February 28, 2011
Renewing the annual templates of spring. Today: The most engaging quarterback battles.
• ALABAMA: A.J. McCarron vs. Phillip Sims.
Relevant Dynamic: The Heir Apparent vs. The Young Gun.
A.J. McCarron looks exactly like every Crimson Tide quarterback ever: Sturdy, unassuming and unspectacular, expected mainly to keep a stiff upper lip in the huddle, the 'Bama Bangs out of his eyes and the defense and running game out of trouble. The best comparison, given his 6-foot-4 frame, four-star hype and instate roots, is probably to pre-Sabanite starter Brodie Croyle, but his profile is interchangeable with predecessors Tyler Watts, John Parker Wilson and, most recently, Greg McElroy.
Sims, on the other hand, arrived last year from Virginia with considerably more hype as the No. 2 "pro style" slinger in the 2010 recruiting class, according to Rivals, and offers a bigger body and bigger arm – as well as much better odds, as a third or fourth-year starter down the line, to be more than another within-the-offense "manager."
Advantage: McCarron. You have to go way, way back to find the last 'Bama quarterback who jumped the floppy-haired line of succession, which is clearly in McCarron's favor here: He has two years in Jim McElwain's offense to Sims' one, and Nick Saban – like all Crimson Tide coaches before him – has never shown any hesitation to defer to the guy who's going to make the fewest mistakes. With a vicious, veteran defense fueling serious championship ambitions again this fall, that's all they're asking for.
• LSU: Jordan Jefferson vs. Jarrett Lee vs. Zach Mettenberger.
Relevant Dynamic: There are no incumbents here.
All incoming coaches are obligated to tell the media "Every position is up for grabs," to instill a sense of competition, combat complacency, etc. But new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe's insistence that Jordan Jefferson, starter for 27 of the Tigers' last 28 games since the end of his freshman season in 2008, isn't a shoo-in for the job carries a little added credibility – namely, because Jefferson struggled to stay on the field as a seemingly entrenched starter in 2010, regularly yielding to former pick-six king Jarrett Lee and finishing near the bottom of the SEC in pass efficiency. Lee clearly outshone Jefferson in the wins over Tennessee and Florida in early October, the depths of Jefferson's two-month, 32-quarter drought without a touchdown pass.
If LSU knows it can win with modest efforts from Jefferson and Lee – or in spite of them – Mettenberger, a Georgia transfer by way of junior college, offers the big-play potential that's been so sorely lacking: At 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, he looks every bit the part of an NFL-bound fireballer in the pocket, and he only needs to reproduce a fraction of the Cam Newton Effect to ensure the Tigers are in the thick of the SEC and BCS championship races.
Advantage: Jefferson. Jefferson pulled away from Lee with hyper-efficient efforts against Alabama and Ole Miss in November and went out with a three-touchdown effort against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, after throwing four touchdowns in the entire regular season. Mettenberger may be the second coming of Ben Roethlisberger (in more ways than one), but it's going to take another significant regression from the incumbent to get him on the field.
• MIAMI: Jacory Harris vs. Stephen Morris.
Relevant Dynamic: The Veteran vs. The Clean Slate.
Harris, like Jefferson, enters his senior season as a symbol of inconsistency and mediocrity after two full seasons as an entrenched starter, also under a new offensive coordinator who insists the job is anyone's to win. That's a hard fall for Harris, who opened his junior season as a rising star on a rising team. Instead, the Hurricanes were blown out of there biggest games against Ohio State and Florida State, Harris was knocked out of the lineup for almost a month in a sobering loss at Virginia, attendance dwindled, the turnover margin soared and coach Randy Shannon was fired immediately following a season-ending flop with Harris back in the saddle against South Florida. In his last start, Harris looked like he'd rather be anywhere but the Sun Bowl, where he served up three interceptions in 13 snaps in an embarrassing rout at the hands of Notre Dame, pushing his career total to a staggering 39 picks in three years.
