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Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron leaves the field after Saturday after his team defeated Tennessee in Knoxville.


How ESPN projects the Heisman Trophy race entering the last weekend in October:

1. Kansas State QB Collin Klein

2. Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o

3. Oregon RB Kenjon Barner

4. Alabama QB AJ McCarron

5. Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

While Heisman Trophy candidates across the country keep sparkling and fizzling quicker than cheap fireworks, AJ McCarron continues to be AJ McCarron.

Alabama's junior quarterback has not produced extravagant numbers, notching his first career 300-yard passing game in last week's 44-13 win at Tennessee, but he continues to deliver in the statistics that matter most. The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder from Mobile has yet to throw an interception and has yet to lose, guiding the No. 1 Crimson Tide to a 7-0 start after his stellar showing in last season's BCS title-game triumph over LSU.

"I think AJ has played very, very well for us," Alabama coach Nick Saban said this week. "He hasn't turned the ball over, and he makes a lot of good choices and decisions. His passing efficiency has been really good, and I think AJ has been a really good leader for us and that he has affected the other players on the team.

"The last couple of weeks, I think we've really come together a little better offensively in terms of consistency and balance."

McCarron leads the nation in efficiency heading into Saturday night's visit from No. 13 Mississippi State, having completed 106 of 154 passes (68.8 percent) for 1,476 yards and 16 touchdowns.

His 306-yard performance last week in Neyland Stadium topped the 284 yards he compiled in the 37-6 rout of Tennessee last year in Tuscaloosa, but it was just the third time this season McCarron eclipsed 200 yards and the first against a program from a BCS conference. He threw for 199 yards against Michigan, 189 against Arkansas, 180 against Ole Miss and 171 against Missouri -- not exactly numbers to rival the Heisman-winning quarterbacks of recent years.

"Everybody has got to understand that we're going to take whatever the defense gives us," McCarron said. "One week we might have to run it, and the next week we might have to throw it."

West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith and Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball are among the Heisman hopefuls nationally who have flourished and floundered, but McCarron heads an offense that is 30-for-31 this season in red-zone trips with 23 touchdowns. Alabama also defines balance, having thrown for 1,541 yards and rushed for 1,536.

Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, who has thrown for 1,397 yards and rushed for 551, is the latest Heisman front-runner, but McCarron continues to creep closer toward a Heisman ceremony invitation as his team continues to rack up the wins.

"The most important thing we try to get our players to understand, AJ included, is how do you execute and how do you play," Saban said. "It's one play at a time, and play every play like it has a life and history of its own.

"We are all for our guys getting recognition, and we're pleased and flattered that some of our players are up for awards and have a chance to be recognized for their hard work and effort. At the same time, I think they all need to understand you've never really arrived and that you need to keep your head in the right place relative to your preparation. Regardless of what external factors are out there, you need to focus to where you can play well in the game, and that's what we try to emphasize to all of our players."

McCarron won't be lacking for prominent stages from which to compete, with Saturday's game on ESPN and next week's game at LSU on CBS.