If the Crimson Tide hope to go undefeated in 2013, the team will need quarterback A.J. McCarron to be more than a game manager. He showed flashes in last year's clash with LSU and against overmatched defenses like Notre Dame in the national championship, but McCarron was at his worst in Bama's loss to Texas A&M and in the close call against Georgia.
In those two games, McCarron did complete 34-of-53 passes for 471 yards and two scores, but he also threw three interceptions.
As the quarterback and most prominent senior leader on a team that has every right to think about running the table, McCarron is a legit Heisman candidate. But he won't earn the honor if the Tide win with him and not because of him.
The Alabama roster is so good at most positions—especially in the trenches—they will overpower a good number of the opponents they face in 2013.
With Bama, it all starts with the running game. I still believe that when it is all said and done, T.J. Yeldon will be the best running back the program has seen. The sustained potency of the ground game has protected McCarron throughout his career.
Wide receiver Amari Cooper will be near Julio Jones' level as the most dynamic wideout. As usual, the offensive line is strong, even though the group is less experienced than they were last year. McCarron has a plethora of support and perhaps more weapons than any Bama quarterback has ever had.
The horses will carry the Tide without stellar input from McCarron in most of their games.
However, in at least three contests on the 2013 schedule, McCarron will have to make plays against a talented defense to take pressure off his running game.
At Texas A&M on Sept. 14
Even if Johnny Manziel isn't eligible to play in this game, it won't be easy for the Tide. It's on the road in raucous College Station, Tex. and the Aggies' fans will be up in arms for this one. Texas A&M's program has ascended on both sides of the ball. The Aggies' experienced secondary will be a challenge for McCarron to be productive against.
Sophomore De'Vante Harris is the only projected starter who isn't an upperclassman, but he may be the most talented of the bunch. He has the type of closing speed that could make him a good match for Cooper in pass coverage.
Cooper is a stud who will obviously make life easier for McCarron, but against a team with a solid secondary like A&M and obvious weapons on offense, this is a game McCarron will need to be better than ordinary.
Ole Miss on Sept. 28
The Rebels may be the fastest risers in the SEC. Armed with a stellar recruiting class and some solid holdovers from the 2012 class, they will be amped as they invade Tuscaloosa in late September.
Talented and versatile quarterback Bo Wallace is a junior and he has returning wide receiver Donte Moncrief and newcomer Laquon Treadwell. That duo will provide Wallace the best complement of weapons he's had.
While top recruit Robert Nkemdiche is still just a freshman, he joins junior C.J. Johnson in a defensive line group that could create some havoc.
A Rebels win over the Tide in Tuscaloosa would be a shock, but every year there is a home game on the schedule that looks easy on paper but turns out to be a little more difficult between the lines. The Ole Miss game could be the 2013 version of that concept.
If the Rebels produce a spirited effort, the onus will fall on McCarron to make plays that puts the visitors back in their place.
LSU on Nov. 9
This LSU team isn't quite as stout as some of the Tigers teams over the last three years, but don't underestimate them in this rivalry. While the secondary may not be experienced, the front seven is and this group may be one of the few that can get consistent pressure on McCarron.
Junior Jermauria Rasco and sophomore Danielle Hunter are capable pass-rushers. The linebacker group is also physical and athletic.
If McCarron makes the wrong reads against pressure, the likes of Tahj Jones and Lamin Barrow will be waiting on the second level of the defense to make him pay.
On the other side of the ball, Tigers senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger is a question mark, but running back Alfred Blue, receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. are all dangerous playmakers.
If the Tigers can slow the pace of the game, they will have an opportunity to pull Bama into one of the rivalry's signature grind-it-out contests.
In a game like that, McCarron will again be needed to step up. He had the signature moment of his career against the Tigers in 2012. He led the game-winning drive that culminated in a 28-yard screen pass that Yeldon turned into a touchdown.
McCarron properly read the blitz on that play and came up big when his team needed him. He may just have to do that again this year against the Tigers.
No matter who the Tide face if they reach the SEC Championship Game, they'll see a strong effort from a talented team. The top candidates are Florida, Georgia or South Carolina. Each team offers their own unique challenges, and McCarron has to lead the charge as his team overcomes.
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