Jarrett Stidham passed his first test for Auburn, but at Clemson is a very different story
New quarterback Jarrett Stidham passed his initial test in an Auburn uniform, throwing for 185 yards in a 41-7 blowout of Georgia Southern in Week 1.
But the former Baylor QB didn’t come to The Plains for home openers against non-Power 5 opponents. The 6-foot-3, 214-pounder is being asked to take the Tigers passing game into the stratosphere against the likes of Clemson, which awaits in Week 2.
While Stidham was good, he wasn’t great. He went 14-of-24 — that’s 58.3 percent — and totaled 3 touchdowns, two through the air and one on the ground. However, he was intercepted once and averaged just 1.9 yards on 9 rushing attempts. The Eagles, a relative newcomer to the FBS level, were only tied for 69th nationally against the pass in 2016.
The sledding will be much tougher Saturday at Memorial Stadium, where Clemson has one of the biggest home-field advantages in America.
The defending national champion is coming off a cakewalk of its own, having kicked Kent State to the curb 56-3. The Golden Flashes managed only 124 yards of total offense and completed just 1-of-5 passes in a 60-minute game.
With once-in-a-generation signal caller Deshaun Watson having left a year early to be a first-round pick in the NFL Draft, Clemson is breaking in a new quarterback in Kelly Bryant. He was awfully Watson-like in his first career start for coach Dabo Swinney, throwing for 236 yards and a TD while running for 77 and an additional score.
Stidham and Bryant both play the game’s most important position at a powerhouse program, but each is facing a different kind of pressure.
For Stidham, he’s being viewed as a savior for an Auburn passing offense that has been held together with duct tape and bubble game ever since Gus Malzahn returned as head coach. He’s supposed to be the difference maker through the air.
Even Nick Marshall, who was a few seconds away from winning a national title for the Tigers in 2013, was a converted cornerback and an unskilled passer. His successor, Jeremy Johnson, was a swing and a miss on the recruiting trail. Another transfer, John Franklin III — he of “Last Chance U” infamy — made next to no impact before packing his bags.
Sean White is a tough kid and won a fair share of games, but he has always been a square peg in a round hole running Malzahn’s system.
Stidham, conversely, has the kind of natural arm talent that you can’t coach. Originally a 4-star recruit who signed with Baylor and did some fine things as a true freshman in Waco, he left the Bears just as they began to unravel for all the wrong reasons.
It’s been suggested that Auburn is nothing more than a field general away from competing with Alabama for the West — and, ultimately, the College Football Playoff. Malzahn’s teams are always productive running the ball. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has done an outstanding job. Daniel Carlson might be the best kicker in the country, too.
He may have directed a 34-point victory, but it’s safe to say that Tigers fans expected more from Stidham in his debut.
For Bryant, now a junior, he played sparingly in 2015-16 as a backup. Since Watson is unquestionably one of the greatest players in Clemson history, if not the greatest, it’s impossible for Bryant to live up to such a lofty standard.
He has everything he could possibly need to succeed in the pursuit of another ring, though. Yes, the running game lost Wayne Gallman, but four different tailbacks scored a touchdown in the Kent State game. Yes, the passing game lost Mike Williams, but receivers Deon Cain, Ray Ray McCloud and Hunter Renfrow all return off last year’s roster.
Not to mention the fact that Clemson should be every bit as stout defensively and can be downright scary in the trenches.
Bryant’s path to getting his team back to the ACC Championship Game is also easier now that Florida State’s Deondre Francois will miss the rest of 2017 with a knee injury. The Seminoles may already be beyond repair in the Atlantic.
The best thing Bryant can do is be himself and not try to mimic Watson. Compared to Watson, Bryant was relatively unheralded as a prepster and not considered a can’t-miss prospect at the next level. While Watson started quickly as a freshman — he was special in a hurry — Bryant didn’t get a chance until his third year on campus.
He has a long way to go, but Bryant did enough to make Watson-drunk Clemson fans think he has a shot to be pretty solid himself.
One way or another, Stidham and Bryant will be the focal point ahead of this matchup. A casual look at each depth chart suggests that everything is in place. Both teams simply need a trigger man to be the final piece of the puzzle.
For Auburn, Stidham has to do more than Johnson, Franklin and White. He certainly has to do more than Marshall as a passer, although nobody expects him to be nearly as effective of a runner. Despite all the points put up by Marshall and Co. four years ago — 39.5 per game, to be exact — the aerial assault was mostly smoke and mirrors.
For Clemson, Bryant can’t possibly do more than Watson. Nobody can. But just coming close will make this club formidable again.
Stidham’s detractors have brushed aside his previous statistics at Baylor because it plays in the defense-optional Big 12. Let’s see if he can do it against SEC competition before deciding if he’s for real. Well, Clemson is about as SEC-like as the ACC gets.