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Stidham Should be the Favorite

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Jarrett Stidham could be the best quarterback in the country in 2018.

Jarrett Stidham could be the best quarterback in the country in 2018.

One’s mileage may vary from one quarterback to the next, as far as those that college football just lost to the NFL, but there’s no denying that the sport parted ways with a significant amount of talent at its most important position.

Gone are two Heisman winners, Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield, the 2016 Archie Griffin Award winner, Sam Darnold, UCLA’s single season passing record holder, Josh Rosen, the 2017 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award Winner, Mason Rudolph, and some dude named Josh Allen, not to mention some notable undrafteds, including three time All-Big Ten selection J.T. Barrett, and the AAC career record holder for total offense, Quinton Flowers.

These are incontrovertible facts. What’s also indisputable is that there’s a void to fill. Who will fill said void is not as clear..

There’s no reason that Stidham shouldn’t be one of the first names mentioned in that conversation.

Sporting News weighed in on the very topic recently, releasing their top 25 quarterbacks for 2018. As did Athlon.

No shots, but they have him as the fourth and third quarterback in the SEC, respectively. That’s tough, seeing as how one of the guys ahead of him from each list has never started a game, in Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.

Such is the nature of projection -- there are no wrong answers in that game, until there are -- but, nevertheless, that feels far too low for a handful of reasons.

The Baylor-transfer started off on the wrong foot in 2017, struggling against a Georgia Southern team, in his debut, that didn’t win a game until it fired its head coach. Then, he proceeded to post another dud against Clemson, although it’s hard to blame him since the official game notes reflect his having been sacked one million times.

Once he got into SEC play, however, everything clicked into place for one reason or another. And once it did, Auburn’s passing offense became a force to be reckoned with, finishing in the national top ten of S&P+.

No SEC quarterback posted a higher passer rating in conference play than Stidham, who threw for 13 scores with just one interceptions during that stretch, which included him playing some of his best games of the season against the likes of Mississippi State, probably one of the twenty best defenses in the country, and Georgia, a top five defense, at worst.

While Drew Lock was racking up touchdowns against Southwest Missouri State, Idaho, and UConn, Stidham was at his best against the best.

Sure, Lock may have finished the year with more touchdown passes than anyone else in college football, but he also threw the ball more than most. Looking at who his production came against, and where it came from -- 26 of his scores were off of play action, and 33 came on throws within 2.5 seconds of getting the snap (which also constituted just shy of a third of his attempts) -- it’s clear that the MVP of the 2017 Missouri Tigers was in fact not even a ‘P’, rather offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, who is now the head coach at UCF.

Why, again, are people expecting Lock, who completed just 57.8% of his throws in 2017, to be better after Mizzou replaced the aforementioned Heupel with Derek Dooley?

If there’s a better quarterback than Stidham in the SEC, it isn’t Drew Lock. And, once more acknowledging the nature of projection, it’s still far too cavalier to just chalk up Tua Tagovailoa greatness, no matter what he may have done in one half of the National Championship.

If there is a better quarterback, the smart money is on Jake Fromm, but it’s a double edged sword; all the reasons that make Fromm worth considering are the same reasons to question his ceiling.

Georgia was 6th in passing S&P+ last year, as their freshman signal caller ended his debut campaign with one of the ten highest passer ratings in the nation. He also put up the best deep ball passer rating among SEC quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, and the second highest under pressure passer rating among returning FBS quarterbacks.

He was phenomenal, but it begs the question: how much better can he really be?

His efficiency numbers were off the charts, but as Georgia’s reliance on him amplifies, and his volume correspondingly increases, it seems unlikely that said efficiency will be sustainable, much less improved upon. Obviously, his raw numbers will increase, but that doesn’t mean he’s better.

The under pressure rating, in particular, is what’s alarming(?!), er, intriguing. He was bafflingly good in such circumstances for a human, not to mention for a true freshman human. That, though, is usually one of the things that young quarterbacks can look to improve upon.

