By JOHN ZENOR, AP Sports Writer
Bryce Young, Alabama’s Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback, hasn’t ever started against Auburn.
By that measure, if not many others, the Tigers’ new starter T.J. Finley has an edge entering Saturday’s Iron Bowl. He started against the third-ranked Crimson Tide for LSU last season in a 55-17 loss, getting benched and ultimately losing his starting job to Max Johnson.
Young is without a doubt the headliner at quarterback in the state, a leading Heisman contender coming off a record-setting performance on a team that is still in position to play for a Southeastern Conference title and make the playoffs.
“I got a chance to watch him play in high school and he was a very good player then and has improved even more,” said Auburn coach Bryan Harsin, then at Boise State. “You can see the growth, maturity he’s made through this season.”
Finley just made his first start for Auburn in a loss at South Carolina following the season-ending ankle injury to Bo Nix. His last start for LSU came against Alabama last season, when he went 14 of 28 for 144 yards before being replaced by Johnson.
“I think the difference is, here at Auburn it’s an Iron Bowl,” Finley said. “At LSU it’s just a rivalry game, but here it’s something much more special. To be a part of it is an unbelievable experience.”
Finley transferred to Auburn after the spring when he fell behind both Johnson and Myles Brennan.
“I think T.J. Finley is a very good, capable quarterback who can make plays,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
“He’s big. He’s got a strong arm. He’s accurate with the ball. He’s been in the offense all year long. He’s got some experience.”
The two Iron Bowl passers have different pedigrees as prospects and different career trajectories so far. Young was mostly on the bench behind Heisman finalist Mac Jones as a freshman, while Finley started five games for LSU.
But Finley was a three-star recruit rated as the 37th-best dual threat quarterback and No. 499 prospect overall. Young was the nation’s top dual threat quarterback and No. 2 overall recruit in the 2020 class, according to 247Sports composite rankings.
His Alabama-record 559 passing yards last weekend against No. 25 Arkansas both topped Finley’s season totals (463 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) in limited action.
Young has been overtaken by Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud as the Heisman favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
But he still has the Iron Bowl and the SEC Championship Game against No. 1 Georgia to make his case.
The Tide’s other huge star, linebacker Will Anderson said from the first time he met Young at a high school all-star game, “I knew he was going to be a Heisman contender.”
“Bryce is very smart. I’m pretty sure you can see on the field but I’ve had classes with him and Bryce is a smart person,” Anderson said. “And his ability on the football field is even more surprising. He’s very smart on the field.
The numbers he’s putting up and the stats he has this year, how he handled everything, especially last year.
“I feel like he’s a great person on and off the field and I feel like he’s very, very, very, very, very, very talented.”
Finley, meanwhile, came to Auburn hoping to compete with Nix. He made his case when he came off the bench to replace a struggling Nix and throw the go-ahead touchdown pass in a comeback win over Georgia State.
His first start, though, was a 17-of-32, 188-yard, one-touchdown performance against the Gamecocks. Now he’s facing a team led by a counterpart who has been much more heralded.
Finley admits he may have a chip on his shoulder “as a competitor.”
“But it’s not about what he’s done, it’s not about what they’ve done,” he said. “It’s all about Auburn. As long as Auburn does what Auburn needs to do, we’ll come out with a victory. Me individually as a competitor, of course I want to go out there and do better than the other quarterback.
“But at the same time, as long as I get my job done in our system, I think we’ll be fine.”