AJ McCarron’s standard reply about handling big-game pressure is a shrug and a look that says, What’s the big deal?
It’s an attitude that has served No. 2 Alabama’s quarterback well. McCarron and Aaron Murray, his counterpart for No. 3 Georgia, have played on plenty of huge stages with varying results and a couple of performances they wouldn’t mind forgetting.
The nation’s two top-rated passers will square off in Saturday’s SEC championship game with the winner moving on to face No. 1 Notre Dame for the national title.
Crimson Tide center Barrett Jones said succeeding in such games is about controlling emotions and focusing on execution, not the hype. Then he’s asked about McCarron.
“I think he exemplifies everything I’ve been talking about,” Jones said. “He doesn’t get caught up in the hype. He stays calm. A lot of people — it’s a weird phenomenon — when they get in big games like this, in big moments, they go, as coach (Nick) Saban says, ‘rat trap.’ They forget everything they’ve learned, they forget their reads, they try to do things they didn’t do at practice. AJ’s not one of those guys.”
McCarron has been MVP of the BCS championship game, shaken out of a second-half slump to lead the winning touchdown drive against LSU and also thrown his only two interceptions of the season in a loss to No. 9 Texas A&M. His only other career defeat came against LSU in 2011 before his superb showing in the national title rematch.
Like Murray, he’s no stranger to the spotlight of big games.
“I don’t think there’s a big key in anything,” said McCarron, who’s 23-2 as a starter. “It’s another game. I think that’s what hurt us back last year in the LSU game, we tried to make the game bigger than it was. It’s just another game, just another Saturday. Go out and play, do our job, execute plays and let the chips fall where they fall.”
This game is a chance for Murray to shine against the nation’s top defense and maybe cancel out some bad memories from an otherwise sparkling career.
Murray is the nation’s highest rated quarterback — McCarron is second — and the SEC’s active leader in a number of categories, including passing yards (9,399) and touchdowns (89). He’s already passed for 3,201 yards and 30 touchdowns against seven interceptions this season and boosted his win total as a starter to 27.
A title or two would polish off the resume nicely.
Avoiding costly mistakes will be key in a game featuring the SEC’s two top pass defenses.
“I think all QBs want to make a big play in a big game,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “All players want to make a big play in a big game. There’s a time and place for everything. You have to understand when a play presents itself, then you make the big play. If it doesn’t present itself, burn the ball, get rid of it. “
A win might also wipe out some forgettable performances in key games for Murray. He was 16-of-40 passing with two interceptions in a loss to LSU in last season’s SEC championship game and was picked off twice again in a bowl defeat to Michigan State.
This season, he completed just over a third of his passes for career-low 109 yards in a blowout loss to South Carolina and threw three first-half interceptions before righting himself in a 17-9 win against Florida.
That’s the one that ultimately got the Bulldogs to the brink of an SEC and national title.
The normally media-friendly Murray opted out of talking to reporters this week.
His teammates spoke for him, and talked about the comfort of having a star quarterback in games like this.
“It’s very valuable,” tight end Jay Rome said. “You have to have a quarterback who’s not only a good athlete and can throw the ball, but a quarterback who knows where to go with the ball. Whether he needs to hand it off or check to a pass or recognize blitzes, you have to have a smart guy back there. I feel like Murray is definitely that.”
Wide receiver Tavarres King noted that the number of records his quarterback holds is “crazy.”
“He’s probably about to break Usain Bolt’s record or something,” King joked. “No, he’s too slow for that. But he’s playing extremely well. It’s just a tribute to the guy he is, the leader he is. He just goes about his business.”
Perhaps that means treating this like just another game.