With a hyped new quarterback coming in after an 8-5 season, Auburn is getting a preseason push as it hopes to make the SEC interesting and challenge Alabama for supremacy in the West.
It would be impossible to blame anyone for expressing skepticism. After all, this preseason feels familiar.
Auburn finished 8-5 in 2014 after playing for the national title in '13, but big things were expected in 2015 behind new quarterback Jeremy Johnson, who received so much offseason hype that he was tied for fourth in the preseason Heisman Trophy odds. And then … Auburn went from No. 6 in the AP top 25 in August to unranked and 7-6, as Johnson couldn't hold onto the QB job and the Tigers finished 76th in scoring. It made for the third straight time that they finished with at least five losses after being ranked in the preseason top 10.
Last year, the offense improved and the Tigers ended up in the Sugar Bowl, but they still lost five games and were held under 20 points six times, continuing the sense of aimlessness despite some positive signs.
Enter Jarrett Stidham, and another avalanche of preseason hype.
While coach Gus Malzahn has refused to anoint Stidham as the starter over incumbent Sean White to this point, Stidham shined in the spring and is presumed to be the frontrunner with Auburn needing a new spark in its passing game.
One of the top quarterback recruits in the class of 2015, Stidham started three games at Baylor following Seth Russell's injury that season. In his debut, he completed 23 of 33 for 419 yards and three TDs in a tough road win over Kansas State. The next two games, he passed for 257 yards, two TDs and two INTs in a loss to Oklahoma and 258 yards and a TD in a win over Oklahoma State, before being sidelined by his own injury the final three games. In total as a true freshman, Stidham completed 68.8 percent for 1,265 yards, 12 TDs and two INTs, before the injury and then the decision to leave Baylor last summer after Art Briles was fired.
After sitting out 2016, Stidham enrolled at Auburn for spring practice and had a sterling performance in the team's spring scrimmage, completing 16 of 20 for 267 yards. Spring numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, but Auburn fans have plenty of reasons to be excited about Stidham. After all, it's not like he left his original school because he wasn't good enough to play or lost a job, which is the case for most transfer quarterbacks. He was a big-time recruit, he showed a ton of potential in his brief time at Baylor and he has made a quick impression at Auburn.
"We actually recruited him in high school," Malzahn said last week at SEC media days. "He's a good athlete. He's a lot better athlete than people think. I think he started at wide receiver his sophomore year. He can return. He's got a 35-, 36-inch vertical. He runs a 4.6. In our league, you have to escape. Things are going to break down. The defensive lines are too good. You have to have a quarterback that can escape pressure, keep his eyes down the field, know when to throw it, know when to run it and protect the football and make good decisions. We had a chance to really evaluate him in the spring. Our defensive line is pretty talented, and so we got a lot of good information, and we like the way he reacted, too."
This can in some ways feel like a repeat of 2015 -- Sportsbook lists Stidham as tied for fourth in its preseason Heisman odds, which feels like overkill -- but at least some optimism is warranted, especially as Stidham feels like the potential missing piece in an offense that features a fantastic running back duo in Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson and a stellar offensive line led by Braden Smith.
The big questions for Auburn's transition to Stidham are how the offense adapts to new coordinator Chip Lindsey -- most recently the coordinator at Southern Miss and Arizona State -- and how the receiving corps develops. The latter has been a problem the past two seasons, including a 2016 campaign in which nobody had more than Tony Stevens' 487 yards. But the rest of the top five on the team in receiving yards were all freshmen (Eli Stove, Kyle Davis, Darius Slayton) or a sophomore (Ryan Davis), so it was far too early to judge. Stove, Kyle Davis and Nate Craig-Meyers were all blue-chip recruits in the class of 2016, as were Slayton and Ryan Davis in 2015. Auburn has recruited promising talent at wide; now, that recruiting success has to begin paying off to put Stidham in position to succeed. Nobody is guaranteed a breakout here, but odds are good that at least a couple of the young players will emerge as go-to playmakers, especially if the quarterback play improves.
Meanwhile, Lindsey will come in to provide a fresh perspective after a few years of aimlessness in which the reputation of Malzahn as a creative guru of a fast-paced spread offense soured.
"I'm excited about Chip," Malzahn said. "I got a lot of confidence in Chip. He's going to provide more balance for us. And he's a quarterback guru, too. So I feel very good about that, and probably the thing that I'm most excited about is we have quality depth and our quarterback position. And that's been our Achilles' heel the last two years. That gives me, I know our coaches and our players, comfort."
While the defense loses key players like Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams up front, recruiting has been strong, and seven starters are back to a unit that finished a solid 24th in yards per play allowed, continuing an upward trend the past couple years. Combine all the experience with the hope that a touted young quarterback provides, and it's not hard to see why Auburn may be viewed as the best hope to compete with Alabama this season.
Then again, it feels like it's been a decade since anybody really knew what they were talking about concerning Auburn football in the preseason. The Tigers -- who play on the road at Clemson and LSU and host Georgia and Alabama -- have consistently defied predictions, great when expected to merely be decent, often merely decent when expected to be great.
The offense has been all over the map, with a few great years led by Cam Newton and Nick Marshall at quarterback, but otherwise wildly fluctuating results. In the past nine years -- in which Alabama has won four national titles -- Auburn has played for the title twice but lost at least five games the other seven times. Gene Chizik was famously fired for going 3-9 just two years after winning a championship, and while Malzahn -- the offensive coordinator for the 2010 unbeaten season -- immediately took Auburn back to the title game, he has gone just 23-16 in three years since then with an 11-13 record in the SEC that includes three straight losses to SEC East rival Georgia (in which it has scored a total of 27 points) and three straight double-digit losses in the Iron Bowl to Alabama.
Multiple national championship game appearances in 2010 and '13 pushed the Iron Bowl to new heights and made Auburn into a national power, but in reality that national power status has been the outlier, as the Tigers have gone through years of identity crises in the shadow of the rival Crimson Tide dynasty. Everything that's happened in the past 10 years, then, has made it difficult to be truly confident in a preseason opinion regarding Auburn.
This Auburn team has a lot of strengths, but most of this year's hope for high upside is tied up in a promising but still unknown quarterback, meaning that the Tigers are again one of the most hard-to-read teams in college football as they try to answer a pivotal question: Are they the team that can make the SEC interesting again? Despite what's happened the past three seasons, Malzahn has done it before, both times with wild-card transfer quarterbacks.
Expecting Stidham to match the heights of 2010 and '13 is unreasonable, but he can allow Auburn to do something both unusual for the Tigers and satisfying: stabilize the offense and merely match the hype as a top-15 team.