship game loss for the second straight season.

The Tide got it done on the ground. They ran for 350 rushing yards, the most in SEC championship game history.

Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon became the first teammates to each run for 100 yards in SEC championship game history. Lacy’s 181 rushing yards are the third-most in the history of the SEC title game.

The Tide were committed to the run, as they ran the ball 51 times, two shy of the SEC championship game record of 53.

Two tight ends, too much

Alabama ran 36 times for a season-high 298 yards with two or more tight ends in the formation. The Tide ran out of this personnel package on 26 of their 34 second-half plays, gaining 199 yards and two touchdowns. Alabama averaged a season-high 5.5 yards before contact out of this formation.

AJ McCarron completed 8 of 9 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown with two or more tight ends in the formation.

Getting it done inside the tackles

Alabama outrushed Georgia 304-72 inside the tackles. The Tide averaged 8.0 yards per carry on such runs, including a season-high 13 that gained 10 yards or more. Lacy (172) and Yeldon (125) led the way for Alabama, with both running backs gaining over 100 yards inside the tackles for the second time this season. They also did it against Missouri.

Strong run game leads to play action

McCarron completed 5 of 7 passes off play action for 116 yards and a touchdown. McCarron has 11 touchdown passes off a run fake this season, six more than he had all of last season. Eight of the 11 touchdowns have been on passes thrown 20 yards or longer, including Cooper’s 45-yard touchdown against Georgia.

Georgia’s defense allowed a season-high 512 total yards, just the second time the Bulldogs allowed 500 yards in the past seven seasons. For the first time since at least 2000, they’ve allowed 300 rushing yards in three straight games.

Alabama will most assuredly face Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game on January 7, as the SEC goes for its seventh straight BCS National Championship.

Down goes No. 1.

The defending BCS champions and the nation's top-ranked team, the Alabama Crimson Tide were upset by No. 15 Texas A&M 29-24 on Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

The Aggies jumped out to a 20-0 lead behind their high-powered, up-tempo offense and a strong defensive start and hung on in the second half, never relinquishing the lead even when it appeared the Crimson Tide were on the verge of going ahead. Let's take a look at the high points from the thriller:

It was over when: Alabama linebacker Tyler Hayes committed a neutral-zone infraction when the Aggies were lining up to punt it away to the Crimson Tide with 40 seconds left. The penalty gave Texas A&M a first down and the Aggies took a knee to seal the win, as the Crimson Tide had no timeouts to stop the clock.

Game ball goes to: Johnny Manziel. Really, you could give it to a lot of guys (the Aggies' offensive line, senior receiver Ryan Swope and the defense made some big plays) but Manziel is the straw that stirred Texas A&M's drink -- and has all season. He finished 24-of-31 passing for 253 yards, 2 touchdowns and, most importantly, zero interceptions. He also made plays with his feet, rushing for 92 yards on 18 carries (he has now surpassed 1,000 rushing yards on the season). He took care of the ball, made good throws, extended plays and played about as well as you can expect a redshirt freshman to in that environment.

Key stat: 3-0. The turnover margin. Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron threw two interceptions, including one on the Crimson Tide's final offensive drive, and the Tide also fumbled once when T.J. Yeldon coughed it up at the Aggies' 38, killing a potential scoring drive. The Aggies scored on the ensuing drive to take a 29-17 lead. The Aggies' loss to LSU on Oct. 29 was marred by five turnovers. This time, they flipped the script.

Key play: Sophomore cornerback Deshazor Everett's interception with 1:36 to go. On fourth-and-goal from the 2 and needing a touchdown, McCarron tried to hit receiver Kenny Bell on a short out route near the pylon, but Everett stepped in front of Bell and intercepted the pass to get the ball back for the Aggies and kill the Crimson Tide's drive.

What it means: The Crimson Tide's (9-1, 6-1 SEC) BCS Championship Game hopes took a huge hit with this loss. Three teams -- Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame -- could remain undefeated after their games on Saturday night and jump Alabama in the BCS standings. And on the flip side: Welcome to the SEC, Texas A&M. Many wondered whether the Aggies could compete in the SEC when they made the move to the country's premier football league. Not only have the Aggies (8-2, 5-2) shown they can compete, they've shown they can beat the best teams the league has to offer. Kevin Sumlin has this team peaking, and it could jump into the top 10 with this win. It's definitely a new era in College Station, Texas.

