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Which SEC QB has more to prove? Johnny Manziel or AJ McCarron

By now, we should know that the Southeastern Conference is not for boys. It is made for men who are willing to put in the work, blood, sweat and tears for the opportunity to not only win a conference title, but a national championship. Three things have made the SEC the powerhouse that it is today: high class coaches, strong men in the trenches (offensive and defensive) and a power running game. As SEC fans, we have seen some of the best talent produced on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. In previous years, we saw lineman like Glen Dorsey (LSU), Terrence Cody (Alabama), Andre Smith (Alabama) and the Pouncey twins from Florida, Mike and Maurkice. Last season, the talent pool was incredible as we were able to see lineman like Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo (LSU), John Jenkins (Georgia), Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina), Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack (Alabama) and Luke Joeckel (Texas A&M).

Like the defensive line, the talent at the linebacker position last year was also fruitful for the SEC as we saw players like CJ Mosley and Nico Johnson (Alabama), Kevin Minter (LSU), Corey Lemonier (Auburn), John Bostic (Florida) and Jarvis Jones (Georgia). As far as the running game is concerned, the SEC has had its share of phenomenal running back tandems.  In 2004, Auburn had an undefeated regular season and their success was predicated on pounding the ball with the dynamic duo of Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and Ronnie Brown. Believe it or not, the Florida Gators had a good running back tandem in Ciatrick Fason and DeShawn Wynn from 2002-2004 and though Fason left in 2004, Wynn helped guide the Gators to an SEC title (2006) and a BCS title (2007).  The abundance of having two gifted running backs became a reality for title town in 2009, when Alabama welcomed in Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Ingram and Richardson turned the college football world upside down. They terrorized opposing defenses and helped the Tide achieve an SEC title, a BCS title and a Heisman Trophy winner in 2009. From 2011-to present, Alabama kept the train rolling with Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy, TJ Yeldon and a host of others. Last season, the Georgia Bulldogs unleashed its two-headed beast to college football in Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Gurley and Marshall reminded people of Ingram and Richardson in their ability to get yards after contact and take over a game.

With this being said, what is so important about the information above? The information above is important because it helps us recognize that though coaches, having strong men in the trenches and a balanced running game are important to the success of a team, there is still one aspect missing.  The missing aspect is a capable quarterback who can make plays on the field. Like a coach, it is the quarterback that calls the shots. It is his responsibility to be the leader of the offense and make good decisions with the football.  As a team, it is hard to get to the “Promised Land” without a good quarterback.  The SEC has had three QB’s to win the Heisman Trophy and on SEC Media Days one of them made his presence felt.

On July 16-18, 2013, SEC Media Days was held inside the Winfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala. SEC Media Days is a time when players, coaches, fans and the media get the opportunity to learn more about players and interview coaches. It is a time when coaches and players began to address the media on what is to be expected in the upcoming season. While many eyes were glued on Jadeveon Clowney and the anticipation of what he is going to do this season, the real controversy took its turn on the two best QB’s in the SEC, AJ McCarron and Johnny Manziel. I can honestly say that Texas A&M had an amazing season last year.  The expectation for them in leaving the Big 12 to come and compete in the SEC was very low. In one season, they did just that going 11-2 (6-2 in conference) overall. The key to their success was in the hands of head coach Kevin Sumlin, offensive coordinator/quarterback coach Kliff Kingsbury and Johnny Manziel.

Under the leadership of Sumlin and Kingsbury, Johnny Manziel was unstoppable last season. He made opposing defenses feel as if they were stuck in quick sand in their every attempt to try to catch him. Manziel went from untested, redshirt freshman to being on every ESPN highlight reel and idolized on everyone’s HD television screen. The fact that he totaled 5,116 yards of offense and 47 touchdowns is an understatement compared to the beginning of his offseason. Manziel completely swept every award ceremony. He amassed countless achievements from the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award and the Manning Award to the AP Player of the Year Award and the Heisman Trophy.  The year 2012 was all about Johnny Football, well at least for the regular season.

The offseason for Johnny Manziel was a different story. He went from being the humble Heisman winner and the underdog who achieved success to the Justin Bieber of college football. Manziel’s off-the-field issues ranged from as low as shoving a graduate assistant coach and his model girlfriend dumping him to as high as sending a tweet about how much he wants to leave College Station and being dismissed from the Manning Camp after missing meetings and assignments  because he was drunk and got sick. Some analysts have even begun to say that he has gone from Johnny Football and Johnny Heisman to Johnny punch line. I know Manziel is young, but there is a level of maturity that you need to have when you are a quarterback in one of the most prolific conferences in college football. Johnny Manziel’s next move is to put this offseason behind him. His lone goal now is to see the field and help Texas A&M capture an SEC title, a BCS title and for himself, maybe another Heisman Trophy.

