AUBURN - Gabe Gross knows how Jonathan Wallace feels. He's been there, been a true freshman quarterback carrying the hopes and dreams of Auburn people on his shoulders into a fight few believe his team can win.
Gabe Gross led Auburn to a 17-0 lead against Alabama in 1998
Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Wallace will be the first true freshman to start at quarterback against Alabama since Gross did it on Nov 21, 1998, at Birmingham's Legion Field.
Even more than for Wallace, who is from Central High School in Phenix City, playing in the Iron Bowl was a lifelong dream for Gross, from Northview High School in Dothan. His father, Lee, had been an All-SEC Auburn center en route to a successful NFL career.
"If anything was going through my mind," Gross said, "it was that I was going to get to participate in something I'd been looking forward to all my life."
Like Wallace, Gross led a team that had won just three games. Terry Bowden had resigned at midseason. Defensive coordinator Bill "Brother" Oliver had been named head coach. Unlike Wallace, Gross didn't face a national championship contender. Bouncing back from a four-win 1997 season, Alabama would finish 7-5 in 1998. But the nucleus of that team would win the SEC championship a year later.
Gross, now an assistant Auburn baseball coach, remembers that the disparity in records meant nothing to Tiger players as the game neared.
"It didn't," Gross said. "I cannot tell you how excited and focused as a team that we were going into that game. There was no doubt in our sideline that we had a great chance to win if we played the game we knew we were capable of. We'd been very close to beating some good teams."
It had been a trying season for the Tigers. They'd been 1-5 when Bowden resigned day before a home game against Louisiana Tech. Oliver had brought new enthusiasm to an unhappy team.
"I thought Brother did a fantastic job," Gross said. "Everybody on that team had the utmost respect for Coach Oliver as a person and a football mind. More than anything else, I remember he kept us on football. It wasn't ever about any of that other stuff. It was always about football and how to get better and how to prepare and how to go win the game."
Auburn broke out to a shocking 17-0 lead, but Alabama's defense tightened up an Auburn had no answer for running back Shaun Alexander. Alabama scored 31 unanswered points to win 31-17.
"Had our defense not gone though such attrition through the season, we might have been able to hold on," Gross said. "Alabama's running game and Shaun Alexander just wore them down."
Wallace, Gross says, will feel intensity on the field off unlike in any other game.
"Their fans and our fans were unbelievable," Gross said. "I remember coming out for warmups and there were 75,000 already in there. That was eye-opening to me in a very special way. It was not in any way intimidating, but it was something that kind of got my juices flowing."
Gross' football career after three games in 1999, when he gave up football to concentrate on baseball. He played seven years in the major leagues before returning to Auburn last year.
It's been a trying season, too, for the 2012 Tigers. They'll go into Saturday's game at 3-8 overall and 7-0 in the SEC. They are five touchdown underdogs against No. 2 Alabama, sitting a 10-1 and 6-1. None of that will matter, Gross says, when it's gametime.
"Once the ball is snapped once or twice and the flow of the game happens," Gross said, "it's 11 guys versus 11 guys on that field. It's a football game."