Iron Bowl pits veteran QB versus youngster

Published 7:22 pm Thursday, November 27, 2008

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — It’s your first Iron Bowl. You’ll remember it forever. Some fans will, too.

No. 1 Alabama’s quarterback John Parker Wilson has a little advice for his Auburn counterpart and first-time Iron Bowl participant Kodi Burns.

Don’t think of it that way.

“You can either go in there thinking it’s just another game or that it’s the Iron Bowl and it’s huge and everybody’s going to be watching it and they’re going to remember it,” Wilson said. “You can make it bigger than it is.”

For a quarterback trying to keep his cool and run the offense in Saturday’s Alabama-Auburn game with much of the state watching, that can lead to mistakes and errant passes.

That Wilson can speak to the potential pratfalls of putting too much pressure on yourself in such a big game is a clear indicator of his most apparent edge over Burns.

He has been there and done that.

Burns hasn’t seen action in an Iron Bowl, watching from the bench last season for the Tigers (5-6, 2-5 Southeastern Conference). He is fresh from his first start against Georgia, but that came at home — in a loss.

Plus, the sophomore has had to learn a new offense and, in midseason, essentially relearn an old one. He has only held the starting job outright for the past four games.

Burns figures the reception and treatment at Bryant-Denny Stadium will be similar to that he received upon his return to his home state to face the Arkansas Razorbacks as a freshman. He doesn’t sound too daunted by the challenge.

“Of course, Alabama is going to be rowdy and it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Burns said. “I’m pretty sure when I stepped in at Arkansas last year, everybody hated me. I got booed and it was pretty bad. I’m expecting pretty much the same thing at Alabama. It’s going to be pretty tough. It will be a lot of fun. I like that. Those are the games you live for.”

Wilson would certainly agree. For all his passing records, he is 0-for-2 as a starter against Alabama’s biggest rival with one final chance.

Guiding the Tide (11-0, 7-0) to the No. 1 ranking and SEC West title certainly helps his legacy. A win over Auburn in his finale at Bryant-Denny Stadium would make it even stronger.

“The later it’s gotten in the season, the more and more I’ve realized that this is the last go-around,” Wilson said. “I’m just trying to take everything I can and trying to enjoy the moment. Everybody says it goes by like that, and it really does.”

He has looked every bit the savvy veteran this season, efficiently leading the Tide to win after win without putting up big numbers.

Wilson has also become Alabama’s career leader in passing and total yards.

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said he sees a difference in Wilson’s decision-making from past seasons. A strong running game, a veteran offensive line and new offensive coordinator Jim McElwain have helped, Tuberville said.

“He has a lot more confidence in the people around him,” he said. “Just by looking at Alabama from the outside, last year there was some hesitation. He was holding the ball a little bit too long.

“The new coordinator has gotten the ball out of his hands much quicker. They do a good job of that.”

This will be Wilson’s fourth Iron Bowl. He ran for a touchdown as Brodie Croyle’s backup as a redshirt freshman. He has thrown two touchdown passes and been intercepted three times in his appearances against Auburn and was held to 113 yards last season.

But Alabama has won three games this season when he threw for fewer yards.

Tide coach Nick Saban will take his quarterback’s 37 career starts over the five Burns has logged.

“I don’t think that there’s any comparison between the quarterbacks in the game,” Saban said. “John Parker’s experience not just in this particular game but all the games that he’s played, has been something that’s been a benefit to us throughout the year, in terms of how he manages our team.”

Burns has steadily appeared more comfortable at the controls of Auburn’s offense in recent games, putting the Tigers in position for a potential winning touchdown against No. 13 Georgia. They couldn’t complete the drive.

Tuberville scrapped the spread offense and fired coordinator Tony Franklin in midseason, then turned the team over to Burns.

“He’s been dealing with the pressure pretty well this year,” Auburn receiver Rod Smith said. “This will be his first Iron Bowl being a starting quarterback, but I think he’ll deal with it great and once he gets in and gets those first couple plays over with he’ll be more relaxed and calm and he’ll be in the flow in the game and he’ll be able to run the offense like he has been all year.”

Burns is the kind of mobile quarterback Alabama’s defense hasn’t faced much this season with 405 rushing yards and a team-high five touchdowns. Tide safety Rashad Johnson said the defense has to be prepared for Burns’ runs.

“We probably won’t be able to eliminate them,” Johnson said. “He’s their second-leading rusher so they’re going to try and run the ball with him. Even if we stop it, they’re still going to try to find ways to run the ball with him. You need to get guys to him and wrap him up and get him on the ground just like we do running backs.”