Alabama has lost three games in three years with AJ McCarron as its starting quarterback.
LSU needed overtime to topple the Crimson Tide in 2011, though Alabama punished the Tigers several weeks later in a rematch for the BCS championship. Texas A&M pulled the upset in 2012 behind a performance that catapulted Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel to the Heisman Trophy, and Auburn last month used a 100-yard return by Chris Davis of a short field-goal attempt to stun the Tide.
McCarron has no desire to experience a fourth setback in Thursday night's Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.
"I want to go out the right way and send these seniors out the right way," McCarron told reporters last week in Tuscaloosa. "I feel like it's only right for our class. We've put a lot of work into this program to help make it what it is today, and I think it's only right for us to finish out on top. We still have a chance at a 12-win season and a Sugar Bowl championship, which is huge."
Alabama has bid farewell to decorated players on an annual basis under coach Nick Saban, and it's no different this year with linebacker C.J. Mosley, the Butkus Award winner, and McCarron, who earlier this month became the first in program history to win the Maxwell Award as the nation's top player.
McCarron also won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and finished runner-up to Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston for the Heisman Trophy. He is the first quarterback in Crimson Tide history to win two national championships, and his 36 career victories are the program's most.
"He took Alabama football pretty far the whole time he was here," Tide left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio recently told reporters. "He's done a lot of big things for this program."
The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder from Mobile is returning to the site that forever changed his reputation. McCarron had been known as a "game manager" until concluding the 2011 season against LSU in the Superdome, where he was the focal point of former offensive coordinator Jim McElwain's game plan and torched the talented Tigers on 23-of-34 passing for 234 yards.
Alabama surprised LSU by throwing on four of its first five plays from scrimmage and did not deviate from the plan.
In the two seasons since, McCarron has thrown for 5,609 yards with 56 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. He led the nation last season in efficiency and was ranked eighth after last month's Iron Bowl.
"I think AJ is probably the most underrated player in college football," Saban told ESPN last month. "People talk about statistics all the time, and maybe his statistics are not what somebody else's are, but really what you should equate things with are production, performance, efficiency, consistency and winning.
"That's really what it's all about. He's done that better than I think anybody in college football."
McCarron graced the cover of Sports Illustrated last month, with the magazine asking if he should be considered the greatest college quarterback ever. That was before Alabama's quest at three consecutive BCS titles was derailed at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The best Alabama can finish now is No. 2 behind the Florida State-Auburn winner, and McCarron is hoping that can be a strong No. 2.
"I saw something that somebody sent me from Vegas that said if we played Florida State or played Auburn again that we would be favored," he said. "So we have a chance to show the country that we're still the best team."
When McCarron walks off the field late Thursday night or early Friday morning for the final time in a Crimson Tide uniform, it will leave Alabama a big challenge in finding its next quarterback. John Parker Wilson, Greg McElroy and McCarron each managed to build on what his predecessor accomplished, and each was projected to be a competent replacement.
This time around, the battle is expected to be wide open among several candidates, and McCarron has the same advice for each of them.
"I try to tell the younger guys to have fun playing and that it's just a game," he said. "It's not life. A lot of people around here can get carried away, and it's not just here. It's all over the South. That's just the way it is in the South, but I tell them that it's a game and to keep that in perspective."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...