And this could also be a formal introduction into the Heisman Trophy race for Manziel.

Alabama's offense designed to run wild

October, 19, 2012
10/19/12
10:45
AM ET
(The Tennessee Volunteers host No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday at 7 ET on ESPN.)

The Alabama Crimson Tide are 43-0 since the start of the 2008 season when they run for at least 150 yards in a game. On Saturday, the Crimson Tide will play the Tennessee Volunteers, who rank last in the SEC in rushing.

This season, Alabama is averaging 6.2 yards per carry on designed run plays. That happens to be the same amount the Tennessee Volunteers allow per carry, which ranks last in the SEC.

Why is Alabama averaging so many yards per carry? On those designed run plays the Tide average 4.6 yards before contact with a defender. They have made it at least five yards past the line of scrimmage without being touched on 38.8 percent of their designed runs, including on 20-of-42 runs last week against Missouri.

When head coach Nick Saban’s team isn’t gaining yards by the bunches on the ground, quarterback A.J. McCarron is more than holding his own under center.

McCarron ranks fourth in FBS in third-down passing efficiency this season (minimum 20 attempts). One reason for McCarron’s success is his improvement when opponents send five or more pass-rushers. He’s completing 70.6 percent of his passes against the blitz on third down this season, up from 46.7 in 2011.

When Alabama sends five or more pass-rushers, opponents are completing 42.9 percent of their passes with more combined sacks and interceptions (13) than first downs (12). On Saturday, Missouri completed 1-of-9 passes and was sacked twice when Alabama blitzed, the third time in the past four games that Alabama had more sacks than its opponent had completions.

Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray this season has completed a similar number of attempts when being blitzed by SEC opponents (43.3 percent). While Bray put up good numbers in non-conference play, he’s been average at best in Tennessee’s three SEC games, all losses. He’s completed just over 52.2 percent of his passes and has thrown just as many touchdowns as interceptions (6) in losses to Florida, Georgia and Mississippi State.

Letterman and concerns return for Tide

April, 13, 2012
4/13/12
2:00
PM ET

Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire
Quarterback AJ McCarron is one of eight offensive starters returning in 2012.

Spring is a time for renewal. In college football, spring is also the time to look ahead to fall and the upcoming season. Saturday, Alabama holds its annual Golden Flake A-Day Game (ESPN3, 3 ET), which will give its fans a first look at the defending national champions.

Alabama captured its record-breaking ninth national championship of the major poll era in January. Once again, the Crimson Tide are expected to be one of the best teams in the country in 2012. But the Tide have been here before. Will history repeat?

In 2010, Alabama was preseason No. 1 in both The Associated Press and Coaches polls with 11 combined offensive and defensive starters returning from the team that had won the 2009 national title. The problem was the retention breakdown. Bama lost eight starters from a defense that allowed the second-fewest yards (244.1) and points (11.7) per game in the bowl subdivision. With quarterback Greg McElroy, the running back tandem of Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, and receiver Julio Jones, the belief was that the Tide would score points and win games with their offense, while buying enough time for their defense to jell.

However, all did not go as planned. The defense allowed slightly more PPG than in 2009 (13.5 in 2010, 11.7 in 2009). The Tide allowed more plays of 20-plus yards (13) in 2010 than it did in 2009 (7). They also blew a 24-point lead in a loss to rival and eventual national champion Auburn in the regular-season finale, the biggest collapse in Alabama’s storied history. That was one of three losses for the Tide that season.

Like in 2010, this Alabama team has a quarterback returning for his second season as a starter (AJ McCarron), along with a strong running back (Eddie Lacy). Also like the 2010 team, the Tide will lose several starters on defense including four likely first-round picks (cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, linebacker/defensive end Courtney Upshaw, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and safety Mark Barron).

So how good will Alabama be in 2012? History suggests the Tide will be one of the best teams in college football, but not good enough to win a second straight national championship. Just like 2010.

SPONSORED HEADLINES