Stephen Morris wasn't appreciably better in relief, putting up nine INTs himself in five-and-a-half games, but he was a) A true freshman who fully expected to redshirt until Harris' injury, and b) The closest the 'Canes had to a spark as the season unraveled, leading an impressive win over Georgia Tech and a late comeback to beat Maryland in his first two starts.
Advantage: Morris. Most importantly, Morris offers a clear demarcation between the Shannon era and the new rebuilding campaign under coach Al Golden. Faced with two interception-prone QBs learning a new system, there's no reason not to hand the reins to the long-term solution unless Harris clearly outplays him.
• NOTRE DAME: Dayne Crist vs. Tommy Rees.
Relevant Dynamic: The Prototype vs. The Winner.
On paper, Dayne Crist still has the NFL size, golden arm, five-star recruiting hype and clean-cut reputation of a can't-miss star-in-waiting. But how long are the Irish willing to wait? Three full years into his career, they barely have a better grasp of the program's would-be savior than they did at this time last year – before his first season as a starter was cut short by his second major knee injury in as many years.
They do that his departure from the lineup heralded an immediate reversal in the team's fortune: In Crist's nine starts, Notre Dame was foundering at 4-5 with back-to-back humiliations at the hands of Navy and Tulsa. After his injury, the Irish reversed their typical November fade to win four straight under true freshman Tommy Rees, including their first win over a ranked team (Utah) since early 2006, their first win over USC since 2002 and a convincing bowl rout over Miami.
Advantage: Crist. Most of the credit for the late turnaround went to the surging defense, not Rees, and coach Brian Kelly's history suggests he's not inclined to defer to the "hot hand" over his designated starter: Faced with a similar situation in Cincinnati in 2009, he readily yanked successful backup Zach Collaros for starter Tony Pike as soon as Pike was ready to resume the job after a four-week absence. In the same vein, Crist's obvious upside should put him back in the driver's seat, unless his rehab unexpectedly extends through the spring.
• PENN STATE: Robert Bolden vs. Matt McGloin.
Relevant Dynamic: The Athlete vs. The Game Manager.
Yes, this is a rubber match: Bolden took Round One, surprisingly emerging from a quartet of contenders to become the first true freshman QB to start a season opener in Penn State history. Round Two belonged to McGloin, who started the last six after stepping in for a concussed (and predictably struggling) Bolden in October – a streak that ended with McGloin's 17-of-41, five-interception debacle against Florida in the Outback Bowl, effectively reopening the competition.
Advantage: Bolden. Coaches were determined enough to keep Bolden around that they successfully blocked his attempt to transfer in the immediate aftermath of the bowl game – he didn't see the field at all during McGloin's collapse, which even Joe Paterno admitted was a mistake – and convinced him to stay through the spring. Bolden made it pretty clear over the weekend that he's on the first bus out if he doesn't win the job, and the same potential that carried him into the starting job last August should give him the edge with a season under his belt.
• WASHINGTON: Nick Montana vs. Keith Price.
Relevant Dynamic: The Pedigree vs. The Dual Threat.
The Huskies' battle could be alternately labeled "Blank Slate vs. Blank Slate." Price took snaps in eight games last year as a redshirt freshman, but only saw significant action in one, a predictably grisly, 53-16 loss at Oregon with senior hero Jake Locker rehabbing a cracked rib. Nick "Yes That Montana" Montana, spawn of Joe, spent a redshirt season working with the scout team. Neither has particularly notable size or recruiting hype (Montana had a much better list of offers than you'd expect for a relatively spindly three-star recruit, but his last name is also "Montana"), and coach Steve Sarkisian has downplayed the alleged differences in their arms and legs, respectively, claiming Price is a better passer and Montana a better runner than either gets credit for.
Advantage: Price. The local assumption is that Price's scanty game experience gives him a slight edge, though the position is wide open enough that the competition is expected to continue well into the fall, when oversized true freshman Derrick Brown (6-3/225) and JUCO transfer Antavius Sims are also expected to get long looks, the latter as a "Wildcat" option. Either way, running back Chris Polk can probably expect to carry a heavier share of the offense.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.