Analyzing AJ McCarron's Heisman prospects; more mail

Wednesday September 18th, 2013

Often overshadowed by Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron tossed four TDs in leading 'Bama over Texas A&M.
Darren Carroll/SI

The Stewart Mandel Podcast
Stewart invites SB Nation's Bill Connelly to discuss his book and website, Football Study Hall, and discuss impressions of several teams' first few games.

Several days after Alabama's 49-42 win over Texas A&M last weekend, my mind is still back in College Station reliving the epic game I witnessed. College Football Overtime led this week with a tribute to Johnny Manziel's football abilities, but as many noted, there was another talented quarterback on the field that day whose team actually won the game.

I understand that Manziel is amazing, fun to watch, can carry a team with his arm or his legs, etc. In my mind, though, the "most outstanding" requirement for the Heisman Trophy extends to leadership, character and the ability to command an entire team. With those elements in mind, I think AJ McCarron should be the frontrunner. Even setting aside the last two national championships, he just marched onto Kyle Field and came out with a win. How many other quarterbacks could do that?
-- Wood, Minneapolis

Actually, Florida's Jeff Driskel did that last year, so ... (Kidding.)

First of all, consider this a friendly reminder that Heismans are not won in September. If that were the case, Denard Robinson and Geno Smith would both have trophies. My point in this week's Overtime was that voters often automatically downgrade a player if he loses a game -- and especially if he throws two interceptions in that defeat -- but Manziel's performance against Alabama's vaunted defense was so transcendent that it actually bolstered his stock in my mind. Apparently I wasn't alone; he moved into the top spot in the Heisman Pundit straw poll this week. Mind you, coming into the season it seemed he'd have little shot to repeat because of the seemingly impossibly high standard by which incumbent winners are held. Still, putting up 562 yards of total offense against the Tide is a good way to shatter even the loftiest expectations.

However, I'm also a certifiable McCarron fan. The game-manager tag no longer applies to him, seeing as he finished last season as the nation's top-rated passer with an eye-popping 30-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. McCarron started slowly against Texas A&M, misfiring on several easy throws, which makes it all the more remarkable that he finished 20-of-29 for 334 yards, four touchdowns and no picks. He's a third-year starter who knows his offense cold, avoids forcing things and gets the ball to the Tide's playmakers. If he continues to play like he did on Saturday (and not like he did against Virginia Tech in Week 1) and leads 'Bama to another BCS title game, it would not be surprising if he took home the Heisman. In fact, I predicted that very thing happening before the season.

ELLIS: AJ McCarron, Johnny Manziel both provide Heisman moments

But if you were to ask me today which of the two is the more outstanding player -- it's not even a question. This is not a knock against McCarron, but he's not particularly unique. I've seen guys like him before. He's Ken Dorsey, he's Matt Leinart, he's Sam Bradford -- the traditional-style passer on an offense loaded with future pros. Manziel is a one-of-a-kind talent. Comparisons to other dual-threat quarterbacks like Vince Young or Cam Newton don't fit. They had their own spectacular attributes, but I've never seen anything like Manziel's sixth-sense ability to elude a rush and extend a play. The closest comparison might be Michael Vick at Virginia Tech, but that was a different era. Vick still handed the ball off 40 times a game.

Again, this is not an argument to hand Manziel the Heisman. He still has to earn it, and that starts with leading the Aggies to success the rest of the way. There is no shortage of other outstanding quarterbacks out there -- McCarron, Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Clemson's Tajh Boyd, etc. -- who will have their own opportunities in the national spotlight soon enough. If McCarron emerges as the most deserving candidate, the more power to him.

I love my Crimson Tide, but how can anyone still rank them No. 1 after they gave up as many yards in one game this year as they did in their first three last year? I know Manziel and Mike Evans only come around once every ... well, in forever, and Saturday's game was fun to watch. But I'd be nervous about playing Oregon, Florida State, Clemson, etc., which also have mobile quarterbacks and offensive firepower. Is this just an enigma and can 'Bama get things back to normal?
-- Brian, Huntsville, Ala.

A team shouldn't be dropped from No. 1 after going on the road and defeating a top-10 opponent, especially while simultaneously rewarding Oregon (which I assume would take the Tide's place) for beating up on a bad Tennessee team. But there is certainly ample reason at this point to question whether Alabama in 2013 is the unstoppable monster than many of us built it up to be. Evans is a phenomenal receiver, but the Tide are definitely vulnerable at one cornerback spot. Neither John Fulton nor Cyrus Jones was ready for that challenge, and Geno Smith has vanished into coach Nick Saban's doghouse. Also underestimated have been the losses Alabama sustained on its defensive line (Jesse Williams, Damion Square and Quinton Dial). The Tide didn't get much pressure against a talented A&M offensive front.

