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Jarrett Stidham's Arrival Turns Auburn into a 2017 Playoff Contender

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterJanuary 16, 2017

Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham while at Baylor in 2015
Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham while at Baylor in 2015Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Are you ready for the hype machine, Auburn?

Get ready, because despite the 35-19 loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, it's coming. 

The arrival of junior college transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham solidifies an Auburn offensive team that should be considered a legitimate College Football Playoff contender heading into the 2017 season.

Yes, we're doing this again. We are going down the road of expecting big things from an Auburn quarterback who hasn't logged a ton of playing time—just as we did two years ago when Jeremy Johnson was being discussed as a potential superstar. 

Don't fall into that trap.

Stidham already is a star, and he proved it in a pinch during the 2015 season at Baylor. 

"We started recruiting him from way back when," head coach Gus Malzahn said after junior college signing day, according to AuburnTigers.com. "We thought he was the top quarterback in the country when he came out and chose to go to another school. We think he's an outstanding player and outstanding person with great leadership, so we feel he'll be a great addition to our team."

Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham started three games for Baylor in 2015
Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham started three games for Baylor in 2015Jamie Squire/Getty Images

He completed 68.8 percent of his passes (75-of-109) serving first as Seth Russell's backup and then as his injury replacement. A whopping 1,265 yards (11.6 per attempt) and 12 touchdowns later, Stidham's freshman season ended after the Stephenville, Texas, native suffered an ankle injury.

During his season off from college football, Stidham ran the scout team for Midway (Texas) High School and coach Jeff Hulme, who's coached at the level for 22 years. During those three months, it was clear Stidham was still the same guy who earned five stars from Scout as a prospect.

"The skill set that made him a highly touted quarterback coming out of high school and what he showed last year at Baylor, he still has," Hulme said. "He can spin the ball as good as anybody I've ever seen."

At 6'3", 210 pounds, he has the ability to see over the line of scrimmage and open up the middle of the field, the arm strength to be a big-time downfield threat and is fast enough to at least pose a threat in the zone-read game—a staple of Auburn's offense.

"He's mobile enough to keep defenses honest," said SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic, who hosts the Cube Show on WUMP in Huntsville. "He has good accuracy on the move, so I'd expect them to move the pocket if he's the guy. His quick release will help in the short game, and he offered accuracy down the field with a big arm. That's the big difference. He can keep extra defenders away from the line of scrimmage."

Jarrett Stidham had two rushing touchdowns for Baylor in 2015
Jarrett Stidham had two rushing touchdowns for Baylor in 2015Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

That's important because, while Sean White was efficient for Auburn during a six-game winning streak in the middle of the season, he's not nearly the deep threat Stidham is.

White's average of 8.3 yards per attempt is good, but he is 3.3 yards behind what Stidham posted in 2015. Plus, at 6'0", White wasn't able to do damage over the middle of the field like the taller Stidham can.

"Jarrett is a big, tall kid," Hulme said, "which is always good for a quarterback."

One look at Auburn's offensive production this season will make your head spin. A whopping 4,529 of Auburn's 5,730 yards of total offense in 2016 came from underclassmen who intend to return next season. That's correct—79 percent of Auburn's offense was from players who, for the most part, were unproven commodities at the college level and are coming back.

Now that might be a bit deceptive since total offense gives passing yards to quarterbacks, while yards from scrimmage credits them to receivers. But look at Auburn's potential at the wide receiver position.

Four of its top five receivers were underclassmen, including Darius Slayton, Ryan Davis, Kyle Davis and Eli Stove. That crew—which doesn't include rising sophomore Nate Craig-Myers (70 receiving yards in 2016) combined for 43.5 percent (958) of Auburn's receiving yards. They will only get better with a quarterback like Stidham, who can open up the entire field.

That offense should be more than enough to make Auburn a national title contender in 2017.

Think about where Auburn was before White got hurt during the tail end of the Ole Miss game on Oct. 29. The Tigers developed their identity in the middle of the season, averaged 7.66 yards per play and 576.5 yards per game in the month of October and vaulted into the top 15. 

Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham while at Baylor in 2015
Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham while at Baylor in 2015Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

When White got hurt, the drop-off to backups Johnson and John Franklin III was the college football equivalent of a cliff. That was reinforced during the Sugar Bowl, when White broke his arm on the first drive and left the game for good shortly before halftime.

Now, with Stidham in the mix and White back for more, it'll be a hill. What's more, that offense will grow with the youth that exists on the roster and benefit from a quarterback competition between two solid options.

If the defense—which gave up 361.9 yards per game and 5.1 yards per play due in part to departing defensive line studs Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson—takes a step back, an improved and more consistent offense should be more than enough to compensate.

Stidham changes everything at Auburn. 

He opens up the offense, eliminates a sharp decline in ability in the event of a quarterback injury and is on a team with plenty of young stars waiting to blossom.

He's the perfect fit at the perfect time for the primary contender to Alabama's SEC West crown.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of CFBStats unless otherwise noted.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on SiriusXM. Follow Barrett on Twitter and Facebook.

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