After last year, Bama wary of Auburn's ability to ruin the party
This time a year ago, it would’ve been impossible for Mac Jones to show up at a gas station or the grocery store and not have a fan — or five — ask him about the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Not so in 2020. “I don’t really go anywhere,” Jones smiled with the “aw shucks” demeanor that, along with his arm, has endeared him to the college football world this fall, “so I haven’t interacted with fans at all this year compared to last year. I really just go home and lay on my couch, watch film here, eat here, hang out with my girlfriend. I don’t really do much.”
It’s a strange set of circumstances when the toasts of Tuscaloosa are asked to stay in during the biggest week of the season. But such is life dealing with COVID-19, when even family Turkey Day plans are being sidelined.
What’s not abnormal are the stakes. The Iron Bowl, comfort food for the college football fan’s soul and annual part of this late stage of the season, again has Playoff implications.
Top-ranked Alabama opened as a 24-point favorite this week. No. 22 Auburn, though, has been known to ruin the party.
Last year’s 48-45 upset was just the latest example. In 2013 and 2017, the Tigers beat a top-ranked Bama squad.
In fact, in the past 7 seasons, the Crimson Tide are 1-2 in the Iron Bowl while holding the Associated Press’ No. 1 ranking.
“All eyes here are looking forward to the Iron Bowl, which is one of the great rivalries, I think, in college football,” coach Nick Saban said. “It certainly means a lot to a lot of people in this state and all over the country. So as always we’re playing a very, very good team. A top-20 team. Gus has done a really good job there.”
This isn’t the experience-laden Auburn group that eliminated its arch-nemesis from Playoff contention a year ago. But its offense can cause problems when the running game gets going and quarterback Bo Nix gets outside the pocket, and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s group is the SEC’s No. 2 pass defense, allowing just 237 yards per game.
“They do a little bit of everything,” said Jones, who had a rough day in this matchup last season. “They like to play zone, they like to play man. In crunch time, he’s going to call great plays. We saw that last year. He likes to heat up the quarterback a little.”
So protecting Jones will be paramount. So will be getting running back Najee Harris into a rhythm.
Nix has more than one capable target, highlighted by receiver Seth Williams (who’s averaging 18 yards per reception) and a pair of enormous tight ends in Brandon Frazier and J.J. Pegues.
The latter tops 300 pounds and plays Wildcat quarterback from time to time, too.
“I don’t think I’ve ever tackled a 300-pound tight end, but Auburn uses their players really well,” linebacker Christian Harris said. “We’ve just got to make sure we do our part.”
Part of that means ensuring the game goes off without a hitch. Each team has already had 1 game postponed due to COVID.
Bama-Auburn has become synonymous with the tasty college football offering on this holiday weekend. It attracts viewers from all over the country, and it can help determine important recruiting battles within its own state.
Even for fans without a vested interest, Saturday afternoon will be a nice side of normalcy to go with the turkey and stuffing.
“I think it’s a pride thing in the state,” said Saban, who rarely loses to the same opponent 2 years in a row. “We have lots of fans on both sides, and they obviously have a lot of passion for their program and their influence has — the man on the street, I’m going to call it — probably has some impact on where guys want to go. We just want to provide the best program we can to create value for our players in the future.
“And I know how important this game is to our fans and our players, and we’re just going to do the best job we can as coaches to try to put them in the best position to do it.”