Alabama entered last year's Iron Bowl with Quinnen Williams, college football's most dominant presence on the defensive interior who wound up winning the Outland Trophy and becoming the third overall pick of the 2019 NFL draft.
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban knows he won't have that same luxury in this Saturday's showdown in Jordan-Hare Stadium, with Derrick Brown now traveling a very similar path for the Auburn Tigers.
"He's had a huge impact on just about every game," Saban said this week in a news conference. "We've always thought a lot of him as a player and had a tremendous amount of respect for him. He's got great initial quickness, and he plays with a lot of power. He uses his hands well. He can disengage from blockers very quickly.
"He's a pretty complete player and as good a player as we've played against for a while around here as an inside player."
Brown, a 6-foot-5, 318-pound senior from the Atlanta suburb of Sugar Hill, will be competing for the final time in Jordan-Hare before encountering a very busy December on the awards circuit. He is a finalist for a whopping six individual awards, including the Outland Trophy, awarded to the best interior offensive or defensive lineman, the Bednarik Award and the Nagurski Trophy, with each given annually to the top defensive player, and the Wuerffel Award, which "combines exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement."
Born to graduates of Mississippi State and living just 45 minutes from Georgia's campus, Brown disappointed a pair of Bulldogs fan bases when he signed with Auburn as a top-10 national prospect in the 2016 class. He has played in two New Year's Six bowls and the 2017 Southeastern Conference championship game, and evening his Iron Bowl record at 2-2 would add to a college career that already offers no regrets.
"When I came down here, I thought it was home," Brown said in a recent news conference. "Just being able to have the relationships I have with my teammates and coaches and see this thing come around full circle after four years — I couldn't have picked a better place to come to school.
"I've still got my same coach and really my same coaching staff, and I've just had endless opportunities to enhance my brand since I've been at Auburn."
Frequently double-teamed through the first 11 games, Brown still has racked up 43 tackles, nine tackles for loss and four sacks. He has earned an SEC weekly defensive honor three times this season, matching the total of close friend and senior defensive end teammate Marlon Davidson.
Brown's career totals consist of 157 tackles, 30 tackles for loss and 13 sacks, and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Tuesday at his weekly news conference that it's never too late to add the Heisman Trophy to Brown's award possibilities.
"He's had his best season," Malzahn said. "He's playing as good of football as anyone in the country. I know that the Heisman is usually for offensive players and all that, but there can't be too many better players around the country that are better than him."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.