Nick Saban is not a quarterback guru. He’s a defensive-minded coach who appreciates efficiency and accuracy from his signal-callers. And with four national titles to his name, he certainly knows how to coach ‘em up.
But there’s no way around it: None of his star quarterbacks have gone on to find success in the NFL. Even his pro football tenure marked the effective end of multiple players’ careers (Joey Harrington and Daunte Culpepper come to mind).
Saban’s Alabama squad will take on Middle Tennessee State this Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa. And while that matchup might not command the nation’s attention, there’s one storyline that has worked its way to mainstream news outlets: The return of Corey McCarron.
MTSU’s senior tight end is a former member of the Crimson Tide, and the younger brother of perhaps the Tide’s best-ever QB, AJ McCarron.
That got us thinking: How does the two-time national champion McCarron rank among Saban’s all-time quarterbacks? We looked at Saban’s head coaching career — five stops in 21 seasons before this year — and found nine QBs who left it all on the field for Coach.
(Hon. Mention) Gus Frerotte, Miami Dolphins (2005)
We might as well get one Saban’s few NFL highlights out of the way quickly. Frerotte was serviceable at the age of 34, throwing for just under 3,000 yards and 18 touchdowns against 13 picks. He was not the second coming of Dan Marino, but he did help the ‘Fins to a winning record (9-7), which the team has only managed once more in the past decade.
(Hon. Mention) Todd Schultz, Michigan State (1995-1997)
During his senior year in ‘97, Schultz became the first primary Saban quarterback to throw more touchdowns (18) than interceptions (17), though he barely did so. Schultz also captained the Spartans to their second winning season (7-5) under Saban, although they were spanked by Washington in the Aloha Bowl, 51-23.
9. Kevin Meger, Toledo (1990)
While the Rockets struggled mightily to throw the ball (1,861 yards, six scores, 11 interceptions), Meger keyed a potent rushing attack that found the end zone 24 times. The quarterback racked up 326 ground yards while scoring six TDs, and he led Saban’s only Toledo team to a 9-2 record.
8. Marcus Randall, LSU (2001-2004)
Most of Randall’s resumé is sandwiched around Saban’s first national championship, won in 2003. The prospect from Baton Rouge contributed 3,471 total yards and 23 total TDs while primarily starting games in 2002 and 2004. He split time with future Heisman Trophy finalist JaMarcus Russell in the latter year, and is best known for his “Bluegrass Miracle” touchdown pass to Devery Henderson against Kentucky in ‘02.
7. Bill Burke, Michigan State (1996-1999)
Burke was the first quarterback to really open up the field for Saban. He tossed for at least 2,200 yards and 19 touchdowns in two straight seasons, and helped the Spartans to a No. 7 final ranking in 1999. That squad helped Saban land the LSU job at the turn of the millennium, and Burke’s 10-2 record was the school’s best since 1965.
6. John Parker Wilson, Alabama (2007-2008)
Wilson left Alabama after the ‘08 season with nearly every Tide passing record under his belt. While that’s impressive, it serves more as evidence that ‘Bama had rarely strayed from run-heavy offenses than evidence that Wilson was an all-time great. But the two-time state champion from Hoover High School was a consistent passer (nearly 8,000 career yards) and actually scored 10 rushing touchdowns during Saban’s first two years in Tuscaloosa. Wilson led ‘Bama to a 12-2 mark and a loss to Utah in the Sugar Bowl his senior season.
5. Blake Sims, Alabama (2011-2014)
Patience is rare in this era of college football, where freshmen play big minutes and players transfer at the first sign of trouble. That’s what made Sims so special. He served as a running back and reserve quarterback for three seasons before getting a shot to start at QB in 2014. And while the beginning of his tenure was a little rough, Sims had the greatest statistical season any Saban quarterback has ever had, racking up 3,837 total yards and 35 total touchdowns.
‘Bama was ranked in the Top 7 all season, spending more than a month at No. 1 before falling to Ohio State, 42-35, in the national semifinal.
4. Rohan Davey, LSU (2000-2001)
After spelling Josh Booty for a couple games in Saban’s first season, Davey broke out in ‘01, throwing for a school-record 3,347 yards and 18 touchdowns. The Jamaica-born Floridian saved his biggest game for Alabama, when he set single-game LSU records for completions (35) and yards (538). Davey also led the No. 7 Tigers to their first SEC championship since 1988, and torched Illinois for 444 yards and three touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl.
3. Matt Mauck, LSU (2000-2003)
There’s something special about a quarterback who wins the national championship — especially when he delivers a coach’s first title. Mauck and the 2003 Tigers will always have an important place in Saban’s lore thanks to their (somewhat controversial) trophy. Saban originally wanted Mauck at Michigan State in 1997, but the Indiana prep star decided to join the Chicago Cubs organization.
He lasted three years in baseball before coming back to Saban, who was beginning his first year at LSU. In 2002, Mauck broke his leg halfway through the season, but returned in ‘03 to throw for 2,825 yards and 28 touchdowns as LSU secured its first national title since 1958.
2. Greg McElroy, Alabama (2007-2010)
As a first-year starter in 2009, McElroy helped Saban collect his second national championship. The Crimson Tide offense featured eventual Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and No. 3 overall NFL pick Trent Richardson at running back, and Saban leaned on those two after McElroy cracked multiple ribs in the SEC Championship Game against Florida.
But McElroy was a vital part of the offense for most of the season, throwing for 2,508 yards and 17 touchdowns. He topped that in 2010, adding 2,987 yards and 20 TDs against five interceptions. On his career, McElroy hucked 39 scores while throwing just 10 picks.
His most memorable game (377 yards, two touchdowns) came during his senior year against Cam Newton and Auburn. The Tigers rallied from a 24-7 deficit to defeat the Tide, 28-27, inadvertently destroy Toomer’s Corner, and moved Auburn one step closer to their second national title.
1. AJ McCarron, Alabama (2010-2013)
This list was not going to end any other way. Saban’s Top 5 is an impressive bunch, but nobody can touch McCarron’s pedigree. The Mobile, Ala., prospect found his way into the starting lineup as a redshirt sophomore, and — in his first road start — delivered the final loss of Penn State legend Joe Paterno’s career.
Alabama finished the 2011 regular season 11-1, with the only loss coming to LSU in Tuscaloosa. After dispatching of Auburn in the Iron Bowl, McCarron and the Tide were gifted a rematch with LSU in the BCS Championship, which they won handily.
Under pressure to deliver back-to-back titles, McCarron did just that in 2012. The 6-foot-3 signal caller threw for 2,933 yards and 30 touchdowns while tossing just three interceptions in 314 attempts. Those dominant numbers helped Alabama win its first SEC championship since 2009, and Saban’s squad handed down a 42-14 whupping against Notre Dame to claim the coach’s four career national title.
A third straight dream season was not in the cards for McCarron’s senior year, but his passing numbers (3,063 yards, 28 TDs) made him the first Alabama quarterback to be named a Heisman Trophy finalist. The cover of Sports Illustrated wondered if McCarron (36-4 career record) was the best college football quarterback of all-time, with Jon Wertheim writing: “Let’s be clear: He’s not just one of the great Alabama quarterbacks. AJ McCarron is on the short list of the most successful players in the history of college football. Even if not many think of him that way.”
Saban and Alabama will take on MTSU this Saturday afternoon at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network).