STAPLES: Alabama remains No. 1 in Power Rankings after Week 3

So is it best to chalk 'Bama's performance up to facing one of the nation's most powerful offenses, knowing the Tide have plenty of time to figure things out before they'll face another opponent of A&M's caliber? Or is this a harbinger of things to come? In 2010, Alabama survived a similar early-season scare from quarterback Ryan Mallett and Arkansas. People didn't read much into it at the time, but a few weeks later South Carolina's Stephen Garcia, of all people, carved up the Tide and the preseason No. 1 team wound up losing three games. If I'm an Alabama fan, I'm not worried about Oregon or Clemson, I'm worried about making it out of the SEC. But I'd also comfort myself by thinking about McCarron, T.J. Yeldon, Amari Cooper, C.J. Mosley and Vinnie Sunseri.

So, can we add Bo Pelini's name to the list of coaches on the hot seat?
-- Ken Devine, Centerville, Ohio

It's funny how much has changed since I first answered this question in July. At the time, many Nebraska fans objected to my even entertaining the possibility. In the offseason, when optimism abounds, one could take Pelini at his word that the Huskers' beleaguered defense would be better. The offense was loaded. What could go wrong? Then came the Wyoming game, followed a few weeks later by Saturday's implosion against UCLA, and it quickly became clear that not much has changed at all. Nebraska's defense is still a train wreck, compounded by the fact Pelini is relying on so many freshmen. The Huskers continue to get embarrassed in big games. The unrest from Saturday's debacle led to Tommie Frazier's Twitter rant, Pelini's unfortunate "We don't need him" response and the leaked recording of a two-year-old profanity-laced tirade in which the coach rips Nebraska fans and threatens to bolt town.

I found it heartening that the consensus reaction to Deadspin's "bombshell" was more sympathy than anger toward Pelini. What he said was wrong, but whoever leaked this obviously private and out-of-context conversation also wronged him. It's no secret that Pelini has a temper, and it's unfortunate that it has become his defining trait, because this is also the same coach who spoke so eloquently after the Nebraska-Penn State game that was played days after the Jerry Sandusky allegations broke and who inspired fans everywhere with seven-year-old Jack Hoffman's spring game cameo. Ultimately, though, Pelini's program has plateaued. His leash is now considerably shorter after alienating both the fans and his bosses. Barring drastic improvement from the defense, the Huskers will not likely contend for the Big Ten title, and if Pelini ultimately delivers one of his staple 9-4 seasons, continued support will be much harder to come by.

ANDERSON: Nebraska's Bo Pelini faces uphill battle to win back fan support

Let's keep this simple: Who is the odds-on favorite to be coaching in Austin in September 2014?
-- Kevin M., Plano, Texas

My personal favorite is current Baylor headman Art Briles, who would be the absolute perfect Texas football coach. But I keep hearing "Texas would never hire the coach of Baylor" -- a sentiment which is also so very Texas.

Quarterback Joel Stave (2) and Wisconsin lost to Arizona State after a baffling end-of-game controversy.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

How do you think pollsters will ultimately weigh Wisconsin's loss to Arizona State given the debacle at the end of their game? Do you think anything can be done in the future to correct such an egregious officiating failure? I have to imagine that if a similar situation had cost 'Bama a win against A&M, the Crimson Tide would still be in top six and be given the benefit of the doubt when the BCS title game matchup is eventually set.
-- Adam, Cleveland

What happened on Saturday night was obviously unfortunate, but officiating mistakes are part of football. A loss is a loss and the voters will treat it accordingly. Pollsters gave Oklahoma no special consideration following a much more egregious officiating debacle against Oregon in 2006, and I expect this result will be treated much the same way. It'd be one thing if officials literally took points off the board. As it was, had they re-spotted the ball in more timely fashion, Wisconsin still had to get off two more plays and make a 32-yard field goal. Who knows whether the Badgers would have come away with a win? While all parties involved certainly deserved a better ending, the close loss should -- and will -- be treated as a close loss.

As for the future, Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave learned a harsh lesson on Saturday night. Put in the same situation, players can't leave any room for ambiguity. Hand the ref the ball. Presumably, the Pac-12 and other conferences will make a point of reeducating their officials about how to handle such situations. That's about all that can be done. Still, I wish the Pac-12 would do more publicly than issue a reprimand and offer vague wording about "additional sanctions." Are the officials from the game suspended or not? The conference has done quite a bit to revamp its officiating system under commissioner Larry Scott, but "Pac-12 refs" have yet to escape a stigma stemming from the Oregon-Oklahoma controversy and several other fiascos. Going back to the Arizona/Ed Rush basketball situation, I don't think Scott fully understands the need for absolute transparency when trying to build and maintain officiating credibility. The league's parochial insistence that its own refs work all nonconference home games will always leave it open to suspicion. The Big Ten and Pac-12 are longtime partners, but Jim Delany is peeved after Saturday. Perhaps he dodged a bullet when the Pac-12 asked out of the cross-league scheduling alliance the two briefly formed a couple of years ago.

Do you think Wisconsin will ever schedule a nonconference game against a Pac-12 school again?
-- Josh Loschen, Menomonie Wis.

