Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron has enjoyed a strong start to 2012

Time to give McCarron his props

This is the time of year where several unbeaten college teams get vaulted into ‘national title’ contenders. Suddenly a few pundits wonder whether Notre Dame ‘are for real’ (they have no quarterback). Are Florida State good enough to mount a challenge? Every year these teams emerge, only to fall away. The question I always ask is – can these teams realistically take on Alabama? And the answer is usually no. In fact there’s probably only two teams I think are capable of that – SEC rival LSU and Oregon in the PAC-12. Even then Oregon might be a stretch given their inexperience at certain key positions, but they have enough speed and talent to make up for that.

So why are Alabama so consistently great? After all, they’ve seen big-time NFL stars come and go. This is the first year in a long time they haven’t featured a pending first round player at the skill positions. They lost a host of top-end defensive talent to the draft last April. Yet every year they come back for more.

The simple answer is they are the best coached team in college football. Nick Saban – love him or hate him – is the best in the business. They are organised, disciplined, committed and playing for each other. Saban constantly churns out elite defensive backs and a brilliant running game. He recruits in such a way that players are desperate to come and play for him. Winning helps, too.

This year they have a fine offensive line filled with experienced talent such as Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack. They have enough defensive line quality to create pressure and dominate up front. There’s also one other reason they’re doing so well and it’s about time this guy got some credit.

Quarterback A.J. McCarron isn’t going to be a top draft choice. Saban has found production from a string of solid, hard working quarterbacks who act as game managers and facilitate the run. John Parker Wilson and Greg McElroy weren’t very exciting to watch and lacked the physical tools to become a NFL starter, but it’s no surprise both have stuck in the league as backups. McCarron is a little bit different, a little better physically and a lot more dynamic. He’s still cut from the same cloth – he’s more facilitator than playmaker, but for me he has much more of a chance at playing time at the next level. Even if that isn’t the case – it’s about time he received some credit. He won a national title in his first year as a starter and so far in 2012 he has ten touchdowns and zero interceptions, 63% completions and a couple of blowout wins against Michigan and Arkansas.

He’s a junior and eligible for the 2013 draft, but he’s more likely to last the distance at Alabama and potentially record three national title’s. His supporting cast is good enough to do that. I’m not sure why he isn’t getting the credit he deserves – is it the personality, which is certainly more expressive than McElroy or Wilson? He’s still a ‘by the book’ type of guy and certainly on an intangible level teams will grade him highly. On a technical level he has average arm strength, but he goes through his progressions and makes very few mistakes. He’s economical, takes what he’s given and on a good team that can run the ball he’s going to offer some value. I’m not here to argue he’s a future first round pick but it’s time he got a bit more credit. He’s the glue holding Alabama’s excellent offense together and a key reason why the Crimson Tide make teams like Florida State bit-part players for the big game. Keep an eye on this guy.

Week four stock up

Tavon Autin (WR, West Virginia)

Explosive playmaker who recorded 13 catches, three touchdowns and 179 yards against Maryland on Saturday. If missing on Russell Wilson has taught me anything, it’s not to presume anything when a guy doesn’t have prototypical size. Austin is only 5-9 and 174lbs and that limits his stock – he’s not going to win many jump balls, he’ll face a lot more physicality at the next level and he won’t be able to out-run people in the same way. Even so, he’s a big-time playmaker. There’s no reason why teams won’t see a little DeSean Jackson in this guy and a team that needs a spark on offense might consider taking a shot. After all – Wes Welker is only 5-9 and 185lbs. Austin theoretically has more of an X-Factor and can be used in many different ways at the next level. At worst he’s a round two pick.

Corey Lemonier (DE, Auburn)

Lemonier has been nothing short of sensational so far this year. Like Austin, he’s not exactly a prototype at 6-4 and 246lbs. However, he has extreme speed off the edge and a knack of just making plays. He’s edgy and intense and the heart of the Tigers defense. He saved his best game so far for LSU and ended up with two sacks and numerous other splash plays. He has five total sacks for the year and appears set to give Jarvis Jones a run for his money as the SEC’s top pass rusher. Lemonier isn’t going to fit every scheme and 3-4 teams will have to weigh up whether he fits at OLB. He looks like a good fit at the LEO if the Seahawks wanted to make back-to-back first round picks at defensive end. The best thing is you feel he can get even better.

Justin Hunter (WR, Tennessee)

He was on the sliders list last week, but this weekend could end up being a defining moment for Hunter. Cordarrelle Patterson was partly responsible for a pick-six in the first quarter against Akron, and Tyler Bray seemed to avoid him for the rest of the half. Step forward Justin Hunter, who at times has played second fiddle to Patterson in the Vols passing game in 2012. He looked sharp in an eight-catch 115 yard performance that included a touchdown. If Bray is going to zone in on Hunter the rest of the way – and if both players can stay healthy – this can only be good for the receivers’ stock. He has the potential to be the top wide-out taken next April.

Week four stock down

Montee Ball (RB, Wisconsin)

It was a big surprise to see Ball return to Wisconsin this year, undoubtedly with the view of making up for last year’s gut-wrenching Rose Bowl defeat. The thing is – he’s a running back with tread on the tires. The chances of the Badgers surviving the departure of Russell Wilson were slim and they’re in the middle of a down-year. Ball had 33 rushing touchdowns last year but in 2012 has just three in four games. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry in 2010 and 2011, but has started this season averaging 3.9 yards per carry. As of today he has 661 college carries, which is already over 100 more than Trent Richardson had at Alabama. And to make matters worse, he picked up a head injury on Saturday and lost his first career fumble. I like Ball, but returning for a fourth year at Wisconsin is hurting his stock.

Matt Barkley (QB, USC)

Barkley ended the 2011 season with real momentum and the critics should go back and watch his performance vs Oregon before jumping on the negativity bandwagon. However, he hasn’t started this season particularly well. Against Syracuse he looked off the pace despite scoring six touchdowns and things got worse against Stanford and California. He has five interceptions already compared to seven for the entire season last year. Losing Matt Kalil to the draft and Khaled Holmes to injury hasn’t helped, but Barkley needs to prove he can excel without an ideal environment. If he’s drafted early next April, he cannot expect to immediately play in a fluid offense with a great offensive line. And while he’s undoubtedly talented, I just wonder if he’s destined to be a top-20 pick instead of the #1 pick.

Barkevious Mingo (DE, LSU)

At a generously listed 6-5 and 240lbs, Mingo relies on speed off the edge. He came into the year touted as a possible top-ten pick despite his size, but so far in 2012 he has zero sacks. That’s not the be-all and end-all, but he’s not really had much impact either. Consider that LSU has so far come up against the ‘might’ of North Texas, an over-matched Washington and struggling Auburn. Teams are zoning in on Mingo and he’s being taken out of games. This is helping Sam Montgomery, who is looking a lot sharper with less attention after a slow start to the year himself. If Mingo is going to live up to expectations he needs to start having more of an impact. Time is on his side.

Tyler Wilson game tape vs Rutgers

Arkansas’ struggles continued at the weekend and Wilson’s ‘quitters’ speech from last week failed to spark a response. He ended the day with three touchdowns, but also two interceptions. He didn’t get much help in this one from his receivers. Keep an eye on Cobi Hamilton, who had over 300 yards receiving and could be a second or third round pick.