The Saban 250, 11-15: Who had the Better Alabama Career, AJ McCarron or Mac Jones?

BamaCentral marks the end of the Nick Saban coaching era with the definitive rankings of his top 250 players with the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Jan 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Mac Jones (10) celebrates with the CFP National Championship trophy after beating the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
Jan 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Mac Jones (10) celebrates with the CFP National Championship trophy after beating the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — They have five national championship rings between them, and came extremely close to scoring some more.

Think about that for a moment. AJ McCarron was on the 2009 Alabama team that won Nick Saban's first national title with the Crimson Tide, and nearly lost his redshirt because of a rib injury to starter Greg McElroy. He started during the back-to-back titles in 2011-12, and came one play short of having a shot at the threepeat in 2013.

Mac Jones was a redshirt on the 2017 team, but he was already part of a quarterback room that included Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa. Yet when he did get his chance, the quarterback arguably had the best passing season in Crimson Tide history.

So who gets the nod, the player with longevity on his side, or the one who had the undefeated season and was a first-round draft pick? It's a brutally tough call, but that's what The Saban 250, ranking the players of the Nick Saban era, is all about. Either could justifiably get the nod.

They both finished in the top three in Heisman Trophy voting. Both won a major national award in addition to the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. Both were crowned the NCAA king for a season. The title is decided by passer efficiency rating. McCarron was the 2013 NCAA passing champion by posting a 175.3 rating before Nick Saban opted for more passing-friendly offense. While throwing to Heisman winner DeVonta Smith in 2020, Jones posted a 203.1 rating, which was briefly an NCAA record.

Both were team captains. Both set passing records. Both even wore No. 10. They were also more than a little fiery, one being a former tennis player and displaying some of the mannerism that go with that sport, the other famously involved in a shoving incident with his All-American center in the middle of a national championship game (and then hugged before celebrating with the trophy).

"I like that in my quarterback,” tight end Michael Williams said back in 2012 about McCarron’s competitiveness and swagger.

He had each in abundance. A good example was when he bragged to reporters: “Ask Coach Saban, we were killing the ’09 defense on scout team."

Just to be clear, the 2009 Crimson Tide defense had three All-Americans with Javier Arenas, Terrence Cody and Rolando McClain, along with future first-round draft picks Mark Barron, Marcell Dareus, Kareem Jackson, Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw. The quarterback claimed that as a freshman he more than gave them everything they could handle during practices. It turned out, he did.

“I do remember it that way,” Nick Saban confirmed, as did Kevin Norwood, who was one of his scout-team receivers: “We were just throwing all over them. We were giving them good looks.”

But that's not why McCarron is getting the nod.

He already had the most career touchdown passes of anyone to play for Alabama before his senior season began, and during his final stretch run he had been closing on John Parker Wilson’s marks for passing yards (7,924 from 2005-08), total offense (8,099), and completions (665), in addition to Greg McElroy’s record for completion percentage (66.3, 2007-10), and Jay Barker’s 35 wins as a starting quarterback (1991-94).

Additionally, he not only smashed Tim Tebow’s SEC record for interceptions per pass attempt at 62.2 (2006-09), at 68.4, but challenged the national high held by Fresno State’s Billy Volek (77.8, 1997-99) while playing in the toughest conference in the country.

To help put his numbers into perspective, consider that during his collegiate career in the 1960s, Joe Namath completed 203 of 374 passes (54.3 percent), for 2,713 yards, 24 touchdowns, 20 interceptions and had a passer rating of 125.7. Even in the 1990s, Barker was 402 of 706 (56.9 percent), for 5,689 yards with 26 touchdowns, 24 interceptions, and a 130.0 passer rating.

“I think it shows how great my teammates are and how much they mean to me and how much they’ve helped me over the years,” McCarron said about his records chase in 2013. “I think it will be cool when I’m retired and sitting at home with the grandkids and my kids and be able to tell them stories, but for right now I’m worried about us as a team and what we need to do to three-peat and bring another championship back here.”

Obviously, he didn't get it, but his final season still became a chase of history. Between his national titles, SEC crowns, and a pair of division championships, McCarron still had so many rings that any more would have required the use of some toes to wear them all simultaneously. 

However, no quarterback has ever won three straight titles as a starter. Tebow won two with Florida, but only one as a starter. Tommie Frazier enjoyed consecutive perfect seasons with Nebraska in 1994-95, yet was long gone when the Cornhuskers landed the split national title in 1997.

