Sophomore Mac Jones has passed for in impressive 510 yards on 28 completions in 34 attempts, with six touchdowns and no interceptions, in the two starts he has made in replacing injured quarterback Tua Tagovailoa for Alabama.
But in routs of Arkansas, a team winless in Southeastern Conference play, and Western Carolina, an FCS program, he hasn’t encountered anything near the defense he will face when the No. 5 Crimson Tide (10-1, 6-1 SEC) visit No. 15 Auburn (8-3, 4-3 SEC) Saturday afternoon in Auburn.
“This is going to be the first game that he has to play on the road so it’s going to be a little different from that standpoint for him in terms of game management and things he has to do to be effective against a very good team,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told reporters. “We have every confidence in that he’ll be able to manage the game well and do what we need to do to get the ball to the skill players we have and create balance in the offense.
“I think he’s confident because he’s got some playing experience now, and we have confidence in him.”
The Tigers go into the game ranked third in overall defense and second against the run among SEC teams and have 26 sacks on the season while holding opponents to under 200 yards a game through the air. Defensive end Marlon Davidson is tied for the conference lead in sacks (8), and tackle Derrick Brown is in the top 20 (4.0).
Unlike in past years, this Iron Bowl meeting bears no title implications for either the West Division or the conference overall. LSU clinched the West with its rout of Arkansas last week.
But it could have a major impact on Alabama’s chances to grab the coveted fourth spot in the College Football Playoff Rankings that would assure the Tide of a sixth consecutive appearance in the playoffs.
Auburn fell out of contention with league losses to LSU, Florida, and Georgia, but the average margin of defeat is a touchdown. The widest margin was Florida’s 11-point win what was a four-point game until Lamical Perrine’s 88-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
“When you look back at close games there’s a fine line between winning and losing,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “A lot of times it’s either one or two plays, impact plays when the game’s on the line that you have to make to win the game.
“That’s probably the thing that has stood out the most. We’ve been very close. We had opportunities. You look back and there’s one or two things that if we had made those plays we would have had a good chance to win or we would have won the game.”
Malzahn described his Tigers as “battle-tested” after playing a schedule that, including this week, features four teams ranked in the Top 10 at the time of the meeting (Florida, LSU, Georgia, Alabama), a fifth just outside that range (No. 11 Oregon) and another against a top-20 squad (No. 17 Texas A&M).
“We’ve had chances to win some of those,” he said, “so I think that really helps us.”
–Field Level Media