For fans, if his offseason troubles didn’t aggravate you enough, than his statement in the SEC Media Days made your blood boil. I’m all for freshmen who step in and have a great first season. In my first two years of high school football, I desired to see the field, but never got the opportunity.  For Manziel to put up the statistics and break records is nothing short of remarkable, but when he told ESPN reporters that he has nothing to prove in this upcoming college football season, I thought that his statement was stupid and uncalled for. Keep in mind; this is year two for Texas A&M in the SEC. Last year was their first year and though they did well, people still thought of them as the “little team from the Big 12 who couldn’t compete with the big boys.” Last season, SEC defenses were confused and befuddled by the Aggies spread offense, but this season they will be ready. Johnny Manziel will now be targeted by every opposing defense this season. To put it in simple terms, everyone will be gunning for Johnny this season and with the defenses getting stronger, it will be highly difficult for him to win the Heisman Trophy this season.

If one was to look at Texas A&M’s schedule for the 2013 season, they would notice three teams that will give the Aggies a problem. Johnny Manziel has yet to go the hostile environment, in the stadium that has been coined as the place where opponents’ dreams come to die, Tiger Stadium “Death Valley,” in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Not only will he have to face LSU on the road, but he will face a talented Ole Miss team on the road along with Alabama at home this season. The Crimson Tide thoroughly remembers the loss they suffered at Bryant-Denny Stadium last season at the hands of the Aggies. Don’t think for a second that coach Saban isn’t constantly reminding his players about how they let the game slip away. Alabama will be playing for vengeance this season and for Manziel he must prove that he can really lead this team to a conference and a national championship.

For AJ McCarron, he is living the story of a fairytale quarterback. He has three BCS National Championships to his credibility, but he didn’t get there overnight. Before fans began to recognize him as a national champion, McCarron was known as the 6-foot-4 inch quarterback from Mobile, Ala. He entered the University of Alabama in 2009 as the backup QB behind Greg McElroy. After absorbing information from coach Saban, McElroy and his teammates, McCarron got his opportunity in 2011. McCarron, coming into Alabama, had the reputation of being a natural gunslinger. With the help of Nick Saban and teammates, McCarron has become a great manager of the game. I know that McCarron has put up with a lot of flak from the press about how he is just a “game manager” and not a true QB, but the fact is you can’t be a good quarterback in this league without knowing how to manage game situations. You can have all the stats in the world, but if you are not a good decision maker, you will cost your team a lot of games. AJ McCarron made his share of rookie mistakes in his first year starting, but he continued to practice, get more acquainted with the playbook and watched game tape.  Though the defense carried Alabama to the national title game in 2011, it was AJ McCarron who showed fans something to look forward to in the following season. In the 2011 regular season, McCarron passed for 2,634 yards and 16 touchdowns, but in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game against LSU, he was 23-34 passing for 234 yards. McCarron was named the Offensive MVP for his performance in the title game as Alabama won 21-0.

The legend of AJ McCarron didn’t stop there. In 2012, the Crimson Tide lost a lot of players on defense to the NFL Draft, but this didn’t stop McCarron from putting the team on his back and guiding them to another national championship. In 2011, McCarron was a quiet leader, but in 2012 he became more vocal and his confidence grew. His QB rating increased from 147.3 in 2011 to 175.3 last season. He not only led the nation in QB rating last year, but he also was tops in the SEC in completion percentage. McCarron completed 67.2 percent of his passes for 2,933 yards and 30 touchdowns. I mentioned earlier that Johnny Manziel has yet to go to Tiger Stadium, McCarron has already been there and walked away victorious. He captured his third BCS title with the Tide last season in a 42-14 beat down of Notre Dame. McCarron has three national titles and is eyeing a fourth one. To the average fan, AJ McCarron has nothing to prove, but in his eyes McCarron is hungrier than ever to win another national title and still plays with a chip on his shoulder, wanting to prove every doubter wrong.

During SEC Media Days, McCarron was portrayed by analysts as the “anti” Johnny Manziel. Manziel being the brash, cool guy, while McCarron was the laid back, focused champion. In session full of questions, McCarron responded to everything thrown at him with decency and tact. He said that he wasn’t going to speak on another man’s business and that he is more concerned with trying to be the best player on and off the field for the Alabama Crimson Tide. This is the response you want from your starting quarterback. The thing that sparked the controversy was Texas A&M happened to be the only team that defeated Alabama last season 29-24. In the upcoming season, the Crimson Tide will be ready to prevent that from happening again.

Johnny Manziel and the Aggies had a great first season in the SEC, but that’s it, it was just the first season. Can Manziel consistently keep it up is the question? With the loss of OC/QB Kliff Kingsbury to Texas Tech, it is going to be difficult for Manziel to grow as a mature passer in this league. AJ McCarron is eyeing a fourth title, which would put him in a class of his own. If he is able to achieve this, he will have done something Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler, Jay Barker, Bart Starr and others haven’t done that being win three national titles as the starting QB. With the return of McCarron, a healthy receiving core, a boat load of running backs and a defense that doesn’t stop working, you can rest assured that Alabama will be in the national championship conversation once again.  Johnny Manziel has a lot to prove, he hasn’t led his team to the “Promised Land” yet.  AJ McCarron has led his team twice to the title game and Alabama has won both times.

Stephen Smith is a 2015 graduate of the University of Alabama. He is a senior writer and reporter for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. He has covered Alabama football for 10+ years and his knowledge and coverage of the Crimson Tide's program have made him among the most respected journalist in his field. Smith has been featured on ESPN and several other marquee outlets as an analyst.

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