TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — To get you ready for another potentially classic Iron Bowl, SEC Country Auburn beat writer Justin Ferguson and Alabama beat writer Marq Burnett are here to break down some of the keys to Alabama football vs. Auburn football.
No. 1 Alabama (11-0, 7-0 SEC) plays at No. 6 Auburn (9-2, 6-1 SEC) on Saturday with kickoff scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS. The winner of the Iron Bowl will claim the SEC West Division, and earn the right to play Georgia in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 2.
The winner of the Iron Bowl has played in the national championship game in seven of the last eight years.
First up, we tackle arguably the biggest question surrounding this game: Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham or Alabama’s Jalen Hurts?
Justin Ferguson: I want to preface all of this by saying I am a big fan of Jalen Hurts. I think he’s an incredibly efficient weapon for this Alabama offense, and he proved himself to be a great playmaker from an early point in his career.
However, for this game, I think Jarrett Stidham has a better chance of being a difference-maker. He’s done a great job of spreading the ball around to several different receivers and stretching the field — he has 18 completions of 40-plus yards, which is twice as many as Alabama has had. Stidham has gotten more comfortable in this offense since the Clemson disaster, and he’s made good, accurate decisions with the ball in his hand.
He’s the key to Auburn’s impressive balance on offense, which I think will serve them well against Alabama’s elite defense. Hurts’ running ability can be game-changing, but Stidham has the higher potential to make the big plays.
Marq Burnett: Those are all good points, but I’m going to have to go with Jalen Hurts here. The guy is 24-1 as a starting quarterback, and was one second away from leading Alabama to a national championship victory — let’s not forget he scored the last time he was on the field against Clemson.
The reason I like Hurts in this one is because he’s the ultimate dual-threat quarterback. He’s shown he can beat teams with both his legs and his arm this season. Just ask Mississippi State what happens when you force Hurts to beat you with his arm.
He led a game-winning drive on the road in a hostile environment against the Bulldogs just a couple of weeks ago. He also led a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter at LSU last year. Point being, Hurts won’t be affected by the crowd noise in what is expected to be a raucous crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn may load the box to stop Alabama’s running game and Hurts’ scrambling ability, but beware, Hurts is a much better passer in his sophomore season.
Ferguson: Heading into Auburn’s game against Georgia, I liked how the Tigers’ defense matched up with Jake Fromm. When Auburn forced him to throw and punched him in the mouth, so to speak, he wasn’t nearly as effective.
They won’t be able to do that against Hurts. The guy is a tested gamer who won’t be rattled, for sure.
Still, I look at the numbers for his receivers outside of Calvin Ridley — who is a monster in his own right — and don’t see that type of game-changing passer that could be the difference between these two teams. Stidham is stretching the field and spreading the ball around the yard this season.
If these two run defenses cancel each other out, is Hurts going to make the big throws on a consistent basis? I have no doubts he’s improved as a passer. But I’ll lean toward the more accurate and bigger-play quarterback at home.
Burnett: Hurts’ raw numbers won’t blow anyone away, but looking at the plays he made in Alabama’s wins over LSU and Mississippi State tell the story.
He extended plays with his legs, but kept his eyes down field in order to make throws.
He fit the ball in some really tight windows. He’s throwing over the middle better. All of the signs are there showing that Hurts has improved from year one to year two. Along with his improved passing and dangerous running ability, Hurts has the intangibles you can’t teach. He doesn’t get rattled. He’s not afraid to take hits. He’s a leader.
All of that packaged together gives Hurts the edge, in my opinion.
As for receivers making plays beyond Calvin Ridley, guys like Jerry Jeudy, Cam Sims, Robert Foster, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith have shown flashes. But teams haven’t been able to hold Ridley in check lately and if he’s open, why not feed one of the top receivers in the country?