An Appreciation: AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray, Tyler Russell, Connor Shaw

Scott Halleran

In a league generally more renowned for its defenses, five seniors helped make 2013 the Year of the Quarterback in the SEC. Over the next several days, many of them will find out if they will be able to take their chances in the NFL

An occasional series on departing seniors with memorable moments or careers in the SEC

The SEC is not known as a quarterback's league. Sure, there have been great quarterbacks to come through the conference, and to move onto success in the NFL. But the popular imagination, both inside and outside the South, holds that the SEC is a conference of rugged defenses and power running games, with exceptions like Steve Spurrier's Fun 'n' Gun offense in the 1990s proving the rule.

This year, things were different. Johnny Manziel controlled the pre-season SEC and Heisman hype. Nick Marshall's unlikely return to the conference at Auburn led the Tigers to the national title. And five seniors were expected to lead their teams to varying degrees of success -- and helped contribute to the Year of the QB in the SEC.

A.J. McCarron (Alabama)

The debate over how big a role McCarron played in Alabama's success is one that's unlikely to be resolved before or even after the NFL Draft. McCarron was undeniably a good quarterback; on his career, he was 686-for-1,026 passing (a completion percentage of almost 66.9 percent) and threw 77 touchdowns against 15 interceptions, good for a 162.54 passer rating. (That's 113.35 in NFL terms.) And did anyone mention that he was the starting quarterback for two national championship teams?

But McCarron also had the misfortune for his own legacy, if you want to call it that, of playing on one of the most star-studded teams in the game. And Nick Saban does not expect as much out of his quarterbacks as some other coaches. So McCarron remains a sort of unanswered question himself -- very good at what he was asked to do, instrumental in Alabama's recent dynasty, and yet unable to shake the issue of what he was asked to do and the fact that there were so many other great players that made that dynasty possible.

All of those questions have at times rubbed McCarron the wrong way -- leading a player who won the Maxwell Award and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy to feel disrespected. The time frame might have been part of the problem; there are some years when a guy who threw for 3,063 yards and 28 touchdowns versus seven interceptions would be in the running for best quarterback of the year in the conference. This year, against some of the other seniors and Johnny Manziel, it wasn't going to cut it.

The other extreme, though, is the ridiculous "one of the best ever" cover that Sports Illustrated produced. And his legacy is likely to end up the same way Year2 suspected then it would: "beloved by his own fan base but relatively faded from memory as time goes on." There are worse ways for your career to go. And even if he's not remembered that well, McCarron will still have those rings.

Zach Mettenberger (LSU)

Contrary to popular belief, it is not a requirement for membership in the SEC to accept a player that was once kicked out of Georgia. But for LSU and Auburn, it worked out pretty well in 2013, though it worked out much better for Auburn than for the Bayou Bengals. The success of both former Bulldogs was unlikely for different reasons, and Mettenberger's might have been the unlikeliest of all.

Not just because of the sexual battery charges that got him booted from Georgia -- though there's that -- or the detour through Butler Community College that followed. But mostly because the 2012 season led to a drop in Mettenberger's stock after he compiled an average 128.34 passer rating. Flashes of brilliance were followed by returns to mediocrity.

You can still grumble or wonder about how, exactly, LSU ended up with nothing better than a bid to the Outback Bowl in 2013, given the offensive firepower that the Tigers had, but it wasn't Mettenberger's fault. He boosted his passer efficiency rating by 43 points, to 171.45, throwing for more than 400 additional yards on 56 fewer attempts than in 2012. A 12-to-7 TD-to-interception ratio turned into a 22-to-8 mark. (Mettenberger would finish his LSU career 407-of-659 for 5,783 yards, 35 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.) On a whole, the 2013 Tigers narrowly ended up the most offensively prolific team in LSU history.

Now, questions are swirling around Mettenberger once again, springing from sources as varied as his diluted urine sample and the status of his back. Neither of which are foolish things to consider if you're about to pay a quarterback millions of dollars. But if taking a shot on Mettenberger produces the same results for an NFL team as it did for LSU, it might be worth the gamble.

Aaron Murray (Georgia)

Aaron Murray started his career as Georgia quarterback during the worst season of Mark Richt's tenure. He helped craft one of the best years that the Bulldogs' long-time head coach has ever seen. And along the way, he ended up as by some measures the most most prolific quarterback in the history of the SEC.