Really the only starting quarterback McCarron was still chasing in terms of championships since the poll era began in 1936 was Johnny Lujack. Although he played both ways, Lujack led Frank Leahy’s rise to legendary status, guiding Notre Dame to the 1943 and 1946 national championships, along with the controversial 1947 title. Lujack didn’t throw very often out of the T-formation, finishing his career having completed 144 of 280 passes (51.4 percentage), for 2,080 yards and 19 touchdowns, but won the 1947 Heisman Trophy and was named the Associated Press male athlete of the year.

Not a lot of people could handle the pressure of trying to match or beat that, or of trying to capture the first three-peat since Minnesota in the 1930s.

After nearly losing his redshirt in 2009 when McElroy sustained a late-season rib injury, McCarron remained the backup for another season. In 2011 he was the rookie starter, the guy whose primary job was to make sure the offense didn’t do anything to put the team in jeopardy. He responded by being the offensive MVP of the BCS Championships Game.

A year later, no one quite knew what to expect as the Crimson Tide had a new offensive coordinator, essentially no proven wide receivers and no backup quarterback with experience. Nevertheless, McCarron rewrote the Alabama record book with 2,933 passing yards and 30 touchdowns, with just three interceptions. His passer efficiency rating of 175.3 not only topped the SEC, but the nation, and he ked a fantastic late comeback at probably the toughest venue in college football, LSU.

Yet even after hoisting another crystal football some critics still tried to label him as just being a game manager, downplaying his role in the offense.

“To me, you can't be a good quarterback unless you're a good game manager, because you've got the ball in your hands every time and you're making some kind of choice and decision of what to do with it, whether you hand it off, what play you hand it off on, where you throw it in the passing game,” Saban said. “You've got to process a lot of information quickly and make quick decisions. I don't think it's fair to AJ that because I said he's a really good game manager for us that it's like that means he doesn't do anything. He does everything.”

Nevertheless, McCarron continually looked to improve. He hit the weight room and altered his technique to get his lower body more into his throws, providing a little more zip on the ball. Getting an even firmer grasp on the offense was also a priority, with coaches giving him more flexibility to read the defense and make adjustments before each snap – something that has to be really earned with Saban.

“He's really taken command,” Saban said.

Consequently, McCarron won his early-season rematch with Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and didn’t have a turnover in the 49-42 shootout at blistering-hot Kyle Field. Against Georgia State, he connected on his first 12 attempts, and by making 15 of 16 passes set a Crimson Tide record for best completion percentage in a single game. The following week, Kentucky never stopped the Alabama offense, which after a dropped pass on third down and two lost fumbles in Wildcats territory scored on its last seven possessions. He finished with a career-high 359 passing yards.

It was more of the same against Arkansas as Alabama was on the kind of offensive roll that few had ever seen before.

Regardless, McCarron said he wanted to be remembered as “Just as a guy who did the right thing,” which doesn’t seem solely possible for any Alabama quarterback. Yet he helped take the program on an incredible ride, going all the way back to those 2009 practices when the freshman leading the scout team couldn’t help but make his Crimson Tide teammates mad on a regular basis.

“Definitely,” McCarron said. “It was fun, though, out there competing with them.”

Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron on the cover of Sports Illustrated. /

The Saban 250: 11-15

The Saban 250 ranks the players who made the biggest impact during his time with the Crimson Tide (2007-23).

11. AJ McCarron, QB, 2010-13

• Won 2013 Maxwell Award
• Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award
• 2013 All-American
• 2012-13 second-team All SEC
• Fifth-round selection in 2014 NFL Draft
• Finished runner-up in voting for the 2013 Heisman Trophy
• Led the Crimson Tide to back-to-back BCS national championships in 2011 and 2012. Also was on 2009 team that won title
• Completed 686 of 1,026 passes (66.9 percent) for 9,019 yards, 77 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 53 career games and led Alabama to a 36-4 record as a three-year starter
• Was the 2013 NCAA passing champion by posting a 175.3 rating
• Team captain

12. C.J. Mosley, LB, 2010-13

• Won 2013 Butkus Award
• 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year
• 2012 consensus All-American; 2013 unanimous All-American
• 2012-13 All-SEC
• No. 17-overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft
• Was credited with 107 tackles in 2012, and 108 in 2013, both of which led the team
• Had 317 career total tackles, including 23 for a loss and 6.5 sacks. Returned three of his five interceptions for touchdowns.
• Team captain

13. Mac Jones, QB, 2018-20

• Won 2020 Davey O’Brien Award
• Won 2020 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award
• Won 2020 Manning Award
• Finished third for 2020 Heisman Trophy
• Consensus All-American 2020; second-team All-American
• 2020 SEC Football Scholar-Athlete of the Year
• 2020 All-SEC
• Team captain
• 15h-overall pick in 2021 NFL Draft
• Alabama's all-time single-season passing yardage leader with 4,500 in 2020. The 346.2 average was third nationally
• Set the NCAA single-season record for completion percentage (77.4).
• Finished with an NCAA-leading 203.1 passer rating. Had a career rating of 197.6, second all-time to Tua Tagovailoa.

