Beat Writer Breakdown, Day 1: Ryan Black and Marq Burnett talk Iron Bowl big picture

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 25, 2013 

Editor's note: Each week, the War Eagle Extra blog normally has five questions with the beat writer of Auburn's opponent. This week isn't any different; the only thing that has changed is the format. Instead of running all five questions in one post on Thursday evening, Alabama beat writer Marq Burnett (who works for The Anniston Star in Anniston, Ala.) and Auburn beat writer Ryan Black will tackle one question each day, beginning this afternoon and running through Saturday, when each will give their prediction on this year's Iron Bowl.

Check back each afternoon as we look at a different aspect of the matchup, beginning with today's look at big-picture questions.

Ryan Black: It seems like there's been lot of talk recently about where AJ McCarron ranks not just among the best active quarterbacks in college football, but among the all-time best to play the position. (The Sports Illustrated cover did a good job starting that discussion.) So in your estimation, how does he stack up? You've covered nearly every start of his career, no?

Marq Burnett: With AJ McCarron, it really depends on who you ask. On one hand, it's about stats and how flashy a quarterback is. In that case, McCarron doesn't measure up particularly well. Alabama's system doesn't allow a quarterback to throw for a ton of yards like some of the spread offenses throughout the country.

On the other hand, it's all about winning and very few quarterbacks in the history of college football have been more successful than McCarron in that category. He's 36-2 as a starter and has two national championships along with an SEC Championship. McCarron has Alabama in a position to win a third consecutive national championship, something no other quarterback has ever done.

If he completes this run and Alabama finishes 14-0 with another national title, he'll have to be at least included in the conversation as the best quarterback ever.

Burnett: Coming off last season, it's safe to say very few people thought Auburn would be a top five team heading into the Iron Bowl. What's the feeling around the program considering the huge turnaround and everything that has happened this season?

Black: That's a good question, Marq, and one I've been asked countless times this season. As is normally the case with these types of things, the answer varies depending on the person. Talk to Auburn's coordinators (Ellis Johnson or Rhett Lashlee), and they'll tell you they didn't see this kind of season coming at all when the year began. Yes, they both saw a lot of talent, and believed the potential to be 10-1 existed. But to say they expected this? No, they wouldn't do that.

Then there's head coach Gus Malzahn, who stonewalls any attempt to talk about his preseason expectations; it's the same cliches every week with him: "We're just taking it one game at a time" and "We're just looking to get better each practice and each game."

Finally, the players are normally split between those who have expressed a bit of surprise with how the year has turned out versus those who said this kind of campaign was in the offing all along. All I can say is this: Aside from those in the program — and fans who always think the absolute best about their team — no one realistically thought the Tigers would be playing for so much come Iron Bowl week given how last season ended.

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