November 21, 2012 4:40:23 PM
Jonathan Wallace was still in high school with no clue he'd wind up playing for the Auburn University football team when AJ McCarron was leading the University of Alabama to a national title.
Now, the Tigers' freshman quarterback is set to start in the first Iron Bowl he has attended Saturday against the second-ranked Crimson Tide and one of the nation's best defenses -- in front of some 102,000 mostly hostile fans.
"It's a pretty good position to be in, I would say," Wallace said. "It's really a blessing. I'm very excited. I can't wait."
McCarron is in a pretty good position, too.
He has the Tide (10-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) two wins away from a return trip to the national title game, where he was MVP last season.
The two quarterbacks are at very different stages of their careers leading teams having even more disparate seasons. Wallace has three career starts and none on the road for the Tigers (3-8, 0-7).
McCarron has started 24 games, winning 22 of them, and has 36 career touchdown passes compared to Wallace's four. He just set Alabama's single-season record with passing touchdown No. 21 last weekend against Western Carolina, a week after his school mark of 291 passes without an interception ended.
McCarron is one of five finalists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award given to the nation's top junior or senior quarterback.
"I think everything with their offense starts with their offensive line," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "I think it's an extremely talented, well-coached offensive line. I think for a quarterback there's great comfort in that, but he's been very, very efficient. He's very good at protecting the football. McCarron has done everything that I think you do in games to win."
McCarron is third nationally in passing efficiency, completing 66.8 percent of his passes for 2,291 yards with two interceptions.
Wallace's ride has been unpredictable. He was bound for Central Florida until Auburn offered the player from nearby Central-Phenix City a scholarship on the eve of national signing day.
He took over the offense after both Clint Moseley and Kiehl Frazier struggled, but hasn't started in an unfriendly environment yet.
"Jonathan is one of these guys that's mature beyond his years," Chizik said. "But it's going to be a different environment. A kid that grows up this close to Auburn and growing up in this state knowing what this game is and what this game means, it will be different for him. My gut is to say that he'll handle it wise beyond his years. He'll know that it's a different deal. He'll be excited about it, but he'll handle it well."
Wallace was primarily used as the Wildcat quarterback and had only attempted one pass before taking over in the second half of a blowout loss to Texas A&M. Now, he'll be the third freshman quarterback to start for the Tigers in an Iron Bowl.
Gabe Gross, a baseball star who eventually went on to spend seven years in the major league, started the 1998 game after coach Terry Bowden had already left the team during a 3-8 season. The Tigers lost 31-17.
Ken Hobby started the 1981 game against the fourth-ranked Tide, and lost 28-17.
Wallace hasn't reached 200 yards passing in a game yet but has also thrown just two interceptions.
"He's done a really good job of managing the game for them," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "That's a good thing to me. Don't take that the wrong way. He's done a good job of throwing the football. He is doing all the quarterback runs that they do.
"And he's athletic enough to do it and makes good decisions about it. "
Wallace now faces a defense that yields the nation's fewest points and is second in yards allowed.
"I'm seeing everything you can imagine that a defense can run," Wallace, who was coached in high school by three-time Alabama All-American linebacker Woodrow Lowe, said. "They have an NFL-type defense. They bring everything. They do a lot of things. It's going to be kind of like Georgia, maybe a little more. Other than that, it's just one of those things where you've just got to take it a play at a time."
Wallace gets more designed runs of the two quarterbacks, but McCarron has shown an ability to escape the rush. He even scrambled for 24 yards against Western Carolina in his longest run of the season.
Saban made it clear before the play was even over that's not his role -- especially in blowout wins.
"He told me he was screaming for me to get out of bounds the whole time," McCarron said. "And I kept going. I came off after we scored on that long drive, came over and he met me. I knew what he was about to say, so I said, 'I just wanted to show you who was the real athlete out of us two.' He started laughing and just walked away, couldn't do anything but smile."