Why Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham is the most important player in the SEC in 2017
The redshirt sophomore will not only decide Auburn's fate, but the landscape of the SEC
Jarrett Stidham, the floor is yours.
Twenty months after a broken ankle ended a promising freshman campaign just as it was getting cranked up at Baylor, the former four-star prospect from Stephenville, Texas, found his way to Auburn by way of McLennan Community College in Waco. Despite not throwing a pass in a competitive football game in nearly two years, the 6-foot-3, 214-pounder with the rocket arm is being counted on to lead Auburn back into contention in the SEC West and kick start an offense that has become stale under fifth-year coach Gus Malzahn.
"Jarrett Stidham is a very talented young man," Malzahn said. "I think that's a common sense deal. What he's done since he's been at Auburn, just his leadership. He's really done a good job trying to win over his teammates and his work ethic."
Malzahn better be right because Stidham's success, or failure, will tell the tale of the SEC in 2017 and cause a ripple across the conference. If he succeeds, he makes Auburn dangerous not just in the SEC West, but on a national scale.
With the size to open up the middle of the field and pinpoint accuracy downfield, Stidham potentially could bring explosiveness to an Auburn passing game that, at best, was efficient with a healthy Sean White in 2016.
No, the defenses that he faced in the Big 12 at Baylor in 2015 weren't the best. But 12 touchdowns and two picks on the fly in place of injured starter Seth Russell for a team in the middle of the College Football Playoff hunt should not be ignored. What's more, go back and watch him get players open downfield with his eyes for the Bears and during Auburn's spring game. He looks safeties off like a seasoned veteran, not a product of a system.
That fits right into a system under new coordinator Chip Lindsey that should mirror many of the same concepts Stidham was successful with in Waco.
"[Lindsey] understands our core offense," Malzahn said. "He is very good with the passing game with the run-pass options [RPOs]. He's a developer of the quarterback. I have trust in him. He's going to do this thing and do it very well."
If Malzahn actually gives Lindsey the keys to the offense and doesn't decide to take them back on a whim -- as has been the case quite often during his Auburn career -- running a true RPO scheme will be nearly impossible to stop. In the past, Auburn's offense only looked like it was option-based but used straight calls with option looks to throw off defenses more times than not. If Stidham can make smart decisions after the snap, use bruising Kamryn Pettway correctly in the running game and spread the ball way outside to his athletic wide receiving corps, there's no good way to stop that.
Even Alabama head coach Nick Saban agrees.
"I don't think there's any answer to RPO," he said at the SEC spring meetings in May. "When you can run a running play, the offensive line blocks a running play. The defensive player keys a run or a pass, but it's a running play. But the quarterback sits there, does this [holds hands out like he's handing off] and then throws the ball because the safety does come down or whatever ... there is no solution to that."
But what if Stidham fails?
White was efficient last season and with so many young quarterbacks around the conference, that was enough to get the Tigers to the Sugar Bowl. This year is more likely to be driven by explosive offenses thanks to those quarterbacks growing up and several defensive studs moving on. Efficiency won't cut it.
The SEC universe would skew wildly to a level comparable to the one in "Back To The Future 2" when Biff Tannen became a budding casino magnate. OK, maybe not that drastic, but it would signify another coach taking his shot and whiffing badly. If Stidham fails, it would almost certainly impact the employment status of Malzahn, force Auburn to hit the reset button and widen the gap between Alabama and everybody else.
Auburn would be the second threat in the west to hit that button in as many years. LSU took its shot with former coach Les Miles and running back Leonard Fournette but realized early last season that it wasn't a good recipe.
With Ole Miss flailing, Texas A&M's roster still uncertain, LSU rebuilding ( ), Mississippi State operating at a talent gap and Arkansas still trying to figure itself out, it's Stidham's show. He's the one who can usher in change and fresh blood to an SEC West that has become as predictable as the sunrise.
If he fails, that Crimson sun will remain high in the SEC sky.
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