TUSCALOOSA — Mac Jones has played on the road before, just never in an environment as hostile as the Iron Bowl.
A week after assuming Alabama’s starting quarterback duties from an injured Tua Tagovailoa, Jones will make his first road start Saturday when he’s tasked with keeping the Crimson Tide’s fading College Football Playoff hopes alive with a victory inside the always inhospitable Jordan Hare Stadium — where Alabama has lost two of its last three.
“He’s played well when he’s had the opportunity to play, and I think the team has confidence in him,” head coach Nick Saban said earlier this week. “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, things that he has to do to be effective against a very good team. But we have every confidence that he’ll be able to manage the game well and do what we need to do to be able to get the ball to the skill players that we have to create balance in the offense.”
Jones is also known as a confident player, and has been highly effective in Tagovailoa’s place, completing 82% of his passes (28 of 34) for 510 yards and six touchdowns to zero interceptions in starts against Arkansas and FCS-level Western Carolina.
“I just think that you have to accept the responsibility and the role,” 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.”
That confidence is sure to be tested Saturday against No. 15 Auburn (8-3, 4-3 SEC), which ranks third in the SEC in both scoring defense and total defense, allowing opponents to average 16.2 points and 306.5 yards per game this season.
Jordan-Hare Stadium will present an entirely different kind of challenge, both because of its notoriously hostile environment as well as Auburn’s talented defensive front.
The cross-state Tigers’ experienced front seven includes two potential first-round NFL draft picks in linemen in senior ends Derrick Brown, a 6-foot-5 and 318-pound finalist for the Bednarik Award and Outland Trophy and Marlon Davidson, who leads the SEC with 12 ½ tackles for loss.
“(Brown has) had a huge impact on just about every (Auburn) game in my opinion,” Saban said. “He’s got great initial quickness, he plays with a lot of power, uses his hands well. He can disengage from blockers very quickly and push the pocket really well with the power rush. He’s a pretty complete player and as good a player as we’ve played against for awhile around here as an inside player.”
It’s why keeping Jones relatively clean could very well be a determining factor.
It’s also why Jones’ ability to maintain his composure against pressure or other adversity will be of the utmost importance under less-than-ideal conditions road conditions.
“I don’t think there’s any question about that. High anxiety isn’t going to help your performance any,” Saban said Wednesday night. “Experience is something he’s gotten in a couple of games and he’ll get some experience in this game against a very good defensive team.”
One way Alabama can help Jones out is play-calling, given its affinity for getting the ball out quickly under first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
And while Jones may not have the pedigree of the Heisman Trophy-caliber Tagovailoa, he’s still a highly efficient pocket passer with arguably the nation’s most elite set of receivers with a pair of Biletnikoff Award semifinalists in Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith, as well as speedsters Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle.
“Really there’s no change,” 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.”
Alabama’s ability to move the ball on the ground could also prove key, with dynamic junior tailback Najee Harris looking to build off his strong play during conference play.
Harris has assumed a greater role in Alabama’s offense over its last six SEC games, rushing for a combined 610 yards and 8 touchdowns, averaging 6.2 yards per carry, to go along with 17 catches for 162 yards and three receiving scores during that span.
It’s because of the Tide’s wealth of skill players around Jones that Brown, for one, doesn’t expect much of a drop off Saturday.
“They've shown no means of slowing down. It's a powerful offense. (Jones is) in there and he gets the ball out (to) high-powered wide receivers that make a lot of plays, and they make plays after the catch,” Brown told reporters this week. “That's something that we've got to be able to limit. Just going forward, be able to contain the run game up front. Like I said, they've got a very stout offensive line. We definitely have our work cut out for this week.”