Both Alabama and Auburn fans love to debate which team is better at almost everything. Who will have the better team? The better defense? Which team has more loyal, respectable fans? The debate is seemingly endless.
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You can bet that both fan bases want to know who will field the better quarterback in 2017. It’s the most important position on the field, and the 2016 season proved that you can’t get very far without one.
So, who will have the better quarterback this season?
The Argument for Hurts
Jalen Hurts accomplished something in 2016 that no other quarterback has managed to do under head coach Nick Saban. He earned the starting job as a true freshman. He then became the first true freshman to win an SEC Championship Game.
Hurts entered the opening game against USC on the third drive, and he didn’t look back. The former 4-star quarterback from Channelview, Texas, had an impressive season for the most part. He played in 15 games — starting 14 — throwing for 2,780 yards and 23 touchdowns. His 62.8-percent completion percentage ranked fourth in the SEC, but those passing statistics don’t tell the whole story.
Hurts struggled as a pocket passer last season. He never showcased the ability to consistently push the ball downfield. At times, that lack of ability hindered the offense’s success. Over the course of the 2016 season, Hurts only completed 20 out of 61 (32.8-percent) passes traveling more than 20 yards downfield.
According to Pro Football Focus, Hurts went 1-for-4 on passes traveling more than 20 yards during the national championship game. His lone completion came on 68-yard touchdown by TE O.J. Howard, which was a result of a busted coverage by Clemson’s secondary. The struggle to take the top off defenses was a common theme to Hurts’ freshman season, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope for improvement.
So far, it sounds like Hurts will be a different player in 2017.
“I think it’s night and day. He’s gotten so much better,” junior WR Calvin Ridley told reporters. “He sits in there and sometimes when I’m not in, and I look and he’s stepping up, making good throws. So, he’s gotten a lot better.”
This is great news for Alabama’s offense. Following a season in which he went 13-1 as a starter, won the SEC Offensive Player of the Year and came within one stop of delivering a national title, it’s encouraging to know that Hurts is only getting better with age and experience. He’s already proven himself as an elite playmaker when running with the football — he ran for 954 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
If the passing game clicks, don’t be surprised to see Hurts take the next step in becoming one of the best quarterbacks in Alabama history.
The Argument for Stidham
Stidham’s arrival on the Plains came with a lot of hype. So far, the former 4-star has not only matched the hype, he has exceeded it.
Stidham is enrolled at Auburn because of the troubling circumstances surrounding Baylor’s football program. During his freshman season at Baylor, Stidham was already showing signs that he could be the Bears’ next Heisman Trophy contender.
Baylor’s starting quarterback Seth Russell suffered a neck injury seven games into the 2015 season, and Stidham was named the starter by default. He only managed to start three games before an injury claimed the rest of his season as well. Still, Stidham threw for 934 yards and 6 touchdowns — with a 63-percent completion percentage.
That success as a passer seems to have smoothly translated into Auburn’s offense. Following an impressive spring, Stidham lit up Auburn’s second-team defense during their annual A-Day game a couple of weeks ago. He finished with 267 yards passing — with an 80-percent completion percentage — in addition to leading the first-team offense to five scoring drives on only six possessions. Even more impressive, Stidham did all of this in just the first half.
Stidham has shown all the necessary tools to be successful in Auburn’s offense. He shows solid mechanics, he drives the football into tight windows with pinpoint accuracy and he displays elite arm strength. In addition, Stidham also uses his legs when necessary. He isn’t a run-first quarterback — he won’t match Hurts’ yardage totals — but he is mobile enough to make an impact in the zone-read offense.
His presence should also allow things to open up for the Tigers run game as well. Similarly to Hurts, last year’s starter Sean White struggled to push the ball downfield on a consistent basis. This flaw had a negative effect on Auburn’s ability to field a balanced attack. If Stidham’s performance in the A-Day game was any indication, that shouldn’t be an issue moving forward.
This could end up being a lot closer than most people expect. Stidham was impressive this spring, and he has a talented group of returning players surrounding him on offense — including the duo of Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson at running back.
Still, we haven’t been given the chance to see if Stidham can be an effective player week in and week out against talented SEC opponents. Until he has proven that he can be a consistent threat on this level, the nod has to go to Hurts.
Hurts was a true playmaker as a true freshman and was in the Heisman conversation until late last season.
Yes, he struggled to provide Alabama’s offense with the ability to burn defenses deep. If that continues, then Stidham has a good chance to emerge as the better of the two players in 2017. Don’t count on a lack of development from Hurts, however.
Saban — as well as the rest of the team — has seen a drastic improvement from Hurts as a passer. He hasn’t struggled with tunnel vision so far this spring, and the game seems to be slowing down as he gains more experience. Hurts has the physical tools to be an effective passer — arm strength, touch, etc. He just needs to continue the positive growth in his quest to improve the mental aspect of his game.