In fact, Aaron Murray might go down as the conference's best quarterback to never win an SEC title. He seemed to be plagued by the worst of luck. Georgia missed a BCS bowl in 2012 because, in one of the weird quirks of the BCS formula, Florida's loss to the Bulldogs allowed the Gators to avoid the SEC Championship Game loss and go to the Sugar Bowl instead. The less-than-stellar team results in his final season drew comparisons to Matt Barkley. Murray was injured in the next-to-last regular season game for Georgia, depriving him of a chance to end his career with a win against the Bulldogs' hated in-state rival and a bowl victory.

But the records he rang up are not exactly consolation prizes. He holds the SEC career records for passing yards, touchdowns and total offense -- along with completions, if you want to throw that one in. He's the first guy in SEC history to have four consecutive years of 3,000 passing yards. In his best statistical season, 2012, Murray threw for 3,893 yards, 36 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He was never seen as a particularly mobile quarterback, but he could run in spots, scoring 16 rushing touchdowns over his time in Athens.

In some ways, Murray was the inverse of McCarron: He was probably better than he will get credit for because of the flaws of the teams that were built around him. But he ended up as one of the more widely-respected players in the conference, and he might be the best quarterback drafted out of the SEC this year. That's gotta count for something.

Tyler Russell (Mississippi State)

If you were to look at the list of names in the headline of this article, this is the one that might stick out a bit. AJ McCarron won two national titles. Zach Mettenberger was a high-profile passer for one of the dominant teams in the SEC West. Aaron Murray holds a slew of conference records. And Connor Shaw -- more on him in a moment -- was at the helm for some or all of three 11-win seasons at South Carolina. But Tyler Russell?

Yes, Tyler Russell. No one in Mississippi State history has passed for more touchdowns (42) or a better quarterback efficiency rating (137.29). Russell holds 11 single-season records at Mississippi State -- 11. He was never much of a runner, a shortcoming in Dan Mullen's offense, and he was sometimes hobbled by injuries. But when he was healthy and got the playing time, Russell was about as good a quarterback as they've had in Starkville. (One fascinating tidbit from his Mississippi State bio: He was the first Bulldog quarterback to be named SEC Offensive Player of the Week in 21 years when he won the honor in 2012.)

It's possible, having been a quarterback in this era of SEC football at a school that wasn't a regular contender, that we might not remember Tyler Russell all that well. But it would mostly be our fault if we forget him -- not his. And while Russell is on the fringes as far as getting drafted goes, he'll likely get at least a chance in free agency to keep his name in our minds a little longer.

Connor Shaw (South Carolina)

Many of us, self included, recoil when an broadcaster or a commentator says that a player is "just a winner." More of us flinch when they put up the career wins numbers for a quarterback, knowing that the stat is completely useless for judging a player's talent. (A pitcher has more control over individual plays than a quarterback, and most stats-watching baseball fans stopped paying attention to pitchers' win-loss records years ago.)

But it's hard to describe Connor Shaw's impact on South Carolina in any other way, in part because no other quarterback won as much as Shaw did. He never lost a game he started in Columbia. When Marcus Lattimore went down late in the 2011 season, and then again late in the 2012 season, the Gamecocks kept winning. When Shaw came in more than midway through the third quarter of the Missouri game in 2013 with his team trailing 17-0, he somehow guided them to a win.

It did not start out that well for Connor Shaw. He came into the first game against Auburn in 2010 and promptly threw two interceptions that broke South Carolina's back. In 2011, Steve Spurrier decided to have Shaw start the season opener against East Carolina rather than Stephen Garcia; to give you an idea of how well that went, yours truly was on Twitter calling for Spurrier to be suspended. And I wasn't joking. (Spurrier eventually put Garcia in and the offense turned around.)

Because of his battle with Garcia and then injuries, Shaw never truly got to play healthy for a full season. He never eclipsed 2,500 yards passing (though he was just 53 yards short in 2013), even though his lowest passer efficiency rating for a season in which he was a regular starter was 148.31. Shaw ran for 1,683 yards and 17 touchdowns, usually making the right call to take off with the ball even when Spurrier wanted to throw it. Shaw's most mind-boggling accomplishment might have been prompting Steve Spurrier to call read-option plays.

There wasn't always an easy way to explain why South Carolina won when Connor Shaw was in the game -- football is a game won or lost by more than one player. But, whatever it was, the Gamecocks had better hope they can replace it next year. And either through the draft or free agency, Shaw likely has a shot at taking his alchemy to the NFL and seeing if it works there.

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