The Badgers are currently scheduled to play at Washington in 2018. That gives athletic director Barry Alvarez five years to get over this.

Everything written this week about the Ole Miss-Texas game has focused on Texas' implosion on defense, but can't we give Ole Miss some credit? What do you think of the Rebels' chances to knock off one of the big three ('Bama, A&M or LSU) remaining on their schedule and have a 10-win season?
-- Lisa, Dallas

Ole Miss definitely deserves props. For one thing, it's the only team in the country that already has two road wins over power-conference foes (Vanderbilt and Texas). Its offense has progressed exactly as I thought it might in coach Hugh Freeze's second season, led by much-improved quarterback Bo Wallace, who has yet to throw an interception after tossing 17 in 2012. Running back Jeff Scott is a heck of a playmaker, having notched long touchdowns in both aforementioned wins, and freshman Laquon Treadwell has already emerged as a No. 1 receiver. On top of that, the defense isn't bad, either, currently ranking 35th nationally.

Of those three games against top-10 foes, the Rebels' Oct. 12 meeting with Texas A&M would seem to be their best chance of notching an upset, if for no other reason than the Aggies' defense -- as fans saw last Saturday -- is not very good. The teams' matchup last year went right down to the wire. But I also don't think Ole Miss is yet at a place where it can take all the other conference games for granted. Arkansas and Auburn could present problems. While it's doubtful Freeze's squad will win the SEC, expect it to be playing on New Year's Day (or in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 3).

Your picks last week were freakishly good, including the scores. Are you from the future?
-- Henry Allain, San Juan Capistrano, Calif.

I've been all over the map so far -- from 12-1 to 4-6 to 9-1 (with the one loss decided in overtime). I'm not from the future. I'm just a really good guesser (well, sometimes).

Pardon me for being optimistic, but if Fresno State and Colorado aren't able to make up last week's game, and if Fresno is 11-0, that could be the difference between the Fiesta Bowl and the New Mexico Bowl for the Bulldogs. Fresno needs every win and every vote it can get to break into the top 12. Could the teams make up the game on Dec. 14, after the conference championship game?
-- Matt, Fresno, Calif.

It appears the only way that game, which was postponed due to last week's flooding in Boulder, will be played is if the Bulldogs don't reach the Mountain West championship game on Dec. 7, in which case this subject will likely be rendered moot. But I wouldn't worry about it. While it hurts for Fresno not to get the chance at another win over an AQ-conference team (it beat Rutgers in Week 1), it would still finish 12-0 -- not 11-0 -- if it went undefeated thanks to the conference title game. The Bulldogs are already No. 25 in the Coaches' Poll leading into Friday night's showcase game against Boise State. It's mid-September. I assure you they'll move up 13 spots over the course of 12 weeks if they do in fact win out.

But first, beat Boise.

STAPLES: Where does Fresno State's Derek Carr land on the 2014 NFL draft board?

This is just a weekly reminder that you've got Florida State in the wrong spot in your BCS projections. Also, I'm looking forward to a Clemson-loaded Overtime on Monday, Oct. 21. Go Tigers.
-- Will, Greenwood, S.C.

How very Clemson that you're upset I don't have the Tigers pegged for the Orange Bowl. Aren't you supposed to be aiming for Pasadena?

Do you think this targeting nonsense will be changed again next season? Replay officials are allowed to look at the play again so that players are not ejected unnecessarily, but the penalty still must be enforced. It's ridiculous. I saw it happen three times on Saturday. As these officials don't know how to call these plays, it's damaging the game.
-- Brad, Dallas

Like it or not, the targeting rule and the ejection penalty aren't going anywhere. Player safety is too big of a priority, and people I've spoken with in the sport are noticing a positive effect. They've noticed instances of players altering the way they tackle. Still, I agree that the replay process needs to change. Either something is a penalty or it's not. Big 12 coordinator of officials Walt Anderson said this summer that the rule was crafted this way out of fear that refs wouldn't make the call at all if they thought it would be reversed entirely. As Andy Staples wrote then, "Your team could be losing 15 critical yards so a guy in stripes doesn't get his feelings hurt."

As an aside, I've noticed that my inbox is getting a bit heavy on officiating complaints. The targeting issue is one thing, but in general I find almost anything officiating-related to be so ... so ... boring. It's just not possible for me to share in your indignation over that heinous pass interference call in your favorite team's game. General rule of thumb: Anything short of a Wisconsin-Arizona State level debacle, you might as well save your breath.

UCF did not win on Saturday. They were given 21 first half points by bad officiating. The first seven came after a significant hold on third-and-nine at the Penn State 35-yard line. The second seven came after a blatant hold on Deion Barnes, who was in position to make the tackle for a loss. The third seven came after UCF ran a pick to free up a receiver on a touchdown pass. Those plays were the difference. Penn State is rightfully 3-0. Please correct your error to account for reality.
-- Kevin, Fairfax, Va.

I wish I had the power bump Penn State to 1-2 instead just for having to read this email.

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