All eyes on 10.
Everybody in the state is going to be watching the quarterback position this Saturday. An entire fanbase will rest its hopes on the throwing shoulder of an Iron Bowl rookie. It’ll be the biggest, most important game yet in an entire lifetime.
The fact that Bo Nix and Mac Jones share the same jersey number is just the start of the similarities between the two youngsters. Both quarterbacks will be thrust into the spotlight in the Auburn-Alabama showdown on Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Nix, Auburn’s freshman quarterback, will be playing in his first-ever Iron Bowl game, while Jones will be making his first-ever Iron Bowl start.
Jones is a redshirt sophomore at Alabama, stepping in for the Tide after superstar signal caller Tua Tagovailoa went down with injury. Jones isn’t just making his first start in the Iron Bowl series, but his first-ever road start as well.
“This will be a first for both of us,” Nix said this week on the Plains. Auburn and Alabama kick off at 2:30 p.m. Saturday on CBS. This will be the 84th game in the series, and as far as the quarterback matchup goes, there may have never been another one played quite like this one.
“I think that’s what’s fun about it,” Nix said.
Jones signed with Alabama as a universally ranked four-star prospect out of Bolles School in Florida. He’s started two games in his career at Tuscaloosa, his first coming against Arkansas earlier this season when Tagovailoa went down with an ankle injury and was working to return in time for the Alabama-LSU game. His second came last week in Alabama’s tune-up with Western Carolina.
He threw only 12 passes in that one, but hit 10 of them.
As complicated and as delicate as the situations are for two inexperienced quarterbacks going into the game, the big questions seem obvious: For Nix, Auburn ponders how tough games earlier this season have prepared him for this moment, and for Jones, Alabama figures to find out how much it can lean on the newbie before he starts to crack.
“You’ve just got to predict how much they’re going to put on him, how much they’re going to utilize him and everything that goes with that,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said Tuesday, offering his insight into the Iron Bowl’s most intriguing matchup. Jones has been highly efficient, but he’s been protected.
“We have a lot of confidence in Mac. He’s played well when he’s had the opportunity to play, and I think the team has confidence in him,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said earlier this week, in his own press conference across the state.
“This is going to be the first game he has to play on the road, so it’ll be a little different from that standpoint for him, in terms of game management — the things that he has to do to be effective against a very good team.”
But Saban said he has confidence Jones can run a balanced offense. He hit 18 of 22 passes against Arkansas.
And meanwhile, Auburn has confidence that Nix can rise to the occasion in the big game. He’s been battle-tested before, against Oregon, Florida, LSU and Georgia.
“He’s learned this year against the toughest defenses, probably, in all of college football,” Malzahn said. “And this is another one. That really helps your learning curve. It accelerates learning.”
Ask the youngster who’s been in there under fire, and he’ll say the same thing.
“I feel like each one of those games has prepared me for this game,” Nix said, his destiny in the Iron Bowl soon at hand. “Each one has gotten a little bit bigger and bigger. Obviously I haven’t played as great in some of them as I would have liked to, but I just continue to grow and get better. Just learning the environment and how to control it and how to control the emotions — the many things that go on in the game.
“I’m looking forward to playing and backing our defense up and having fun.”
Oddly enough, the freshman has more in-game experience than his counterpart coming in, though Jones has spent two seasons being part of gamedays and learning behind Tagovialoa and Jalen Hurts, two of the best in college football.
At the end of the day, what Nix said is what it comes down to. Eyes from across the state will be watching eagerly and nervously, but at the end of the day, they’ll still be two kids out there playing.
“Obviously he’s played a lot of football in his past,” Nix said. “He’s been in environments that have been really loud and he’s learned from Tua. He’s going to be well-coached, he’s going to be well-prepared. He’s got really good players around him.”
All that’s left now is for them to compete.