15. Amari Cooper, WR, 2012-14

• Won 2014 Fred Biletnikoff Award
• 2014 SEC Offensive Player of the Year
• 2014 unanimous All-American
• 2014 All-SEC
• Fourth-overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft
• Finished third for the 2014 Heisman Trophy
• Broke Alabama’s single-game receiving yards record with 224 against Tennessee and matched it against Auburn
• Set an SEC record with 124 receptions in 2014
• Set school single-season records with 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns
• Became Alabama's all-time leader in receptions (228), receiving yards (3,463), and receiving touchdowns (31)
• Team captain

14. Patrick Surtain II, CB, 2018-220

• Unanimous All-American 2020
• 2020 SEC Defensive Player of the Year
• 2020 All-SEC
• Ninth-overall pick in 2021 NFL Draft
• Made 38 consecutive starts over three years, and was credited with 116 tackles, including six for a loss. Also defended 24 passes with four interceptions (returning one for a touchdown), and four forced fumbles
• During his final season started all 13 games and led the team with 12 pass breakups despite being targeted just 48 times all season. He yielded just 21 receptions for 273 combined yards, and fewer than 25 receiving yards or fewer in 10 of 13 games. Credited with 38 tackles, including 3.5 for a loss, and a pick-six against Mississippi State
• In 2019, totaled 42 tackles to go with three forced fumbles, eight pass breakups, two interceptions, and a fumble recovery
• Stepped in to start as a true freshman, and was named to SEC All-Freshman Team. Had 37 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, seven pass breakups, one interception and a forced fumble

Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Amari Cooper on the Sports Illustrated cover of the 2014 college football preview
Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Amari Cooper on the Sports Illustrated cover of the 2014 college football preview /

The Glue of the Defense: Linebacker C.J. Mosley

The game was over and the 2013 Alabama football team was back in its locker room at Bryant-Denny Stadium, but things still weren’t sitting right with senior linebacker C.J. Mosley. The Crimson Tide had just won convincingly, 31-6, over Colorado State, coached by former Nick Saban offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, but it had hardly been impressive.

Uninspiring and lackluster were words that would be used to describe the September victory, but Mosley wouldn’t wait for the outside world and media to say what he already knew. So after the head coach gave his postgame speech, Mosley spoke up, followed by senior quarterback AJ McCarron and junior safety Vinnie Sunseri: what they were doing as a team wasn’t good enough. 

“I started off because I was pretty upset, especially with the defense,” Mosley said. “The things we gave up were mental errors, just little things, just fundamental errors. I felt like we're about to play Ole Miss next week and about to start getting into SEC play, those little things will get us beat bad, get us embarrassed.

“So we've got to make sure everyone's doing their job.”

Mosley’s message, which McCarron and Sunseri also hammered home, was simple, that everyone had to “buy in” to the team philosophy and how they went about things or the Crimson Tide could forget about challenging for another national championship.

“I think some guys on the team just needed to hear it,” junior tight end Brian Vogler said. 

Needless to say, the overall reaction to the impromptu speeches was positive, but perhaps more important who led them. Mosley, the returning All-American, a finalist for the Butkus Award for the best linebacker in college football who passed up a chance to be a first-round draft pick, wasn’t known for being the most vocal person on the team.

So when he demanded everyone’s attention, it wasn't taken lightly.

“When he speaks, it’s felt,” junior linebacker Trey DePriest said. “He doesn’t really say too much. He’s a quiet guy. When he’s got something to say, that means it needs to be said.”

To stress how important Mosley thought it was to air things out, when a reporter subsequently asked what would happen if the younger players didn’t take heed of the situation, he responded, “They better. If not, they won't be on the field.”

It was arguably the first defining moment of the 2013 season, because even though No. 1 Alabama was 3-0 and had enjoyed a big Southeastern Conference win at College Station, the Crimson Tide had been anything but consistent. While the offense struggled against Virginia Tech and Colorado State, the defense yielded 42 points and a program record 628 total yards at No. 6 Texas A&M.

