In the colossus of a game coming Saturday in eastern Alabama, two Texan quarterbacks will try to solve the defenses. One will try to elude a frightening Floridian linebacker and a horrifying Georgian defensive tackle, while a defensive back and defensive brain from New Jersey will plot to thwart the other.
When those defenses prevail, one team (Alabama) will turn to a punter the Auburn coach calls “probably the best punter in college football,” a Coloradan, while the other team (Auburn) has a kicker the Alabama coach calls “a weapon in and of himself,” also a Coloradan.
Alabama figures to hand the ball frequently to a Kentuckian, its leading rusher, or throw it toward a Floridian, its runaway leading receiver. Auburn figures to throw it toward a Floridian, its runaway leading receiver, but more so to hand it to a 1,172-yard rusher from Alabama, and even that’s kind of complicated.
“Both my parents are from Florida,” Kerryon Johnson, a calming presence unless you aspire to tackle him, told a room of reporters in Auburn, Ala., this week. “My dad’s from Tallahassee, so we were really Florida State fans. My sister married a guy that went to Auburn, so that kind of put Auburn in the mix, and now I’m here.
“So I guess we’re pro-Auburn,” he concluded with a hint of a grin.
It’s their game, the country often has concluded of fervent Alabamians and their Iron Bowl, which figures to soar more than ever Saturday. Do not forget that the rosters still teem with Alabamians, 53 for Auburn and 41 for Alabama.
Yet as Alabama has become the Paris of five-star recruiting with players from 25 states (including Hawaii but not Alaska, its Alaskan recruiting perhaps suspect) and as Auburn has sustained its habit of mining Georgia and Florida and welcomed players from 12 states and as the College Football Playoff hovers newly over the proceedings, it’s ever more the country’s game, too.
It’s not only No. 1 Alabama against No. 6 Auburn, with that decisive numeral — four, the number of slots in the playoff format, dangling between. In seven of the past eight seasons, somebody from the Iron Bowl has reached whatever we called the national championship game at the time, even as one of them has reached it more than the other (Alabama, by 5-2) as its devotees might just know.
In the new cliche about football programs being universities’ front porches, these are humongous front porches.
It seemed plausible that even while Texas remains large, the two Texan quarterbacks from 249 air miles apart might have met one another along the way. Asked in a media session in Tuscaloosa this week if he ever met Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham, from Stephenville, Jalen Hurts, from Channelview, offered the following, complete, effusive answer: “No.” Hearing that, it seemed as much a sprawling national game as a vivid neighborhood squabble, even with the latter more alluring.
As Alabama safety and defensive leader and defensive back and as-good-a-football-player-as-you-could-want Minkah Fitzpatrick put it: “Honestly, I watched the game, when I was back at home in New Jersey, in high school and stuff, but I never really realized how much it meant to everybody down here. It’s almost another holiday to people down here.”
This will be the New Jerseyan’s third Alabama-holiday appearance. He knows how it works. As Alabama Coach Nick Saban famously said on the Southeastern Conference teleconference: “Let me ask you a question: Do you think there’s any player on our team who doesn’t know what happens with this game?”
Hurts prepared to understand it long ago. He committed to Alabama in June 2015 from Channelview, the Houston suburb rich in oil refineries that got attention in the 1990s over a murder plot linked to junior-high cheerleading. On Rivals.com, Hurts ranked ninth among dual-threat quarterbacks, behind seven who haven’t starred as much just yet and one (Arizona’s Khalil Tate, No. 4 then) who has. “I’m from Texas,” Hurts told reporters in Tuscaloosa, “so I grew up watching the Texas A&M-Texas game,” which ceased after 2011. “We’ve got a lot of good rivalries around the country, and the Iron Bowl is one.”
He debuted in the Iron Bowl last year, completing 27 of 36 passes for 286 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions and rushing 12 times for 37 yards and a touchdown. Alabama won, 30-12, in Tuscaloosa, and now he is at home in the noise.
Stidham’s path wound more. He committed to Texas Tech in December 2014, then decommitted, then committed to Baylor nine days later, all from Stephenville, the town 63 miles southwest of Fort Worth that got attention in the 2000s over various reported sightings of UFOs. It also was the birthplace of Ben Hogan, in 1912, as well as the spot where Art Briles became a phenomenon while spreading the field portentously to help the Stephenville High Yellow Jackets to four state titles in the 1990s. Stidham was ranked sixth by Rivals.com among dual-threat quarterbacks, behind such hopefuls as Florida State-bound No. 1 Deondre Francois and just ahead of Southern California’s Sam Darnold (No. 8) and Clemson’s Kelly Bryant (No. 11).
Citing “a difficult decision,” Stidham transferred from Baylor after that one 2015 season and 75 completions in 109 attempts with 12 touchdown passes and two interceptions. To reporters in Auburn this week, he said: “This is exactly why I came here, to play in a game like this, with these kinds of implications. This is why you play Division I football, especially at a place like Auburn, in this setting, against Alabama.”
It will become his first Iron Bowl. The football intelligentsia regard his upgrade of Auburn’s recent quarterbacking as among the reasons Auburn might end its three-game Iron Bowl losing streak that stretches back to the indelible Kick Six game of 2013. In a mobile world, that’s quite a place for a Texan to find himself.