An NFL draft light on great quarterbacks is good news for college football fans: The 2013 season is loaded with talented and accomplished players at the most important position in sports. So throughout the rest of the summer, we're counting down the top 10 quarterbacks in college football, one per week until the season kicks off. These rankings are based on college ability, not necessarily NFL potential. This week, Alabama senior AJ McCarron checks in at No.3.

The countdown:

10. Brett Hundley, UCLA
9. David Fales, San Jose State
8. Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois
7. Aaron Murray, Georgia
6. Braxton Miller, Ohio State
5. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
4. Tajh Boyd, Clemson
3. AJ McCarron, Alabama


Through the 2013 season and the 2014 NFL draft process, please do not call AJ McCarron a winner.

Quarterback is the most important position in sports, and McCarron plays it well. He plays it well within the context of Nick Saban's talked-about-ad-nauseam Process, functioning as one part of a team that wins nearly every game and is filled with great players who could start for any team in America. But, of course, while the quarterback may frequently be more responsible for wins than any other position, that doesn't mean the quarterback is ever solely responsible. Especially at Alabama.

And if all goes as expected, the 2013 season will end with McCarron having quarterbacked the most accomplished team in the history of college football: three seasons, three national championships. Even if Alabama does not win another title, McCarron will still leave Tuscaloosa as one of the most accomplished college quarterbacks ever, and he will most certainly be called a "winner." That may be fine with him in a coach-speak manner. But it sells him short as an individual player.

When applied to a quarterback, "winner" has developed multiple definitions. The first is both positive and literal: someone who has played a part in a lot of wins and/or championships, which is what McCarron wants, and is what most any player says he wants. But that simple, straight-forward definition is obfuscated by a second, distorted definition that has taken on a life of its own: the one in which a quarterback is called a winner because he plays for a good team but isn't actually very talented, which, in the absence of tangible talent, results in phrases like "he just wins" to argue for why a team should start or sign him.

"He's a winner" is an argument made on behalf of quarterbacks of good teams who have no other arguments to make. There are better arguments to make for AJ McCarron.


A run-heavy team supposedly just needs a guy who doesn't make mistakes, even in the 21st-century age of passing. And, no, you will not find McCarron among the nation's passing yardage leaders. He finished 41st nationally last year with 2,933 yards.

While he played 14 games -- something only a handful of QBs did -- he ranked 78th with 314 pass attempts. Not only does Alabama have the running back talent and run blocking ability to lean more toward the run (570 attempts as a team last season), its regular large leads allows it to hand the ball off to run out the clock with games already in hand. McCarron doesn't pass 30 or 40 times per game because Alabama doesn't need its quarterback to pass 30 or 40 times per game, no matter how talented.

What McCarron did do was finish third nationally with an average of 9.3 yards per attempt. He finished 15th in completion percentage at 67.2 percent. And he was the only quarterback in the SEC to throw an interception on less than one out of every hundred passes (three out of 314). Throw in 30 touchdown passes, and McCarron led the nation in passer rating, a flawed yet not entirely irrelevant gauge of a quarterback's success. From his first year as a starter to the second, he improved by 1.3 yards per attempt and nearly doubled his number of touchdown passes while throwing two fewer picks.

Now, we enter unknown territory, as McCarron will be Saban's first three-year starting quarterback at Alabama, after two years each of John Parker Wilson and Greg McElroy:
































































McElroy received the "winner" label, and while he's hung around the Jets' depth chart, it's clear winning games with solid college numbers (some better, in fact, than McCarron), as most predicted, won't make him an effective starting quarterback in the NFL.

McCarron, though, is supposed to be different. Last year, playing with a supremely talented supporting cast, including the best wide receiver Saban has had (Amari Cooper), McCarron played brilliant football most of the season, only faltering with two picks against Texas A&M, in addition to a lousy three quarters against LSU before waking up to lead a well-executed game-winning scoring drive in the final minutes. Everything else was mostly smooth sailing.

All the intangibles that go into that "winner" label? Yes, he does appear to have many of those ambiguous qualities, and they're important: poise, leadership, intelligence, character. Like a lot of "winners," he's not going to have the strongest arm at the NFL combine either.

But his arm is good enough -- Alabama has one of the most dangerous big-play combinations in America with McCarron throwing to Cooper -- and when combined with his field vision, timing, 6-foot-4 height, pocket mobility and accuracy, he's one of the best in the game as a mid-range passer. Wilson was an undrafted free agent, McElroy a seventh-rounder. Come next spring, McCarron should shatter that trend and come off the board by the end of the second round, if not much earlier.


Oddly enough, McCarron said he came to Alabama as a risk-taker, and he still looks up to Brett Favre, a notorious risk-taker and improviser. It will be interesting to see if that side of McCarron eventually comes out, once outside the rigid yet successful confines of Saban's Process.

But there's one more year to go for the Crimson Tide, and on paper, the 2013 Alabama offense has its most versatile set of skill position talent in the Saban era. The offense will look different, having lost three All-America caliber offensive linemen, as well as another All-American running back in Eddie Lacy. But it will adapt, and it may be even better. New center Ryan Kelly has been raved bout, left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio is the Tide's next top-10 pick, T.J. Yeldon was as effective as Lacy in 2012, Cooper has emerged as one of the two best receivers in college football and McCarron may have a new weapon in athletic freshman tight end O.J. Howard. Key players are lost, but there's no reason to think Alabama's next-man-up ability will differ from the last few years.

Every tool is in place for McCarron to succeed, and succeed wildly, even if Alabama does not need him to throw for 300 yards every game. The Crimson Tide will win, and by extension he will too. McCarron will be called a "game manager." But he will do that by teaming with his skilled supporting cast to out-execute and systematically break down opposing defenses better than almost any other quarterback. He's smarter, he's more accurate and he sees the field better. For the first time, we can say a Saban quarterback at Alabama is a legitimate NFL prospect, a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender and one of the most skilled quarterbacks playing college football today.

He will win games, but don't call him a winner. He's a better quarterback than that.


Contact me at and follow me on Twitter @MattBrownSoE. Check back next week for No. 2 on our quarterback countdown.