The 82nd Iron Bowl between No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Auburn is set to be one of the biggest games of the year, with serious national title implications and the SEC West title at stake.
The winner of the annual matchup has made it to seven of the last eight national championships, with Auburn making it twice and Alabama making it five times.
In the Gus Malzahn era at Auburn, the recipe for Auburn success has been a dual-threat quarterback who runs for 1,000 yards to go along with another 1,000-yard running back. This has been evident with Cam Newton in 2010 and Nick Marshall in 2013.
But, the past is the past and Auburn has moved onto bigger and better things and to a system more balanced and a reliance on quarterback Jarrett Stidham’s ability to accurately complete his passes downfield.
The Baylor transfer has broken the stigma that for Auburn to have success offensively they need a run-first quarterback. Stidham has been the opposite, throwing for 2,445 yards and 16 touchdowns while only rushing for 102 yards and three touchdowns.
No. 1 in the SEC in completion percentage (67.8), Stidham thrives when he can complete easy passes to get in a rhythm and then throw the ball downfield for the big play.
In love with the deep ball, Stidham is second in the SEC in completions of passes 30-plus yards with 49, which is compared to 29 from a Sean White-led offense.
The past two Iron Bowls, Auburn struggled offensively to move the ball downfield because the starting quarterback did not play. Jeremy Johnson ended up being the starter in both games and only completed 38 percent of his passes combined.
“I’m glad we have our starting quarterback healthy for this game," Malzahn said. "We haven’t had that in two years, so that’s a good feeling."
The lack of quarterback consistency caused the Tigers to struggle not just in the passing game, but it trickled down and affected the running game, with the Tigers rushing for under 100 yards in 2015 and 2016.
In 2016, Auburn was one of the most run reliant teams in the country, with 3,527 out of 5,730 total offensive yards coming from the ground.
Stidham’s addition to the team has made Auburn’s offense more balanced and dangerous. Auburn is only relying on the run 51 percent of the time thanks to Stidham’s success in the passing game.
"I think it's going to be big key for us, if we want to move the ball on these guys," Stidham said.
Despite hailing from the Lone Star State, Stidham is still fully aware of the high stakes that come with the Iron Bowl.
"This is exactly why I came here, to play in a game like this, with these kinds of implications," Stidham said. "This is why you play Division-I football, especially at a place like Auburn, in this state, against Alabama. It's a very big deal. And I'm really looking forward to it."
With the almost overwhelming hype surrounding the game and its players, Stidham is trying to keep a level head and approach the game the same as any other.
"From a preparation standpoint, it's got to be the same, just as if it was Louisiana-Monroe like last week," Stidham said. "It's a much bigger game, implications on the line, that kind of thing. Preparation, I don't think it needs to change too much, get out of that comfort zone.”
Other coaches have taken notice to Stidham’s progression throughout the season, including the coach that will be on the other sideline come Saturday.
"Their QB has played better and better,” Nick Saban said. “He has a tremendous amount of talent. He understands the offense better as the season has gone on. They’re giving him time to make plays with pass protection, and he’s been able to take advantage of it.”
The Campbell Award semifinalist knows what Saturday means to fans, students, players and the Auburn Family.
“We've got to be locked in this week and prepare as best as we can," Stidham said. "I think it's going to come down to whoever wants it more."
If Stidham can come in and deliver another victory over a No. 1 team in three weeks, he will not only live up to the preseason hype, but will inscribe his name in Auburn history.