With the Iron Bowl three days away, No. 13 Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn still hasn’t announced his who the Tigers’ starting quarterback will be for Saturday’s matchup against No. 1 Alabama.
When asked who would get the nod during the SEC coaches’ teleconference on Wednesday, the Auburn head coach didn’t seem eager to give away his plans anytime soon.
“We’ve not made that call yet,” Malzahn said. “I know Sean practiced yesterday, as a matter of fact, everybody practiced yesterday. So, we’ve not made the call on our starting quarterback yet. I really would like to do that after this practice, but until then it’s yet to be determined.”
Auburn elected to rest injured Sean White during last week’s 55-0 win against Alabama A&M after playing him in a 13-7 loss to Georgia two weeks ago. Instead, the Tigers gave the start to Jeremy Johnson, who hadn’t seen action since the opener against Clemson. Auburn also has JUCO transfer John Franklin III as an option, although he’s been more of a running threat this season, only attempting 15 passes all year.
Malzahn said if White (shoulder) is healthy he will be the quarterback. However, just how much the sophomore will be able to do is still unknown. Malzahn was later asked if he would publicly announce the decision once he decided, to which the vaguely answered, “We may, I haven’t decided yet.”
Alabama players aren’t holding their breath on a decision. They know Malzahn will most likely play his cards close to his signature sweater vest on this one.
“It don’t matter. I don’t care nothing about that,” Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson said. “At the end of the day, they got 11 people on the field, and we got 11.”
Alabama’s approach this week when preparing for whomever Auburn will use Saturday has been simple: do your job, and it doesn’t matter who they use.
“It doesn’t really change anything,” Alabama defensive back Marlon Humphrey said. “I know they have the three quarterbacks that kind of all specialize in something different. But whoever they play, it won’t really matter much for me because I’m just going to be guarding a receiver.”
White is the purest passer of the three Auburn quarterbacks, leading the SEC with a 65.15 completion percentage while passing for 1,644 yards and nine touchdowns with three interceptions this season. However, he was exposed two weeks ago trying to play through pain in his injured shoulder against Georgia. During that game, White completed just 6 of 20 passes for 27 yards, including an interception returned for a touchdown by former Alabama defensive back Maurice Smith.
Franklin has been White’s primary backup but struggled in his only start of the season against Vanderbilt. Johnson started the season last year for the Tigers before being replaced by White and might be the most balanced of the three options. Johnson completed 14 of 19 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown last week against Alabama A&M.
“They’re all a little bit different, but all very effective in terms of their style and how they play,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said during his Monday news conference.“Sean White probably was the most effective guy throwing the ball consistently to go with their running game but also pulled the ball on some quarterback runs and made plays and was very efficient and effective. The other two guys are very athletic and very capable of running at any time, scrambling at any time, making plays with their feet at any time.”
No matter who Malzahn marches out Saturday, chances are the Tigers won’t be throwing the ball that much regardless. Auburn has relied heavily on its run game this season, averaging the nation’s fifth-best rushing attack at 297.82 yards per game on the ground. Conversely, the Tiger’s haven’t done much through the air, averaging just 175.7 yards per game, which ranks No. 108 in the nation.
That should be good news for Alabama, which boasts the nation’s best rush defense, only allowing opponents 68.91 yards per game on the ground. However, it also means the Tide might have to dial back its pass rush a bit in order to not get caught off guard by Auburn’s fast-moving read-option offense.
“We get certain plays, you just got to be a smart player,” Anderson said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on, and you got to settle down, just play what you play.”
While Alabama ranks No. 2 in the nation with 40 sacks through 11 games this season, the Tide’s talented passes are more than happy if Auburn elects to keep the ball on the ground.
“Shoot, more plays that I can possibly make,” Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen said when asked about going up against the read-option attack.
In the end, Alabama isn’t really concerned with anything Auburn plans to do heading into the game, just as long as the Tide is calling the shots by the end of the game.
“Our goal is to make them a one-dimensional offense and that’s going to be our goal going into the game,” Allen said. “Depending on how we do it will determine how many times they have to pass the ball.”
Tony Tsoukalas writes for the Anniston Star. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org