The X Factor in the Iron Bowl Isn't Just a Quarterback, It's Both of Them
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The focus has been on one player.
Mac Jones has been thrust into the starter role. He's taken over for Tua Tagovailoa and is being called the biggest unknown when Alabama heads to Auburn to face its biggest rival with its College Football Playoff hopes on the line Saturday (2:30 p.m., CBS).
How will he handle the pressure?
How will he deal with the noise?
What will the Crimson Tide coaching staff change to try and give him the best chance to win?
The answer to the last one is very little, and the key to the first two is lean heavily on his playmakers.
"Really there’s no change," junior wide receiver DeVonta Smith said. "The coaches call what they call and we execute it. Mac knows this offense real well, so we just follow him, whatever he gives us.
“Mac understands what kind of game it is, what’s going on. He knows the offense and he is very confident and gives us confidence.”
Consequently, contrary to popular belief the elephant in the stadium won't be Jones, who being a redshirt sophomore is in his third year in the system and more experienced than anyone is giving credit.
It's the guy on the other side, true freshman Bo Nix, for one simple reason: He'll almost certainly have to lead the way for Auburn to have a chance to win.
He's more than capable.
If you look at the media notes that the schools have handed out for the game, Auburn's have Nix all over him — and rightfully so. He's not only the starting quarterback but the future of the program.
A keyword search found 237 matches, including a whole section titled "Freshman debut" beginning with Nix.
Against Oregon at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Nix was the first true freshman to start an Auburn opener at quarterback since Travis Tidwell in 1946. He went 13-for-31 for 177 yards passing with two scores and two interceptions.
Here's the key: He went 4-for-6 on the game-winning drive.
"To be a freshman quarterback starting in the SEC, obviously you gotta be special," senior safety Jared Mayden said. "Obviously you gotta have talent.
"The Oregon game where he came back and really kinda won the game for them, you could tell he plays with a chip on his shoulder. So it's gonna be a good chip on his shoulder."
Meanwhile, Alabama's game notes barely mention Jones.
They're reflective of how the Crimson Tide wants to have a business-as-usual approach as much as possible.
"I just think that you have to accept the responsibility and the role," Nick Saban said. "You have to be confident in your ability in that role, and your body language has to express that to the players that you’re playing with. I think all three of those things are probably critical factors in being able to do that, positive body language is really important. Everybody’s striving to be perfect, nobody really can be. Somewhere along the line you want to hit on exceptional.
"That’s really what we try and get our players to do. When it doesn’t go the way you’d like for it to go you have to focus on the next play. We have to learn from that play. I think that’s really important for the quarterback not to get all frustrated about the circumstance and continue to focus on the next play. His teammates need to see that and have confidence in his ability to do that as well."
Nix has 11 games of collegiate experience, including then-ranked No. 2 LSU, No. 5 Georgia, No. 10 Florida, No. 11 Oregon and No. 17 Texas A&M. The Tigers are 2-3 in those games, but 0-3 against top-10 opponents.
For the season, Nix is 185-for-321, 57.6 percent, for 2,193 yards, with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. His passer efficiency rating is 125.67.
It was below 100 in three of the five games against ranked teams, and barely above that line in another.
Bo Nix vs. Ranked Opponents
Opponent, Com-Att (Percent) Yards, TDs, Int., Rating
vs. Oregon: 13-31 (41.9) 177, 2, 2, 98.3
at Texas A&M: 12-20 (60) 100, 1, 0, 118.5
at Florida: 11-27 (40.7) 145, 1, 3, 75.9
at LSU: 15-35 (42.9) 157, 1, 1, 84.3
Georgia: 30-50 (60.0) 245, 1, 0, 107.8
If you're Alabama, the defensive game-plan seems pretty simple: Focus on the run and force the freshman to try and beat you with his arm.
In contrast, Auburn is going to have to let Nix run more. With two true freshmen interior linebackers, the Crimson Tide has been vulnerable to dual-threat quarterbacks.
Jones may have made just two starts, but his played in 10 games this season. That's on top of facing his own defense every day in practice. Alabama always does some good-on-good periods, but more often it's the starters against the reserves or scout team.
"The competition every day in practice is really what makes them better," Saban said. "Marlon Humphrey would tell you that, ‘I had to cover Amari Cooper every day,’ and Cam Robinson would say, ‘I had to block Jonathan Allen every day.'"
In terms of passing, Jones is 55-for-77 for 841 yards, with seven touchdowns and one interception. He has a passer rating of 190.58.
In those two starts he's combined to go 28-for-34 (82.4 percent), for 510 yards, with six touchdowns and no interceptions. The 275 yards last week were a career high.
Granted, the opponents were Arkansas and Western Carolina, and both games were at home. This will obviously be very different.
However, it should also be noted that four of those touchdown throws were to someone in open space behind the line of scrimmage. Being surrounded by so many playmakers is a big-time luxury for Jones and Alabama, which can use quick throws to nullify the pass-rush.
Consequently, Alabama should have an easier time getting its quarterback into a rhythm even though the game will be played at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
"I think high anxiety is not going to help your performance any," Saban said. "Staying in the right place, being confident, and that comes with good preparation. Experience is something he’s gotten in a couple games, and he’ll get some experience in this game, too, against a very good defensive team.
"But I think that it’s really important that the players around him play well because that’s going to help his confidence because maybe then he can have a little success, which is always a good thing, especially early on.”
Because the quarterback who has to do less will have an advantage, the beginning stages could be huge. Auburn can't afford to fall behind, and Alabama has quick-strike ability with four receivers who can turn the shortest completion into a touchdown.
The Crimson Tide also had Najee Harris out of the backfield.
Ideally, Jones' biggest task will be not to lose the game, which is a lot easier than being asked to win it.
"Anything we can do to help the quarterback make his job easier, we try to do," sophomore receiver Jaylen Waddle said.