AUBURN, Ala. -- Nick Marshall sat in the visitor’s locker room at Tennessee after the Tigers had just dismantled the Volunteers on the road. He had rushed for a career-high 214 yards with a pair of touchdowns. And yet, he was already fielding questions about next Saturday’s showdown with Georgia.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, though. He knew the questions would come. And he also knew how to answer them.
“I’m not going to treat it as anything too big because it’s just another opponent,” Marshall said.
It’s been that way all season for Marshall and this Auburn team. No opponent is bigger than another. No game is bigger than another. They are focused on improving each and every week which is part of the reason why they’re 9-1 and ranked No. 7 in the latest BCS standings.
But because of Marshall’s checkered past, Saturday’s game will be different.
Marshall signed with Georgia out of high school and played one season at defensive back with the Bulldogs before he was dismissed from the team for a violation of team rules in February 2012. Now, he’ll go head-to-head against players that used to be his teammates. He’ll also have to confront a part of his life that he’s worked so hard to put behind him.
“He has to keep the emotions as in check,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said.
“One thing Nick has done very well is stay even. When things are really good, he's level-headed. When things are bad, like the other day when we had the pick-six, two plays later he's running a 40-yard touchdown run. He does a good job of moving on and not letting things bother him.”
Marshall has been that way since high school. That’s why Wilcox County coach Mark Ledford believes his former quarterback will be more than ready to take on the Bulldogs.
“Knowing Nick, I look for him to stay the same calm, cool Nick that he’s been,” Ledford said. “I know it may be tough to do that out there on the field Saturday, but I think it’s just going to be him. The importance of this game is way more important that any personal feelings about the opposing team.”
There is indeed a lot at stake for Auburn on Saturday. With a victory, the Tigers are one step closer to winning the SEC West with just the Iron Bowl ahead. Regardless of the outcome against the Tide, Auburn is still in a favorable position for a BCS at-large berth.
But No. 25 Georgia comes first. A loss to the Bulldogs would likely knock Auburn out of the top 10, and the Iron Bowl would lose some of its luster.
That’s a lot of pressure for a 21-year-old kid. But that’s the reason Marshall chose to play at Auburn. It’s the same reason he signed with Georgia out of high school. He wanted to play in the SEC. He wanted to play in these types of games.
“He always knew what games he needed to turn it up for,” Ledford said. “He always could seem to hit another gear in some of the big ones and the rivalry games.”
Saturday’s clash with Georgia certainly qualifies. Not only is it the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, but there’s added motivation for Marshall going against his old team. Marshall’s adrenaline might be pumping a little extra before kickoff, but the true test will come with how he manages his emotions when he is on the field.
“Warmups may be a little different for him,” Lashlee said. “He may have a little added incentive here or there, but once the game starts, it's going to be like every other game. It really is.”
Auburn has been reserved with Marshall since he arrived on campus. Marshall had to compete hard for the starting quarterback job and kept him from the media early in the season. And when he got hurt, the Tigers weren’t afraid to turn to freshman Jeremy Johnson.
But Saturday is Marshall’s game. It’s his chance in the spotlight. It will also be an opportunity to show how far he’s come and turn the page on his past.