AUBURN, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn tried to tell us. Back before the start of the season, he sat in his office, folded his arms and warned not to expect too much from Jarrett Stidham. He’d named him Auburn’s starting quarterback only three days earlier, and he wasn’t in the mood for engaging in a discussion about his chances of winning the Heisman Trophy.
Was Stidham talented enough to play at that level? Of course, Malzahn said. There was no denying that. Besides, even if he tried, there were too many inflammatory quotes out there to refute him; for example, former Baylor coach Art Briles called Stidham the best young QB he’d ever been around.
“But you know what we have to keep in mind?” Malzahn asked rhetorically back on that warm August day. “He has about only four games of experience in college. So there are going to be growing pains.”
No one wanted to hear it at the time. Here was Stidham, a tall, athletic, downright strapping young quarterback from Texas who had flashed superstar potential as a freshman at Baylor before deciding to transfer, and expectations were through the roof. The redshirt sophomore had 20-to-1 odds to win the Heisman. He was the savior of Auburn football right up until the moment he wasn’t.
On Sept. 9, the world came crashing down around Jarrett Stidham. And by the world, we mean Clemson’s freakishly athletic defensive line, which sacked him 11 times during a 14-6 loss at Death Valley. Stidham managed just 79 yards on 24 pass attempts, threw no touchdowns and rushed for -42 yards.
If Malzahn weren’t so busy defending his job performance at the time he might have said, "I told you so."
But as it were, he’d have to wait until much later -- after that disaster of a loss at LSU, and after Auburn went from the two-loss trash bin to the hottest team in college football by running off five straight wins, including two over No. 1-ranked teams.
On Tuesday, three days after Stidham threw for 237 yards and rushed for a touchdown during Auburn’s 26-14 win over then-No. 1 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, Malzahn had his opportunity.
“Remember in fall camp I was saying, 'Hey, we have to give this guy time?'” he asked rhetorically once again, this time on the brink of the SEC championship game. “We knew he was talented in the spring, but we had to give him time.”
With time, Malzahn explained, came comfort. When Stidham and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey clicked, they started rolling.
“I think it’s really as simple as that,” Malzahn explained.
Maybe that’s painting with too broad a brush, but the fact remains that when you watch Stidham now versus two months ago, it’s almost a different person you’re seeing. He’s not any faster, nor is his arm any stronger. He’s simply more confident and more sure of his movements.
Before the start of every game now, he’ll line up at midfield, take a crow hop and heave the ball 50 yards into the end zone in an incredible display of arm strength. Then, during the game, he’ll pump his fist wildly after big plays and sidearm a few throws to receivers. If you didn’t know any better, you’d say he had a swagger about him.
Since the loss to Clemson, Stidham has the highest completion rate in the FBS (70.9 percent) among qualifying quarterbacks. He has thrown 14 touchdowns to three interceptions and his sack ratio has gone from seven per game to 1.2. He’s even become more comfortable running the ball.
While no one is going to confuse him with Nick Marshall or Cam Newton, he’s doing just enough in the running game to keep defenses honest and pick up yards of his own. Against Alabama, his 51 yards rushing were crucial, including a 16-yard touchdown run in which the defense was caught totally unprepared for him to keep it on the zone-read.
Watching him make plays with his arm and his feet, it felt like the Auburn of old, the high-flying Gus Malzahn offense that took the SEC by storm when he was coordinator back in 2010 and then again during his first year as head coach in 2013.
It’s not hyperbole to say that Stidham’s emergence re-energized a stagnant Auburn offense and saved its head coach’s job. As Malzahn told his team after beating Alabama, “Five weeks ago, everybody put us under, six feet under. ... We’re going to the SEC championship, and the best is yet to come!”
A giddy Chandler Cox said after the game that Stidham’s running opened up the offense “like crazy.”
“The quarterback he is, the person he is, I knew we could come out and beat Bama and beat Georgia,” the veteran fullback said. “He put us on his shoulders and led us to victory.”
It may have been too late for the Heisman race, but it was better late than never for Auburn’s sake.
Malzahn isn’t holding back on his quarterback anymore, telling reporters now that, “He can make every throw” and “go hash-to-hash, sideline-to-sideline.”
“He’s a very, very talented young man,” Malzahn said, “and now that he’s running the football some it’s really opened up other things. He’s playing at a high level at quarterback. And that’s what you have to do.
“If you have a chance to win a championship in our league, your quarterback has to play at a high level, and he’s done that so far.”
On Saturday, Stidham will lead No. 2 Auburn against No. 6 Georgia for the SEC title and a shot at reaching the College Football Playoff.
The last time these two teams played four weeks ago, Stidham threw three touchdowns and no interceptions during a lopsided 40-17 win in Jordan-Hare Stadium. But this time around he’ll be at a neutral site in Atlanta and he could be without Kerryon Johnson as the All-America candidate at running back is nursing a sore shoulder.
Two months ago, that would have been a nightmare scenario. Now, with Stidham and the Auburn offense at their peak, it might not be so bad.
The growing pains are over and expectations couldn’t be any higher.