With the arrival of Jarrett Stidham, Auburn and head coach Gus Malzahn will have no excuses for mediocrity in 2017.
The notion that Auburn has a quick trigger when it comes to firing head coaches is grounded in reality – Gene Chizik got the axe just two seasons after winning a national championship.
There is also the mystifying theory among Tigers fans that the team tends to do better when no high expectations exist.
The reason I mention these two seemingly innocuous tidbits is because, just before 7 p.m. on Saturday, they dovetailed to create what will undoubtedly be Auburn’s narrative for the 2017 season. With the arrival of quarterback Jarrett Stidham and the overall talent returning to The Plains, next season will bring high expectations and a likely win-or-else edict for head coach Gus Malzahn.
All of the excuses that have been thrown out for Auburn the past two seasons – injuries, no quarterback play, inexperience at key positions – will be moot in 2017. Stidham will likely be behind center after lighting it up for Baylor in limited time in 2015. Running back Kam Pettway, the SEC’s leading rusher and 2017 Heisman watch list candidate, is returning, as are a slew of wide receivers who gained valuable experience and have the talent to be one of the best units in the SEC.
This puts the pressure squarely on the shoulders of Malzahn, who followed up an appearance in the BCS National Championship game in his debut season with 8-5, 7-6, and 8-4 records. Those aren’t exactly the inspiring seasons that Auburn expected after such early success, and part of the problem, especially this season, has been the lack of offensive productivity.
Particularly troubling has been Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee’s inability to field a consistent quarterback since Nick Marshall graduated following the 2014 season. Jeremy Johnson was the heir apparent to Marshall, but his play turned south in a hurry. Sean White took over last season for Johnson and entered this year as the starter, but his knack for injuries has kept him off the field for major parts of the two seasons.
And then there’s the John Franklin III experiment, which brought a highly touted quarterback from JUCO that Malzahn and Lashlee didn’t trust to throw the ball. A mystifying game plan that involved all three quarterbacks in this season’s opener against Clemson made many, including myself, wonder if there were any way that Malzahn could recover.
In the middle of the season, with a healthy White and Pettway running the show, it looked like the old Malzahn offense from the past. But once again, injuries and no backup plan proved to be the downfall, as Auburn lost to Georgia and Alabama down the stretch for the third straight year.
In Stidham, Malzahn finally has a quarterback that can truly run his system the way he prefers: a thrower that can run the read option and put up rushing yards to keep the defense off balance. In the two seasons where Malzahn has had the most success – 2010 and 2013 – he also had JUCO transfers come in, take over the starting job, and put up yards and points at a high rate. Those two players were Marshall and a guy by the name of Cam Newton.
Stidham will still have to learn the system – one that is similar to what he ran at Baylor under Art Briles – and win the starting job, with both White and incoming freshman Woody Barrett seen as his main challengers. Should that happen and Stidham starts under center, Auburn quickly becomes a contender in both the SEC and national title picture.
When Stidham announced that he would be signing with Auburn on Saturday, Malzahn posted a big “Boom!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! War Eagle!” on Twitter, acknowledging the decision.
Now, with all the places seemingly in place, next season will show whether or not the Malzahn era at Auburn will either be a big boom or a bust.