“All the guys have to do what they’re supposed to do, and do it when they’re supposed to do it,” junior right tackle Austin Shepherd said. “Just, we have to get it rolling.”

Mosley saw it too, even though his primary concern was the defense. He knew Alabama had more than enough talent, probably even more than the previous year’s national champions. It just had to start pulling it all together. Good wasn’t considered good enough, especially when compared to the 2009, 2011 and 2012 Crimson Tide teams that had staked their places in history. 

For months coaches had been saying that everyone needed to be more personally invested for this team to be successful, but hearing Mosley’s speech was probably exactly what Saban and been waiting and hoping for. Even though the 2012 Crimson Tide had just nine scholarship seniors, they were also the ones everyone looked to because they understood better than anyone how hard one has to work to win rings. They also knew the flip side, as nearly all of them had been on the three-loss 2010 team.

“Well, I don't think there's any question about it that that's what leadership is,” Saban said about the speeches. “Leadership, guys on the team, peer intervention, peer pressure, whatever you want to call it, is something that every good team has, because I don't think everyone is capable of doing the right thing the right way the right time all the time. There are some people that are, and there's some people that aren't. There's some people that need to be led. You know, sheep need to have a dog get’em home to the barn at night.

“Well, leadership I think is important to affecting a lot of those people.”

A week later, back in that same locker room, Mosley was smiling.

Further inspired by Ole Miss players claiming that they had been more physical than Alabama during the 2012 game, and would score against this defense, the Crimson Tide proved otherwise. 

It limited standout running back Jeff Scott to 28 rushing yards as the Rebels finished with just 46 total. Quarterback Bo Wallace had a frustrating night, competing just 17 of 31 passes for 159 yards. No. 21 Ole Miss converted just four third-down opportunities as Alabama roared to a 25-0 victory.

It was more of what Mosley had in mind.

“Definitely, pure domination, especially from the defense,” Mosley said. “We played a great game.”

Four times the Rebels had the ball well into Crimson Tide territory only to be stifled by a big play. Junior safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix set the tone on the opening possession when he sent Laquon Treadwell spinning into the air, and freshman Eddie Jackson started making a home for himself at cornerback when he intercepted an option pass by the freshman wideout.

But the emotional stand of the game happened with Mosley, late in the third quarter, when he snuffed out the Rebels’ best drive in the red zone. Jackson had just been flagged for targeting, although his automatic ejection was overturned by replay officials, and on a subsequent play an Ole Miss player went out of his way to drive Mosley to the ground well after the whistle had blown.  He'd had enough.

“He started yelling,” Clinton-Dix said. “I saw it in his eyes, and I just got the chills just looking at him.”

“From what I saw, he turned into a different guy,” said DePriest, who had never seen Mosley like that before. “It got me excited, it got the whole team fired up. He was ready to play, out there screaming, letting everyone know what the play was. It was good.”

When Mosley knocked down the fourth-down pass attempt, the Rebels were essentially done. For added emphasis, he made the key hit on a fourth-quarter safety.

“The guy's a fantastic player, but beyond that he's a fantastic person,” Saban said about Mosley. “The guy's a hard worker. If you just watch the game, whether it's covering a punt, the kickoff return against Virginia Tech, where he was running all the way down the sidelines with the guy. His effort, his intensity, the way he prepares for a game. He's got a lot of athleticism.

“He's got a lot talent. But he's also got a lot of true grit in him in terms of the kind of competitor he is and how he plays. The guy just doesn't know how to take a play off. I don't care what your circumstance is or whether he's on special teams or any role that you have for him, he's about as fine a competitor as anybody that we've had an opportunity to coach through the years.”

For his efforts, Mosley was named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Week, but that was nothing compared to what he got from his teammates. Mosley already had their respect, but from that point on it was truly his defense.

“He’s the glue,” Sunseri said.

See also: 16-20: 'When All Of Us Are Freaks, We’re All Good'

Next up: 6-10

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Christopher Walsh


Christopher Walsh is the founder and publisher of BamaCentral, which first published in 2018. He's covered the Crimson Tide since 2004, and is the author of 26 books including Decade of Dominance, 100 Things Crimson Tide Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, Nick Saban vs. College Football, and Bama Dynasty: The Crimson Tide's Road to College Football Immortality. He's an eight-time honoree of Football Writers Association of America awards and three-time winner of the Herby Kirby Memorial Award, the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s highest writing honor for story of the year. In 2022, he was named one of the 50 Legends of the ASWA. Previous beats include the Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, along with Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks. Originally from Minnesota and a graduate of the University of New Hampshire, he currently resides in Tuscaloosa.