The tears flowed uncontrollably, dripping down his cheeks like candle wax. They couldn't be stopped -- not when his teammates embraced him on the sideline, and not when his mother and father hugged him in the grandstands after the game.
No, quarterback AJ McCarron couldn't stop crying last Nov. 3 in Baton Rouge, La., after Alabama beat LSU 21-17. He cried for one reason: The stress was over. McCarron had just thrown a game-winning 28-yard touchdown pass to running back T.J. Yeldon with only seconds remaining, the first last-minute comeback of his college career. "Everybody made a big deal out of it," said McCarron. "There's plenty of people to have tears of joy after a big game. I've seen Ray Lewis, Michael Jordan and tons of people."
On Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, emotions will again run high when the No. 13 Tigers face the top-ranked Crimson Tide. For McCarron, this game is a chance to take one step closer to becoming the first quarterback in college football history to win three consecutive national titles. For LSU signal-caller Zach Mettenberger, who was arguably the best player on the field last autumn when these teams met, this is an opportunity to notch a signature win in his Tiger career -- and, in the process, to blast the race for the national title wide open.
"There's no question that the key to this game is the quarterback play," said an SEC coach intimately familiar with Alabama and LSU. "McCarron has played so well in big games and he'll need to complete a few long balls because LSU is going to jam the line of scrimmage with eight guys in the box and so AJ will see some single coverage outside, which means [wide receiver] Amari Cooper should have a big night. Mettenberger started out the season looking like the best pro-style quarterback in the conference, but he's really regressed these last two games. But he's got the arm and the confidence to do some damage. Alabama won't face a quarterback this talented the rest of the year."
The 6-foot-4, 214-pound McCarron is coming off the best month of his career. In October, he completed nearly 71 percent of his passes and had 10 touchdowns with no interceptions. Most impressive, he's completed 76.5 percent of his attempts on third down. Though McCarron has sometimes been labeled as a "game manager" -- a description he laughs off -- he has proven that he can win games with his arm. He completed 23-of-34 passes for 234 yards in Alabama's 21-0 BCS national title game victory over LSU on Jan. 9, 2012 in New Orleans.
Still, what has made McCarron such a perfect fit in coach Nick Saban's system is that he limits mistakes. "AJ McCarron is a great, within‑the‑scheme playmaker," said LSU coach Les Miles. "I think he sees it. He makes all the throws. I think he's a tremendous leader and they have quality running backs in T.J. Yeldon. I think they [have] nine players with at least one touchdown reception, so there's balance in their offense."
So what's the best way to defend McCarron? "You have got to get to AJ's feet and make him feel uncomfortable when he's in the pocket," said the SEC coach. "He loses some accuracy when he's moving around. But that being said, the kid just keeps getting better. He understands defenses and does a great job of getting his team in the right formations and making the right calls at the line of scrimmage."
Though LSU lost to 'Bama last fall, the 6-5, 230-pound Mettenberger played one of the finest games of career that November night in the Bayou. He went 24-of-35 for 298 yards with one touchdown. But after looking like an All-America through the first seven games of 2013, he struggled in both the Tigers' 27-24 loss to Ole Miss on Oct. 19 (he threw three interceptions) and in LSU's 48-16 win over Furman a week later (he threw two picks). He ranks second in the SEC in passing efficiency behind Johnny Manziel (McCarron is third), and Mettenberger will likely need to be nearly flawless at Bryant-Denny Stadium for the Tigers to have a shot at the upset.
"Zach played fantastic against us last year," Saban said. "He made some great throws. He stood in the pocket and got whacked a couple of times and still made very, very good throws when we pressured, and he completed the ball. They made a lot of explosive plays in the passing game."
"Our quarterback has to play well [on Saturday night]," said Miles. "I think we have to have balance, both run and pass, so that it becomes something that he can do routinely or without having to make great plays. And I think that it'll always be balance that allows us to really have the best quarterback play."
Miles believes the Tigers' biggest edge will come in the matchup between wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. and Alabama's cornerbacks. Landry and Beckham, two future NFL players, have a combined 1,891 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. Even when Landry and Beckham are covered, Miles expects them to come down with the ball about 70 percent of the time. "We think that we kind of give them some challenges on the perimeter," Miles said. "We got a quarterback that can make the throw and several receivers that can get open in space. ... We think there is a matchup there that benefits us."
Yet the Alabama secondary has improved in recent weeks. After giving up 464 passing yards to Manziel and Texas A&M on Sept. 14, the Tide defense hasn't surrendered more than 200 yards passing in a game since. It's looking more and more like a vintage Saban group. "I guarantee you that Saban will stop LSU's stable of running backs, just like he stuffed Ole Miss' run game earlier this year, and so this game will come down to whether or not Mettenberger has time in the pocket and can be accurate in hitting crossing and curl routes," said the SEC coach. "This game will be close, but LSU simply won't be able stop Alabama's offense. A good number of points are going to be scored. Give the edge to McCarron and his wide receivers. AJ is simply the smartest quarterback in the country. Alabama is going to keep rolling."
However, there is one more statistic to keep in mind. As a starter, McCarron is 33-2. His only two losses have occurred in the same place: at home.