The Pieces Are There, But What Will It Take to Get the Tigers to the Top?
photo: Julie Bennett/al.com
Supposedly there is a quarterback battle at Auburn. Despite what beat reporters and coaches have said, there is hardly a soul in college football who believes it. Whether it is preseason magazines or online articles, Sean White has yet to be discussed seriously other than in a passing memo.
When ESPN decided to have an Auburn quarterback discuss the 2017 team, it wasn’t all the players vying for the position or even Auburn’s 2016 starter. It was the player who hasn’t taken a single snap as an Auburn Tiger: Jarrett Stidham. Lindy’s, Phil Steele, and ESPN are hardly all-knowing. And surprise starters and superstars do happen, but every piece of evidence says Stidham is the man. None of this is news, just further evidence.
Still, in a conference where QB play has been shaky at best over the last few years, Auburn has both the highest upside and lowest downside of any team in the SEC, something that hasn’t been discussed. This is both a testament to Stidham’s promise as a Heisman contender and the work ethic and resolve of last season’s starter. Sean White isn’t getting any publicity for being perhaps the league’s best back-up. In a game where it’s about “the next man up,” Auburn is in a fine—and unique—position.
As AubTigerman wrote, Phil Steele believes Auburn is a playoff contender, and Stidham told ESPN that Auburn has “all the pieces.” This leads to the next discussion: What will it take to get the Tigers to the playoffs?
To be a playoff contender, Auburn has to beat Alabama. That isn’t news in the slightest.
“All the pieces” is just as much about Auburn’s coaches and players as it is Alabama’s. There is currently a gulf-sized void between Alabama and every other team in America, Auburn included. This is equally the result of talent and coaching. How does anyone beat Bama? How can Auburn reverse its 0–3 record from the past three games against Alabama?
Time is the great equalizer.
As with every team in football, the back half of the season is less about talent and preseason preparation than injuries, fatigue, and week-to-week game planning.
To win out, a lot of pieces have to fall into place. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. The 2009 and 2016 teams almost had those pieces in place. Injuries and time had caught up to Bama, and Auburn almost pulled it off, despite being outmatched across the board. The 2009 Tigers needed just a little more on defense. The 2016 team needed a little bit more quarterback. Obviously, there are years that Auburn doesn’t have nearly the pieces needed, although occasionally, it does (see 2010 and 2013).
By the time the Iron Bowl is played, even Alabama is nicked up significantly, and the coaching staff is under a time crunch to prepare. Saban is many things, but a great game-time X’s and O’s coach he is not. Preparation and talent diminishes, and the playing field suddenly levels. In the end, Bama usually has overwhelming talent, which is why it is a dynasty.
On the flip side, Gus Malzahn used to be a coach you didn’t want preparing for your defense, regardless of what week it was. The 2013 and 2014 Iron Bowls showed what Malzahn could do as an X’s and O’s in-game coach against elite defenses. All Auburn needed was a defense. After three years, Malzahn finally found that defense but the lack of depth on offense due to injury, talent, and experience, especially at QB, resulted in wasted opportunity.
All respect to Sean White, but he couldn’t make all the throws even when healthy. This had a trickle down effect that Acid Reign has noted many times in the past. In the 2016 Spring game, it was obvious the passing game would be neutered with White. This, combined with the youth of the receiving corps, forced undue pressure on the Auburn running game, especially late in the season,
Going into 2017, the difference in the receivers is palpable. Credit for this goes equally to Stidham, the receivers and, of course, new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey.
Is Auburn a playoff contender? Absolutely, and that includes being able to beat Bama.
Even though Auburn is one of only two teams to beat Alabama more than once in the Saban era, beating Bama doesn’t come easy. You can’t beat Bama in week one. You can’t beat Bama playing Bama ball. You can’t out-talent Bama. You can beat Bama mid- and late-season by proper game planning and some injury/fatigue luck.
If Auburn has all the pieces, perhaps the most important will be Jarrett Stidham himself. If the media is right, Auburn has that last piece, which will make it a contender.