Alabama football: Hello, Auburn. Welcome to the Mac Jones Redemption Tour
A year ago Saturday, 363 days ago, Mac Jones had a very bad day.
Perhaps you remember. Because you know Jones remembers. Alabama’s hopes for another College Football Playoff berth rested on Jones’ right arm — a position neither the Crimson Tide nor Jones really figured it would be when the 2019 season began.
It was supposed to be Tua Tagovailoa’s march to glory, Alabama’s sweet Hawaiian prince tearing up the SEC and the entirety of college football en route to the Heisman Trophy and the program’s 18th national championship.
That all got wiped out in an instant in Starkville 2 weeks prior, of course, as Tagovailoa was snowed under during a tackle by Mississippi State — breaking his hip socket and nose and handing the reins of Alabama’s Ferrari-like offense to Michael McCorkle Jones.
A warmup start — actually Jones’ second of the season, as Tagovailoa missed the Arkansas week with a high-ankle sprain — against Western Carolina was all Jones really had time for in advance of the all-or-nothing game against Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Jones went an extraordinarily conservative 10-of-12 against Western Carolina for 275 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 66-3 victory. But that was a smokescreen compared to what was yet to come.
Mac Jones and his very rough day.
Auburn was a whole different story, as the Tigers are every year and especially when they tee it up in Lee County. This was the place the pick-6 happened, after all, as well as a host of other tough-luck happenstances that favored the home team and went against whomever was on the visiting sideline.
Call it voodoo. Call it home cooking from the third team on the field. Call it whatever you want. Auburn is always tough to beat. And when you play the Tigers at Jordan-Hare, well, you better come to play the full 60 minutes — and definitely not just 59:59.
Jones was valiant against Auburn last season, completing 26-of-39 pass attempts for 335 yards and 4 touchdowns. But it was Jones’ 2 ill-fated interceptions that were the quiet parts Tide fans don’t say out loud. With the game tied at 10 early in the 2nd quarter, Jones was picked off by Smoke Monday for a 29-yard pick-6.
“I’ve made that throw since I was 5 years old 100,000 times, and I missed the throw to Jerry (Jeudy) and they picked me off and they scored a touchdown. It was a bad throw,” Jones said.
But Monday’s TD was only a prelude for the real back-breaker — as Auburn’s Zakoby McClain caught a pass that bounced off Najee Harris’ back at the goal line and returned it 100 yards to the house for a 37-31 Tigers lead midway through the 3rd quarter.
“I was getting tackled, and I should have thrown it away,” Jones said.
No, neither pick-6 was a true “game-deciding” play, in that Alabama battled back to take the lead immediately after McClain’s 100-yarder. But when you give and team 2 defensive touchdowns, well, it’s more than likely not going to go well.
“Our big focus is to win the game, to score one more point than the other team and we couldn’t do that tonight,” Jones said after the 48-45 Auburn victory. “It’s my fault. Those 2 turnovers turned out to be pretty big, so it’s on me.”
Even after the defeat, Alabama coach Nick Saban was quick to praise Jones’ performance in a loss.
“I thought Mac played well,” Saban said. “We had 550 yards offense, but we struggled in the red zone a bit, and that was the difference in the game. Those 2 picks for touchdowns are not the kind of plays you want to happen, but I’m sure Mac wishes he had those back. He was actually pressured pretty good on the one at the goal line. But overall, I thought he played well.”
And Jones was unfazed by his mistakes, vowing to learn from them.
“I’m proud of the way everyone fought back and never let me get down,” Jones said. “Even at the end, if we got the ball back, I had all the confidence in our guys we would have gone down and kicked a field goal. But we came up short, and I’ll have to learn from it.”
Since that fateful day on the Plains, though, Jones has been every bit the quarterback Alabama Nation wanted him to be. The Crimson Tide hasn’t lost since, and Jones has racked up 2,753 yards and 21 touchdowns in the 8 games since the 2019 Iron Bowl (whipping Michigan in the Citrus Bowl and winning all 7 games so far in 2020).
All that is prologue, though, and both Alabama and Auburn know it. The heavy underdog Tigers are 5-2 and ranked No. 22 in the country, but they come into Saturday’s game with the confidence that they got to Jones once — and can do it again.
Jones had a very bad day 363 days ago this Saturday. And he has a chance to get it all back, and then some, with 60 full minutes of quality football against Alabama’s arch-rival in the biggest game of the year.
It’s time for redemption, and there are 60 available minutes of it for Jones and the Crimson Tide.