Whether it’s making a statement on Twitter or lining up under center for Auburn, for Sean White, the name of the game is efficiency:
All in!! WarEagle
— Sean White (@SeanWhiteAU) August 14, 2017
That’s one tweet, three(ish) words, 17 characters. But it’s enough, all the same, to say Auburn will head into the 2017 season with the best quarterback situation in the SEC.
Why? For starters, the Tigers’ new backup spent most of 2016 delivering on-field passes with as much steady efficiency as he’s delivered online reassurance to Auburn fans this August.
No, thanks to Kamryn Pettway and company, White never shouldered a Chad Kelly-esque 45-pass burden in Auburn’s offense; he never piled up enough yards or touchdowns to worry about All-SEC honors; his coaches’ season-opening indecision and his own season-ending injury rash mean even some Auburn fans may have forgotten how good he was. So, let’s remember: White ranked No.1 in the SEC in quarterback rating entering the Georgia game. That far from feasting only on the cupcakes of Auburn’s schedule, he posted the best single-game efficiency rating LSU allowed all season and averaged 11.3 yards an attempt in road wins against Ole Miss and Mississippi State. That, after posting zero games with a rating of 143 or better against Power 5 opponents as a freshman, he enjoyed five such games as a sophomore.
Now, he’s a junior. His coaches say he’s better. As SEC Country’s Lauren Shute reported, White said he’s more durable. A better, more durable White would be a well-above-average SEC starter at minimum. At maximum, a better, more durable White would rank among the Jalen Hurtses and Nick Fitzgeralds as one of the best starters in the conference.
But, of course, White’s not the starter at all.
By this point, Auburn fans need another endorsement of Jarrett Stidham the way the ocean needs another endorsement of salt. But some endorsements matter more than others:
“Yeah, I mean, Jarrett has done a really good job and he deserves to be the starter,” White said. “I think I’ve done well, I think I’ve improved, I think I’m better than I ever have been, but I understand they have to make a decision. When Jarrett is out there, I’m going to be behind him 100 percent, whether that’s preparing or helping.”
If White was as good (when healthy) last season as we know he was … and, right now, he’s both healthy and better than he was last season … and Stidham has been so much the stronger option during fall camp that White himself not only accepts Gus Malzahn and Chip Lindsey’s decision but is willing to say Stidham deserves it … well, you can put 2 and 2 together. So can certain Vegas bookmakers*.
The next question: Can any other SEC team make its starter-plus-backup math add up to as much as it does at Auburn? The answer here is no. Alabama likely comes closest — all Hurts did as a true freshman was take the Crimson Tide within one defensive stop of a national title and Tua Tagovailoa hasn’t done anything yet to suggest he won’t be able to deliver on his immense recruiting hype. If the question was: “Who’s set up for the best quarterback situation for 2018 and beyond?” The answer might well be the Tide. But facts are facts: The Tide’s second-string quarterback is a true freshman. He’s never taken a snap at the collegiate level. Until Tagovailoa proves otherwise, the junior with 16 starts who led the SEC in passer rating nine games into the 2016 season is the better backup.
Georgia? Jacob Eason looks the part, but even after Auburn’s late-season swoon, the Dawgs finished 44 places behind the Tigers in FBS passer rating and their backup is a freshman, too. Mississippi State has the perfect talent for Dan Mullen’s system in Fitzgerald, but his backup is — you guessed it — a true freshman. Perhaps the most underrated quarterback depth chart in the SEC belongs to Florida, where Malik Zaire, Feleipe Franks and Luke Del Rio give coach Jim McElwain an intriguing mix of both upside and experience. But after 2016, Auburn fans know better than most that if you’re actually using your third quarterback option, it’s not likely to mean anything good — and on paper, no combination of two Gators quarterbacks can match both Stidham’s sky-high ceiling and White’s proven efficiency.
Maybe once the season begins another challenger will emerge (Missouri? Arkansas?). Or — we must acknowledge the possibility — Stidham will not make good on his towering promise. But until then, this isn’t complicated: Stidham should be one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC. White should be one of the best backups in the SEC, if not the best, period. Together, they’re the best one-two punch at the position in the conference.
Remember, too, this is the same position where uncertainty and lack of depth single-handedly prevented Auburn from challenging for a playoff berth just a year ago. (If you’re skeptical, consider where the Tigers would have been entering the Iron Bowl if any two of the Clemson, Texas A&M and Georgia games — quarterbacking pratfalls one and all — had been victories instead.) In 2017, there’s no uncertainty. There’s no lack of depth. There’s just the tag team that should let Auburn fly off the top rope and, finally, back into SEC contention.
*So we probably — or certainly — should mention preseason Heisman odds for a new Auburn starting quarterback after what happened last time. But nonetheless, any neutral fans reading this should know: It’s not just Auburn fans treating Stidham this way.