- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The conversation happened sometime during Alabama's short drive to a children's hospital in New Orleans, a few days before the Crimson Tide played their rematch against LSU in the Jan. 9 Allstate BCS National Championship Game.
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban could sense quarterback AJ McCarron was beating himself up over his poor performance in Alabama's 9-6 overtime loss to LSU at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala. While there was plenty of blame to go around -- the Tide's kickers missed four field goals, and a botched trick play led to an interception at the LSU 1 -- Saban knew McCarron was carrying a heavy burden only a few days before the biggest game of his life.
"Look, man, you don't need to be anything but yourself and you don't need to do anything but take what the defense gives you," Saban told McCarron. "You don't have to try to be somebody else."
After Alabama was given a second chance at beating No. 1 LSU last season, Saban knew McCarron would have to be at his best to lead his team to its second BCS national championship in three seasons.
"I thought he was concerned because he got a little criticism for the way he played in the first game," Saban said. "I told him, 'Don't put that s--- on yourself; just do what you do and make good choices and decisions.'"
That's exactly what McCarron did in leading the Crimson Tide to a 21-0 victory over the Tigers at the Superdome. He completed 23 of 34 passes for 234 yards and didn't turn the ball over against LSU's menacing defense. While Alabama's defense smothered the Tigers, allowing only 92 yards of offense, McCarron set the tone, attacking LSU's vaunted secondary early and often.
"He had such a good game when there was so much pressure on him that I think he felt comfortable in that approach," Saban said. "I think he really kind of learned that this is the best way to play. When you're forcing it and trying to make big plays, the risk-reward is not worth it. He's done a really good job and has a really good understanding of what we're doing."
When No. 1 Alabama plays No. 5 LSU in Saturday night's SEC West showdown at Tiger Stadium, the Tigers will face a much more confident quarterback. McCarron, a junior from Mobile, Ala., leads the country in passing efficiency with a 182.4 rating. He has passed for 1,684 yards with 18 touchdowns and hasn't thrown an interception in 177 pass attempts this season.
"He's really comfortable in the offense right now," Alabama center Barrett Jones said. "I think we're making it really hard on teams to load the box against us. He's throwing it over their heads, and we've got some really good wide receivers this year, too."
McCarron, who is 20-1 in two seasons as Alabama's starter, has emerged as one of the leading Heisman Trophy candidates while guiding the Crimson Tide to an 8-0 record. While McCarron won't match the gaudy statistics of Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein (1,630 passing yards with 12 touchdowns and 634 rushing yards with 16 scores), Saban says his quarterback has been just as valuable.
"Somebody asked me if it bothered me that everybody says he just manages the game," Saban said. "I don't know how you can be a good quarterback and not the manage the game. You've the ball on every play and you've got to distribute the ball, even on running plays. I think what people don't understand is that he decides, based on the game plan, what we're into and what we're not into. He's getting us into good plays and out of bad plays and all that kind of stuff."
McCarron was nearly flawless in his decision-making in the Tide's rout of LSU in the BCS National Championship Game. Alabama surprised the Tigers by throwing the football on first down in an attempt to stay out of second- and third-and-long situations against one of the country's best defenses. McCarron completed 16 of 20 passes for 165 yards on first down while throwing against a secondary that included All-American cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu.
After Alabama took a 9-0 halftime lead, it ran the ball throughout the second half to run out the clock.
"AJ understands very well that you're not a good leader if you don't manage the rest of your teammates," Saban said. "Quarterback is a hard position to play unless the people around you play well. Other guys have to block, and you have to have route runners who can get open and catch the ball. You can't run all the time if you get behind in down and distance, so you're going to see a lot of crazy stuff as people try to put pressure on you. I think he kind of understands all of that."
More than anything else, McCarron has taken care of the football. He has thrown only three interceptions in the past 20 games and none in the past 11. His current streak of 262 consecutive passes without an interception is the longest in Alabama history and second longest in SEC history (former Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson went 325 attempts without a pick).
"We have an old saying that I'm sure our fans don't like: 'If every offensive series ends with a kick, whether it's a punt, a field goal or an extra point, that's pretty good -- could be worse,'" Saban said. "When you give the ball away to the other guy, that's never a good thing, and it has a really significant impact on the outcome of games. AJ has done a good job of taking care of the ball. [LSU] is a big takeaway team that we are playing this week, and I think it is going to be important that we don't turn the ball over."
No one knows that better than McCarron, who sulked for weeks over his costly interception in Alabama's loss to LSU during the 2011 regular season. Claiborne intercepted McCarron's ill-timed pass near midfield and returned it 33 yards to the Tide's 15, setting up the Tigers' tying field goal early in the fourth quarter. LSU kicked another field goal in overtime to win the game, nearly costing Alabama a chance to play for the national championship.
It was a lesson McCarron carried to New Orleans, where he played his best on college football's biggest stage.
"I think it did a lot for him," Saban said. "I think it did a lot for his growth and his confidence. I think it did a lot for the respect he got from his teammates. I think it made him realize that he could be the leader of the team and that a lot of people could look up to him and he could be the guy that could be the difference this year."
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