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Stidham’s Turnaround

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Since starting conference play, Jarrett Stidham has been the best quarterback in the SEC.

He started the season slowly and was criticized for not living up to his billing as a preseason Heisman hopeful. He subsequently faded from the national consciousness. However, since starting conference play, Jarrett Stidham has been the best quarterback in the SEC.

His Auburn debut was less than impressive, completing 58.3% of his 24 attempts, against Georgia Southern, for 185 yards with two touchdowns and a pick.

Week two, though, against Clemson, was when all those suspicious of the hype around Stidham felt vindicated. He was sacked 10 times that day and completed less than 55% of his attempts for 79 yards, an average of 3.3 yards per attempt, with an 81.82 passer rating.

Parties convicted that Stidham was a bust, and that was that, may have stopped paying attention.

Yet, as the people that kept watching know, for a few reasons, Jarrett Stidham has experienced one of the most pronounced turnarounds seen in college football, this year.

Prior to the Texas A&M game, in conference play only, Stidham led the SEC with a 164.99 passer rating (over 25 points higher than his closest competitor), a 63% completion rate, and an average of 10.2 yards per attempt.

One reason for the boosted productivity is increased efficiency in the running game. Despite losing Kamryn Pettway, the SEC’s leader in rushing yards per game last year, Auburn has gone from averaging 3.88 yards per carry, in non-conference play, to 5.84 yards per carry against Southeastern Conference foes.

The offensive line play has also taken great strides. Stidham was sacked 15 times in the first three games of the season -- ten against Clemson, three against Georgia Southern, and two against Mercer. In the succeeding five games, prior to Texas A&M, Stidham was sacked only seven times, fourth fewest in the SEC, down 3.6 per game.

Guard Braden Smith, second in the SEC in pass block efficiency for his position, is leading the charge in that respect, and the rest have fallen in line.

Perhaps most importantly, though, aside from Stidham’s own growth, is the emergence of his receivers. Ahead of the season, despite the hype around the transfer, many wondered who would be on the other end of his passes. Whereas their quarterback is, arguably, still working to live up to the hype, Auburn’s pass catchers have far exceeded expectations.

Ryan Davis’ 2.52 yards per route run are sixth in the SEC, and he’s one of just two players in the country to receive more than 35 catchable targets without dropping a single one.

Meanwhile, Will Hastings has the second highest catch rate in the country, on balls that travel 20+ yards down the field.

In other words, Stidham has at his disposal a pair that has quietly become one of the SEC’s most well rounded.

They aren’t doing it against a bunch of slouches, either. Stidham’s best game of the year came against Mississippi State, who currently sits at 7th, nationally, in opponent adjusted pass defense S&P. Admittedly, he did struggle, relatively, against an LSU defense that is 23rd in opponent adjusted passing S&P.

Still, he bounced back in a big way against Texas A&M, this afternoon, who entered the game 27th.

The Stephenville, Texas native completed 20/27 passes for 268 yards and a season-high three scores, with no interceptions, en route to a 42-27 win on the Aggies’ home turf.

With Georgia coming to town next week, Stidham will have to be at his very best, as the Bulldogs boast the number two pass defense in the nation, by opponent adjusted S&P.

This will be his biggest test yet, but it’s not like he hasn’t seen, and had success against, elite SEC pass defenses.

Perhaps it was just growing pains that held him back during the early part of the season. Maybe he needed time to gel with his new teammates. It could be that the level of comfortability, as far as play calling, against teams Auburn plays on an annual basis, has been the difference maker (save one bizarre half in Baton Rouge).

No matter the reason, the fact is Jarrett Stidham has been the best quarterback in the SEC since the beginning of conference play. Whether or not that will continue against Georgia is yet to be seen.

The only sure thing, as has been on display, is that he won’t have to do it alone.

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