As he becomes more of the central focus for opposing defenses, those easy play action deep balls will start to dissipate. Plus, he just lost his primary deep threat in Javon Wims, a guy that routinely made the spectacular look ordinary.

Fromm and Jalen Hurts may have had better deep passer ratings than Stidham in 2017, but the latter didn’t have a Calvin Ridley. He didn’t have a traditional, field-stretching vertical threat like Wims. He didn’t have as natural a playmaker as Terry Godwin, or even a speedster at the level of Mecole Hardman.

Stidham’s best downfield pass catcher was Will Hastings, who reeled in 70% of his targets 20+ yards past the line of scrimmage. Will Hastings is a 5’10, 170 pound white guy that walked onto Auburn, originally, as a kicker. With all due respect, Stidham deserves the lionshare of the credit for that.

And, no matter how symbiotic (or not) Stidham’s relationship to his receivers may be, basically everyone that caught a pass from him in 2017, save Kerryon Johnson, is coming back.

In the world of projection, a world characterized by making educated guesses about the unknown, known commodities like that are huge. If there’s any cause for concern about Auburn’s offense, it’s the line.

The Tigers lost one of the best guards in the country, Braden Smith, as well as one of their most versatile players and important leaders, Austin Golson, from a front that was one of the better units in college football, when healthy.

Even so, the reason that group was so good for the better part of last year was its run blocking. Frankly, the pass protection was subpar, ranking 94th in adjusted sack rate, so while the ground game could take a step back, there’s no reason to suspect that it will affect Stidham much, if at all.

It’s impossible to know for certain who the best quarterback in the SEC will be in 2018, until the games are played, but that won’t stop anyone from trying to make predictions, nor should it. The thing is, based on the knowledge at hand, Stidham is the best bet. Anything else leans away from projection, into the realm of actual guessing.

Now, there’s less clarity at the national level, which should come as no surprise given the talent that has departed.

That said, there are a few facts worth keeping in mind.

Using Sporting News’ ranking as a starting point, but not including Tagovailoa for obvious sample size reasons, of the eight remaining quarterbacks ahead of Stidham, he has the second lowest interception rate, behind Washington’s Jake Browning. For context, on a per attempt basis, he turns the ball over basically half as often as Drew Lock. This is important given that the team that wins the turnover battle wins the game about 73% of the time, and, while the public, by and large, acknowledges said importance, it may not to the extent it deserves.

He also has the fourth highest touchdown rate to interception rate ratio. And that was on a team that really relied heavily on the run as it approached the goalline. It would be nice to have seen a few more scores from Stidham in 2017, but it’s not really his fault. Hindsight is 20/20, but Auburn probably could have improved it’s pretty average drive finishing mark had they relied on Stidham more. It’s worth noting that, in late November, his average touchdown pass was 35.7 yards.

His Tigers also finished fourth in passing S&P+, among the teams of the players ahead of him, but here’s the kicker: Auburn returns more offensive production than all but one of the teams on that list, Michigan State -- and Brian Lewerke’s Spartans were nowhere near as explosive through the air as Auburn was.

In other words, of the top nine quarterbacks (Stidham was 9th), according to Sporting News, Auburn was one of four to finish in the top ten of S&P+, and returns more offensive production than any of the others.

The crown is there for the taking. There’s no clear “best quarterback in college football” to start the season. It’s a wide open race, ripe for debate, and, at least for a few more months, there are no wrong answers.

Still, some predictions are better than others. Maybe it’s Trace McSorley, but Penn State is losing an awful lot, and known quantities are better than the alternative in this game. Maybe it’s Jake Fromm, but his ceiling doesn’t seem much higher than where he currently sits.

Utilizing the information on hand, the best bets have to be either Browning or Stidham.

There probably aren’t any props out there for something so subjective, but in this hypothetical world of projection, the true favorite resides in Alabama -- Auburn, Alabama, that is.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP