This Saturday, the SEC’s two “greatest” quarterbacks of 2017 — per our QBG metric, at least — will square off in the Iron Bowl. Alabama’s Jalen Hurts and Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham both jumped into the national Top 10 after big performances against Mississippi State and Georgia, respectively, a couple weekends ago, and are red-hot entering the final game of the regular season.
With the Iron Bowl winner headed for the SEC Championship Game and a potential College Football Playoff spot, this is one of the most important chapters in the game’s colorful history. Before it kicks off, we decided to calculate the greatest quarterback games of the past quarter-century, 1992 to the present.
To give you an idea of how QBG works, here are the core factors:
- Passing yardage
- Rushing yardage/sack yardage
- Total points (touchdowns + team conversions)
- Efficiency (output vs. above-average number of attempts)
- Strength of opponent
- Era (output pitted against contemporary stats)
Note: This is not a ranking of the “best” quarterbacks with the tightest spirals or the quickest decision-making abilities or the fastest 40 times. It’s about “greatness,” that all-important factor that — until now — was unquantifiable.
- Andrew Zow, Alabama (2001). Unranked Alabama knocked off No. 17 Auburn to keep the Tigers out of the SEC championship game. Zow’s off-balance 45-yard touchdown pass to Jason McAddley gave the Crimson Tide a lead it would not relinquish in a 31-7 victory.
- Patrick Nix, Auburn (1994 and 1995). Nix was notable in defeat in ’94 and then got his revenge in ’95, leading a game-winning fourth-quarter drive before the Auburn defense held against Freddie Kitchens and the Alabama offense (‘Bama fans probably remember the Curtis Brown “catch” that wasn’t).
- AJ McCarron, Alabama (2012). One of Auburn’s worst-ever seasons ended with a 49-0 beatdown against Alabama. McCarron tossed 4 touchdowns and the Crimson Tide went on to win a third national title in four seasons.
10. Jalen Hurts, Alabama (2016)
No. 1 Alabama and No. 13 Auburn combined for just 3 touchdowns in a 30-12 Crimson Tide win, and Jalen Hurts’ name was on all 3. The true freshman racked up 298 total yards against a tough Tigers defense and finished his first regular season with 3,294 total yards and 33 touchdowns.
9. Jay Barker, Alabama (1994)
On the day of No. 4 Alabama’s big win over No. 6 Auburn, the Crimson Tide media relations staff urged sportswriters to “take a look at Jay Barker.” The ‘Bama senior was seemingly on the outskirts of a close Heisman Trophy race, but a strong day against the Tigers — including touchdown passes of 79 and 49 yards as the Tide staked a 21-0 lead — helped him secure an invite to New York (he finished fifth in Heisman voting) and also earn the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award.
8. Jason Campbell, Auburn (2002)
Auburn walked into Tuscaloosa with a backup running back and a quarterback who had never thrown multiple touchdown passes against an SEC opponent … and the Tigers came out with a decisive upset win over the No. 9 Crimson Tide. Tre Smith ran for 126 yards while Jason Campbell tossed a pair of first-half touchdowns as Auburn built a 17-0 lead. It was the first of Campbell’s three consecutive wins over Alabama.
7. Greg McElroy, Alabama (2010)
Were it not for a legendary performance by his counterpart (more on that later), Greg McElroy’s game against No. 2 Auburn would have gone down as an unforgettable one. The senior helped No. 11 Alabama race out to a 24-0 lead against its hated rival, tossing a 68-yard touchdown to Julio Jones and a 12-yarder to Darius Hanks while chewing up the Tigers defense with several other big throws. He finished with 377 passing yards — a career high by far — in the loss.
6. Brandon Cox, Auburn (2005)
The Brandon Cox era was not exactly glorious, but the lefty quarterback led Auburn to at least 9 wins in three consecutive seasons from 2005-07. Perhaps the biggest one was an Iron Bowl upset of No. 8 Alabama in ’05, when Cox led the Tigers offense to touchdowns on their first three possessions. Alabama could not overcome the 21-0 deficit, and Cox slammed the door with a touchdown pass to Cole Bennett in the third quarter.
5. AJ McCarron, Alabama (2013)
While the “Kick-Six” overshadowed everything else, AJ McCarron nearly played the hero in No. 1 Alabama’s 34-28 loss to No. 4 Auburn. Two first-half touchdown passes helped ‘Bama take a 21-7 lead, and McCarron’s 99-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper gave ‘Bama a fourth-quarter edge before the game’s iconic conclusion.
4. Nick Marshall, Auburn (2014)
Much like McCarron in 2013, Nick Marshall had a memorable Iron Bowl performance in a losing effort. Auburn’s defense was helpless against the No. 2 Crimson Tide, but Marshall did his best to give the Tigers a chance to win. His 505 total yards still stand as the most against a Nick Saban defense at Alabama, and most of that came before the end of the third quarter. ‘Bama rallied to overcome a 36-27 deficit and exact revenge for the previous November.
3. Blake Sims, Alabama (2014)
He wasn’t quite as electric as Marshall, but Blake Sims made several big plays in the second half, got the “W” and kept Alabama’s national championship hopes alive. Faced with a 9-point deficit late in the third quarter, Sims threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper, ran in for an 11-yard touchdown and tossed another 6-yard scoring pass to DeAndrew White; all while Marshall and the Auburn offense went cold. The win allowed ‘Bama to make the first-ever College Football Playoff field.
2. Nick Marshall, Auburn (2013)
There was AJ McCarron’s 99-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper. Then, there was the “Kick-Six.” But the play in between — the one that both fan bases sometimes forget about — was arguably the most important of Nick Marshall’s career. The dual-threat quarterback ran a read-option and ran toward the line of scrimmage before pulling up with inches to spare and throwing to a wide-open Sammie Coates. The touchdown tied the game, putting Alabama in position to eventually attempt a fateful last-second kick.
“I think I took [the cornerback] by surprise,” Marshall told SEC Country last year. “We had it open during the season, but I never threw it to him. Coach always told me we were going to get one. It just happened to be that one against Alabama.”
1. Cam Newton, Auburn (2010)
When debating the greatest victory in Auburn football history, it’s tough to beat the Tigers’ 2010 win over No. 11 Alabama, the one that kept them undefeated en route to their long-awaited second national title and ensured Cam Newton would win the Heisman Trophy.
Newton, a JUCO transfer with plenty of off-field baggage, disappeared early as Alabama posted a 24-0 lead midway through the second quarter. But ‘Bama couldn’t hold down Superman. The future No. 1 NFL pick threw a 36-yard touchdown to Emory Blake before half, then opened the second half with a 70-yard strike to Terrell Zachary. By the time Newton smashed into the end zone for a 1-yard score, the crowd at Bryant-Denny Stadium was in disbelief. Alabama stemmed the bleeding with a field goal, but Newton roared back with a 67-yard drive that culminated in the game-winning 7-yard touchdown pass to Philip Lutzenkirchen.
The comeback was complete. Auburn had a 28-27 win, and the Tigers would go on to defeat Oregon in the BCS national title game.