COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Saturday's win nearly came at a cost the Crimson Tide couldn't afford. Losing AJ McCarron would likely have altered, if not eliminated, Alabama's chances of defending its national title.
No. 1 Alabama beat Missouri 42-10 on a rain-soaked afternoon in Columbia, but the moments following Brad Madison's sack of McCarron in the third quarter had implications that went far beyond the box score. Trainers rushed to the Tide's star quarterback as he grasped his right knee in pain. The Alabama seating block at Faurot Field held its collective breath. A nightmare was unfolding before their eyes.
"At first I was thinking the worst thing," said UA cornerback Dee Milliner. His first thought? Please don't let it be the ACL.
Alabama had already lost four players for the season with knee injuries coming into Saturday. McCarron's right knee couldn't be the fifth, not if the Tide planned on keeping their reservations in Miami.
McCarron entered the game with the fifth-highest quarterback efficiency rating in the country, leading the Alabama offense to more than 40 points per game. The junior from South Alabama had put himself squarely in the Heisman Trophy hunt tossing 12 touchdowns and no interceptions.
But his importance to the Tide goes beyond scores and turnovers. His significance to the offense is revealed in the depth behind him. A redshirt freshman is listed as his backup, a former running back/wide receiver is the third option under center.
As the minutes passed with McCarron on the trainer's table, a sinking feeling set in. He tried to put weight on his knee. All he got was pain.
The UA medical staff put a brace on McCarron's right knee, sliding it over a sleeve he already wore to protect his knee in the first place. He was able to walk, but not without a limp.
Center Barrett Jones said, "I was worried, obviously."
Ely, who warmed up on the sidelines while McCarron tested his knee, has just three pass attempts this season. Blake Sims, the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart, mostly runs the read option when he comes in the game. He's attempted just three passes this season, too. Neither he nor Ely has a career start.
The offense, without McCarron to orchestrate it, wouldn't carry the same tune.
UA wide receiver Kevin Norwood said he has faith in both Ely and Sims, but he also told reporters after the game that his first thought was, "We got a lot of running plays about to come up."
Norwood, though, didn't lose faith in his quarterback.
McCarron had battled nagging injuries before. In the SEC, it's a fact of life. So when he jogged back into the offensive huddle, knee brace and all, it wasn't a surprise to his teammates.
"Right before we went out there, I looked to my left and I saw he was coming back," Steen said. "I was like, 'Aww, he's fine.'"
UA coach Nick Saban said McCarron's return was the team doctor's decision. Alabama led Missouri by 18 points at the time, but the lead wasn't comfortable enough for his liking.
"He said he could play and he was able to go back in the game," Saban said. "AJ wanted to go back in the game. As long as the doctor said it was OK for him to go back in the game, I was OK with him going back in."
Saban called McCarron's knee injury a "twisted knee" and said his return to the game should say plenty about his health moving forward.
To Eddie Lacy, McCarron's return also said a lot about the identity of the man tasked with leading the Crimson Tide to a 15th national title.
"It shows a lot of heart," Lacy said. "We know that's the type of player AJ is."
As long as McCarron's intact, it says a lot about who Alabama is. Without him, the question marks are too many to count.
The scare in Columbia, however, was enough to start the conversation.