In With AJ McCool, Out With Johnny Pick-6

There’s no need now for Jonathan P. Manziel to head over to the county clerk’s office, down yonder in College Station, and file his petition requesting an official name change to Johnny Football. That’s because he was merely the second-best quarterback in the stadium Saturday. Oh, he was OMG-amazing again, and his latest highlights are viral-sprialing all over YouTube, and he’ll continue to have a fabulous career at Texas A&M, and, yep, he’ll surely make more noise as the Miley Cyrus of 2013 collegiate life.

But his days of preoccupying the collective American attention span are gone, at least for now. It’s out with Johnny Football and in with AJ McCool, as in McCarron — the Alabama quarterback who doesn’t have his own Cam and doesn’t text Drake and LeBron but does possess two national title rings, does avoid the local police and NCAA investigators, does have a hot girlfriend who was propelled to stardom by social media and did avoid the fatal mistakes that Manziel could not in a memorable, four-hour freak show of a game. I’d say the new mandate is obvious, America.

Can we stop talking about Johnny Football already and start realizing that AJ McCool, a humble dude who stays out of trouble and has a way of performing well and winning every time he plays a big game, is just what we want as a college football hero in our mixed-up country?

To remain centrally relevant, in sports and pop culture, a solo sensation must conquer the biggest moment. Manziel did not, throwing two devastating interceptions — including a killer pick-6 touchdown in which he looked AWKWARD as he tried to tackle the juking Alabama defensive back, Vinnie Sunseri — that ended any chance of trumping the Nick Saban Dynasty for the second time. Manziel’s other statistics were numbing: 28 of 39 for 464 yards and five TDs in the air, 14 carries for 98 yards, all part of his irrepressible comeback storms every time the Crimson Tide seemed to be in game-lockdown mode.

Yet the digit that mattered most was 2, not the number on his jersey but the passes that ended up in enemy hands. Just as Manziel’s reckless, high-reward force field helped him to the Heisman Trophy and an unprecedented swirl as the biggest college rock-jock star of the social media era, those risks ended up burying him in his defining game, a 49-42 loss that likely will cost him another Heisman and a national-championship shot. After several bratty months of partying his brains out, making childish gestures, going Hollywood, defying authority and reducing the once-lordly NCAA to a pile of investigative mush, Johnny Football becomes so much background noise.

Which means we finally can focus on the player we should have been focusing on all along. McCarron is the antithesis of Manziel — well-mannered, mature, no money-grab signals or indicting Instagram photos — yet his titles and individual success have been lost in the blur of Manziel mania. He has been a victim of the Saban system, known more as a game manager than a star. But have you noticed his poise and performance in every meaningful game? And I mean every meaningful game? Did you see how calm he remained after Manziel razzled and dazzled his boys to an early 14-0 lead? Saban was pacing on the Alabama sideline, his head ready to explode. How did McCarron reply? He led a long touchdown drive that soothed the anxiety, and next thing you knew, after Manziel’s first critical pick, Alabama was scoring 28 unanswered points behind McCarron’s three first-half scoring passes. When Sunseri’s interception made it five straight touchdowns without a Manziel response, the conclusions were obvious.

AJ McCool has been short-shrifted.

And we need to spend the rest of the season correcting that, starting with the launch of his Heisman campaign.

Consider the final Alabama touchdown. The one sorely needed after running back T.J. Yelden’s fumble had led to yet another Manziel miracle, this time a 95-yard TD pass to his favorite receiver, Mike Evans. Still up 42-35 with eight minutes left, McCarron went to work. With typical aplomb, he led another long drive, and on third-and-goal at the 5, he huddled with Saban and the coaches on the sideline. As he ran onto the field, McCarron noticed something in the A&M defense and asked to run the play he’d wanted all along.

“I just told Coach I wanted the ball in my hands,” he told CBS afterward on the field. “I felt comfortable with the play we had. Being the leader, I wanted it in my hands.”

Saban is no fool. There’s a reason he has won three of the last four national championships, why Alabama is trying to become the first team to three-peat in the college game since Minnesota in the 1930s. When someone is tried and true in the biggest moments — and is 27-2 as a starter at Alabama — you listen to an AJ McCarron.

“That’s the play he wanted. I always believe in the players,” Saban said. “It was a play-action pass that actually was a play we fumbled on earlier. But it was a good call on his part.”

Good call? It may be remembered as the play that cemented another championship and Saban’s place in the pantheon of all-time coaches. McCarron rolled right after the play fake and easily found Jalston Fowler for the dagger TD, which was necessary after Manziel threw yet another TD pass with 15 seconds left. McCarron’s numbers: 20 of 29, 334 yards, four touchdowns.

Zero interceptions.

Meanwhile, A&M coach Kevin Sumlin seemed to take a jab at Manziel, the monster he created and enabled. Of the Sunseri TD that represented the game-breaker in a back-and-forth drama, he said, “I thought his play was Johnny-like. Anybody who’s seen him play, that’s about right.”

As for Manziel, who refused to answer questions about anything but the game after blowing off the media all week, he seemed unaffected by the loss. “This wasn’t the Super Bowl,” he told the media. “Alabama lost a game last year and still went on to win the national championship. Our season isn’t over.” But other than a Nov. 9 game against LSU — in Tuscaloosa, of course — the Crimson Tide have no foreseeable bumps until that SEC championship game. That means Alabama, basically, is three victories from another national title after another Saban revenge win.

“It’s not really about payback,” said McCarron, staying true to the company line. “It’s another win for us and our program. We played a 60-minute game.”

Don’t tell Saban that. “You just took 10 years off my life,” he mumbled to Sumlin as they shook hands.

Some won’t want to blame Manziel for the loss. They’ll say A&M didn’t have the organizational equilibrium and coaching savvy to hang with a Saban team. They’ll say A&M didn’t have the defense to handle the mastery of McCarron and the pounding bursts of Yelden, who’ll be hearing it from Saban for two reasons: his ill-timed fumble and his Manziel-like, un-Alabama-like money-grab gesture after a touchdown, punctuated by a throat-slash motion. Some will praise Manziel for fighting to the end when most teams and quarterbacks would have crawled into a fetal position.

Sorry, Manziel contributed mightily to the loss. As he walked to midfield afterward, a white towel was draped over his head. Not far away, Saban was greeting AJ McCool with a simple handshake.

All business, no b.s.