Jake Fromm, Jarrett Stidham, Jalen Hurts, Nick Fitzgerald -- who do you trust Saturday?
There are only four SEC teams ranked in the Top 25, but all of them play each other in Week 11. Consider it Separation Saturday.
First, Georgia travels to The Plains for a date with Auburn. The Bulldogs are now No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings, while an argument can be made that the Tigers still have a shot at the Final Four, despite two losses.
Later, Alabama will be in Stark Vegas for a matchup with Mississippi State. A year ago, Dan Mullen and Co. went over to Tuscaloosa and got destroyed by Nick Saban and his crew 51-3. This season feels different, though. It may not be enough to result in what would be a monumental upset, although it should certainly be a more competitive affair.
Of course, most of our attention will be on the game’s most important position. Four very different quarterbacks are on display.
Georgia’s Jake Fromm, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham, Alabama’s Jalen Hurts and Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald all have pressure on their shoulders to perform at a high level. You can’t be a QB in this conference yet shy away from games like this.
Fromm is a true freshman but obviously hasn’t played like one. Stidham for the most part has lived up to his billing as the highly coveted Baylor transfer. Hurts is the league’s reigning offensive player of the year and continues to improve. Fitzgerald is a dual-threat monster who’s capable of statistical performances that are hard to believe.
But which one of them do you trust most Saturday? To make the key plays? To avoid the costly mistakes? Well, let’s rank them.
4. Jarrett Stidham
Before Stidham, Auburn’s aerial attack under coach Gus Malzahn ranked 11th, seventh, 12th and 14th in the SEC from 2013-16.
Three-quarters of the way through the 2017 campaign, the Tigers are currently third at 229.4 yards per game. The only discernible difference is Stidham, who’s a better thrower than Nick Marshall, Jeremy Johnson, Sean White and John Franklin III.
Nevertheless, Stidham was decidedly mediocre in Auburn’s two losses this season. In Week 2 at Clemson, he threw for just 79 yards and got sacked a ridiculous 11 times — not all of them were on the offensive line, either. In Week 7 at LSU, he started off scorching hot but still managed to finish a woeful 9-of-26 through the air.
Play-calling has been a headache here and there, which is a common complaint from Malzahn’s many critics. Against the Bayou Bengals in particular, too many first- and third-down calls were predictable and, understandably, ineffective.
The Tigers have been involved in two one-score contests and came up short both times, so Stidham doesn’t have a signature win yet.
3. Nick Fitzgerald
In 2016, Fitzgerald did too much of his damage vs. out-of-conference cupcakes and bottom-of-the-barrel league foes.
To some degree, it’s been a similar story this season. The two premier defenses he’s faced are Georgia and Auburn. Not only did Mississippi State lose to each of them, but Fitzgerald was a combined 27-of-62 passing with 1 touchdown and 4 interceptions.
That being said, he did throw for 180 yards, run for 88 more and account for 4 total TDs in a whitewashing — 37-7, you’ll recall — of LSU. Now that was Week 3, when the Bayou Bengals were still figuring things out on the defensive side of the football, so Fitzgerald may not be able to put together a similar outing today. He doesn’t have to, though.
If the Bulldogs have a lead in the second half, and that’s a very tall order against Alabama, then I absolutely trust Fitzgerald to make all the plays necessary both throwing and running to author perhaps the biggest win in school history.
But if the Crimson Tide get a double-digit lead, especially after halftime, that’s trouble. Fitzgerald isn’t precise enough as a passer.
2. Jake Fromm
Seriously, how many true freshman mistakes has Fromm made this year? Not nearly as many as Jacob Eason last year, that’s for sure.
From the day he arrived in Athens, Fromm has comported himself with a maturity beyond his years. Even before he took over as the starter in the wake of Eason’s injury, his new teammates saw that there was definitely something special about him.
Since Georgia has been so good to this point — only South Carolina this past Saturday kept the final margin closer than 25 — Fromm hasn’t been asked to do too much when taking on SEC competition. The Bulldogs are remarkably consistent week to week, so it’s not unthinkable that they go to Auburn and lay the smack down again.
Fromm has a come-from-behind victory under his belt, too. Trailing at Notre Dame in Week 2, he drove his offense 63 yards on 9 plays in 3:13 to set up the game-winning field goal late in the fourth quarter. There were no freshman jitters to be found.
The only thing we haven’t seen yet is how Fromm handles being asked to throw 35-40 times. He only averages 16.7 attempts per game.
1. Jalen Hurts
Even more so than Fromm, Hurts has proven to be unflappable from the moment he stepped into the huddle right out of high school.
Hurts shows very little emotion, whether he just fumbled the first snap of his career against USC or just scored what sure appeared to be the decisive touchdown against Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Because Hurts has so much talent around him, both offensively and defensively, he doesn’t necessarily have to put up gaudy statistics for Alabama to roll. He’s hardly mentioned at all in the Heisman Trophy discussion — even in a field of imperfect candidates — since he’s only gone over 198 yards passing once in nine games.
But when the Crimson Tide need a play to be made, Hurts is there. If he’s not making a clutch throw with his arm, he’s turning a near sack into a big gainer with his legs. His defense lost the national title game last year, not him.
While any team would be lucky to have Stidham, Fitzgerald or Fromm, there’s only one Hurts. And ‘Bama has him.