SANTA CLARA, Calif. — More than 3,000 miles from the site of the national title game, in a suburb of Miami, Wesley Carroll feels like a teenager again. His name is crawling across ESPN’s BottomLine ticker, and his phone is abuzz with excited messages from friends and family members. Reporters are making hurried attempts to interview him before the big game, and his father’s co-workers are greeting dad with, “Oh, hey! I saw your son on TV!”
Days before the College Football Playoff national championship game between Alabama and Clemson plays out in the Bay Area, a 30-year-old private quarterback coach in Davie, Fla., is in the spotlight for something he did as Mississippi State’s quarterback in 2007. You might not know that Carroll is the last true freshman QB to beat a Nick Saban–coached team, but everybody else does. “I’ve done more interviews post-playing at Mississippi State than I ever did while I was playing,” he laughs. “It’s been blowing up.” For a second straight year, a true freshman QB stands in the way of Saban’s latest championship ring: last year, Georgia’s Jake Fromm; this year, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. For now, Carroll’s 11-year streak is intact, and the owner of such a remarkable achievement suggests it will continue. “I think Trevor Lawrence is phenomenal and will be playing on Sundays,” Carroll says from his home, “but I think Alabama finally has a quarterback that is just an absolute stud.”
Carroll is not alone in his feat. Two other first-year quarterbacks beat Saban before he arrived at Alabama: Florida’s Chris Leak in 2003 while Saban coached LSU and LSU’s Herb Tyler in 1995 while Saban coached Michigan State. When reached by phone Thursday, the 42-year-old Tyler had no idea he was in such lofty company. “That’s something I can put a little feather in the hat,” says Tyler, a construction worker and father of three living in Baton Rouge. “Pretty impressive to be one of three freshmen to beat a Nick Saban team.” In his 23 years as a college head coach, Saban has competed against at least 10 true freshman starting quarterbacks. They won three games, lost seven, completed 49.7% of their passes, threw five touchdowns to 11 interceptions, took at least 23 sacks and averaged about 137 yards passing. Since Carroll’s victory in 2007, five rookie starters have fallen to Saban’s Tide: Fromm (Georgia), Kellen Mond (Texas A&M), Jonathan Wallace (Auburn), Troy Mitchell (Western Carolina) and Rob Bolden (Penn State).
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The 11th passer to join the group will do so with an extra layer of intrigue, not only by the stakes of Monday’s game but through a personnel connection. Woody McCorvey, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney director of operations and right-hand man, was the offensive coordinator for Mississippi State in 2007 when Carroll and the Bulldogs beat Saban’s first Crimson Tide team. “He was the OC of the last guy who beat Nick Saban as a freshman, and now he’s the DFO of the team that has a chance to take out Alabama with a freshman,” Carroll explains. “It’s funny.” Mississippi State won that game 17–12, an old-school, sloppy SEC slugfest that saw Carroll go 9-for-21 with 100 yards through the air. The Bulldogs’ defense held the Tide to four field goals, and defensive back Anthony Johnson returned an interception 103 yards for a touchdown just before halftime.
“That energized the team and the fans,” McCorvey says in an interview with Sports Illustrated on Thursday. But his fondest memory of that game might be six quick words Carroll said to him during a sideline conversation. The quarterback entered the game having thrown 137 consecutive passes without an interception to begin his career, one completion away from the NCAA freshman record. On the third play and first pass attempt of the game, Carroll threw a pick. “He came to the sideline and got on the phone with me upstairs,” McCorvey remembers. “He said, ‘Well, we got that over with. Let’s go play football.’”
More than a decade later, Carroll is now the coach. While maintaining his quarterback training business this past year, he joined the staff at his alma mater, St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the nation’s most talent-rich football powerhouses. During one spring practice, an old friend showed up: Saban. Carroll had to dissuade his offensive players from approaching the Alabama coach. “They’re like, ‘So if we go up to him and ask him, would he know who you are?!’ I said, ‘You guys are not doing that.’ They wanted nothing more than go up to Nick Saban and say, ‘Coach, you know the only true freshman to beat you [at Alabama]? It’s that guy!’”
But the first to do it was Tyler and the Tigers back in 1995, Sagan’s first year in East Lansing. They exploded offensively against Michigan State in a 45–26 win on a bitterly cold day in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La.—normally a lackluster postseason game that had some fireworks this time. LSU was making its first bowl trip in seven years, and Michigan State had qualified for just the second in five years. As a rookie, Tyler was so determined the week of the bowl that he didn’t party with his teammates in Shreveport but instead stayed in the team hotel studying. Five of his 10 completions went to Eddie Kennison for 124 yards, and a tailback named Kevin Faulk ran for a whopping 234.
It wasn’t until years later that he discussed the game with Saban while the two men were back in Shreveport being inducted into the Independence Bowl Hall of Honor. “I didn’t know Nick Saban would be who he is now at that game,” Tyler says. “I just remember Coach Saban’s defense trying to figure out how to stop us—whether to run man or zone or whether to run man over the top of a zone underneath or a zone on the top of a man underneath. They couldn’t figure it out. It’s funny to look back on.”
Two of the three true freshmen to beat Saban did so during the coach’s first season at a school, something Carroll hears from people more than a decade later. “I tell people, ‘Once upon a time, I did beat Alabama. I was part of the team that beat Alabama,’” Carroll says. “They’re always like, ‘Yeah, but that was his first year. They weren’t any good.’” Sure, the 2018 version of Alabama’s defense is light years better than the one in 2007, but so are the quarterbacks. That goes for Lawrence, a 6’6” walking example of the accelerated evolution of college freshman QBs. They’re emerging from pass-happy, spread schemes in high school, readymade even for the best of college programs. In fact, five true freshman quarterbacks started for Power 5 teams in Week 1 this season, which if not the most ever is more than in most years. “They come in with such an understanding of the passing game,” McCorvey says. “They are way ahead of most of the guys who came out when Wes came out.” Lawrence is not only trying to join Carroll, Leak and Tyler, but he could also become just the second true freshman starting quarterback to lead an FBS team to a national championship. “You know, I try not to read the press or listen on TV but the last couple of weeks, I have and a lot of people are saying that he’s going to have a freshman moment, but I don’t see that,” McCorvey says. “I think he’s beyond that now.”
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The real question: Do those in this elite trio want more members? Are they rooting for the freshman, Lawrence, or the coach, Saban? Tyler responds with a question of his own. “You trying to get me killed here in Baton Rouge?” he laughs, a nod to the testy relationship between SEC West rivals Alabama and LSU. “There’s one night I don’t root for Nick: when he’s playing LSU. I will be rooting for him this Monday night. I’m not rooting for Alabama. I’m rooting for him. Let’s make sure you get that straight. Better get that right—not Alabama.”
Carroll doesn’t have a rooting interest, but he doesn’t mind what’s becoming an annual occurrence. “It’s not like I’m sitting back hoping Alabama wins every time they play a true freshman quarterback,” he says. “It’s certainly nice to feel recognized for something I did in 2007. Most of the kids I work with were in diapers or just learning to throw a football then. It’s nice to get some recognition. I think Trevor Lawrence is an outstanding individual, on and off the field, but hey, just like last year, if Trevor doesn’t succeed—not that I’m rooting against him—maybe I’ll pop open a bottle of champagne and say, ‘I’ll have one more year!’”
Carroll snickers. “Nah,” he says. “I’m joking.”