AUBURN, Ala. — No position can change a football team more than quarterback. With the right quarterback, good teams can become great.
And there’s perhaps no better example than Auburn football under Gus Malzahn.
In 2010, when Malzahn was an offensive coordinator, Cam Newton took a team that finished 8-5 in 2009 to a 14-0 national championship season in 2010. In 2013, Malzahn’s first year as a head coach, Nick Marshall sparked the Tigers to the biggest turnaround in modern college football history — from 3-9 to 12-2.
Auburn hopes lightning can strike a third time this season with another transfer quarterback — Jarrett Stidham. And after a strong spring showing from Stidham, a growing number of college football analysts and writers believe the Tigers can be an elite team in 2017 coming off an 8-5 season.
“If Stidham truly breaks out and is the QB a lot of people think he can be, then Auburn is capable of being a playoff contender,” Sports on Earth’s Matt Brown told SEC Country. “I will likely have Auburn as a preseason top-10 team, which makes it a contender in my view, even if it’s not a favorite. Without him, I wouldn’t mention the word playoff.”
Brown, who called Stidham the top transfer quarterback in college football for 2017, thinks the Tigers have what it takes to stay in a title hunt this fall. But if Auburn didn’t land Stidham and only had returning starter Sean White to rely on for 2017, Brown would have a completely different view.
“I think (Auburn’s record) would look quite similar to last year, and it’s hard not to wonder about White staying healthy,” Brown said. “Stidham’s presence isn’t just about providing more upside as a starter — it’s about bolstering depth, too. With Stidham, I think it goes up to nine or 10.”
SEC football analyst Barrett Sallee has a higher view of Auburn without Stidham. However, he also sees the former Baylor quarterback raising the Tigers’ ceiling even more.
“With White, Auburn’s a contender that can win nine or 10,” Sallee said. “With Stidham, its CFP chances and SEC title chances become much more realistic, with a double-digit win season being the expectation, not just an optimistic goal.”
Bleacher Report’s David Kenyon and Sporting News’ Bill Bender share similar views — Auburn would be an eight- or nine-win team in 2017 if Stidham went somewhere else. But double-digits are in play with Stidham.
“Without Stidham, I think Auburn would hang around in the SEC West but fall short,” Kenyon told SEC Country. “I’d settle on either eight or nine wins. With Stidham behind center, an 11-1 regular season is the ceiling.”
If he wins the starting job as expected, Stidham would give Auburn a dynamic passing presence it didn’t have last season in losses to Clemson, Texas A&M and — due to injury — Georgia and Alabama.
“If Stidham can flip at least two of those road games, then Auburn goes into the Iron Bowl with nine or 10 wins and a chance to win the SEC West,” Bender told SEC Country. “I think he can flip two of those three games against Clemson, LSU and Texas A&M and avoid the trap at Arkansas.”
Last season, Auburn was too one-dimensional on offense. During his 10 games at Baylor in 2015, Stidham displayed a strong arm and pocket presence that Auburn needs at quarterback
“The problem with White is that his height eliminates the middle of the field for the most part, and he’s not as accurate downfield on tough throws as Stidham,” Sallee said. “So it’s hard to trust him in a situation where Auburn has to throw to win. … (Stidham) is going to be a tremendous asset in point-a-minute football games, and against defenses that have enough defensive firepower to load up against the Tiger rushing attack.”
What would that look like on Auburn’s 2017 schedule?
For starters, tough road trips to Clemson and LSU would tilt more in Auburn’s favor because of Stidham.
“Stidham is still inexperienced and somewhat unproven, so it’s not as if he’s a lock to go in and play well at Clemson in Week 2 — or at all, really — but it could certainly be a boost against a team also breaking in a new QB,” Brown said. “And LSU is always a tough place to play, too, but Stidham will likely give Auburn a clear QB advantage in that game.”
The Clemson matchup in Week 2 should define Stidham’s value early. Last season, Auburn’s three-quarterback rotation against the eventual national champions cost the Tigers the game, 19-13.
Having a more stable situation and improved talent under center in the first Death Valley trip could launch Auburn on a season to remember.
“(Stidham) makes this offense dangerous – like 40 points per game dangerous – and that’s why the Tigers are one of the most-talked about teams of the offseason,” Bender said. “If you think that hype is out of control, then just wait and see what happens if they beat Clemson.”
As important as an elite quarterback is to a team’s success, football is still a sport played by 22 players at a time. The Tigers will need their defense and offensive line to stay solid to make a run at double-digit-wins.
But the consensus is clear — Stidham will give Auburn a better shot in every game, just like it had in its last storybook season with Marshall.
“With Stidham, an 11-1 regular season is the ceiling,” Kenyon said. “Granted, that’s not something I’d be comfortable predicting because of the schedule. It might require a 2013-esque series of fortunate bounces and missed kicks.
“But the Tigers will be ‘in the game’ during the fourth quarter consistently this season, and that offers the chance for madness.”