The Sugar Bowl is a much bigger stage than the one Auburn was on a year ago, but the program’s central question mark remains the same.
The Tigers are facing the prospect of another extended quarterback battle with the coaching staff ready to audition high-profile Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham in the spring.
A healthy Sean White heads into the New Year’s Six matchup against Oklahoma looking to make it the signature accomplishment of his tenure as starter.
“When your back is against the wall, what’s inside of you comes out,” White said during a 25-minute session with reporters last week.
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White is welcoming Stidham to the program with open arms as he did a year ago with junior college transfer John Franklin III. The Florida native didn’t express any frustration publically about having to prove himself yet again.
“It's college football and coaches are going to try to make the team better anyway they feel possible,” White said. “If that means bringing in another quarterback for competition to make everybody better, that's what they decide to do, then so be it. I just have to go out there and compete for my job.”
White said the coaching staff hasn’t talked much about what Stidham’s addition means for his future, but Malzahn has openly stated the top spot on the depth chart will be up for grabs.
"We're going to let them compete and see who wins the job,” Malzahn said in December.
White committed to staying with the program next season regardless of the outcome of the competition, but hedged a little when asked the question a second time towards the end of the session.
“I haven’t even really thought about because my focus is on winning the spring job,” White said. “I haven’t focused on it. I haven’t thought about it to be honest.”
Stidham, who enrolled early and participated in two bowl practices on campus, was a player Auburn previously targeted out of high school. His relationship with Rhett Lashlee was seen as a key factor in his recruitment.
Lashlee’s first opportunity to talk about Auburn’s newest quarterback came Saturday morning during a Sugar Bowl press conference, but he didn’t want to get into the nuts and bolts of the process.
“Not any disrespect to him, but we kind of want to focus on the guys playing in this game, because I think they’ve earned that,” Lashlee said.
He tried to frame the decision to bring in Stidham the same why White did saying “competition brings out the best in everybody.”
White spent a significant portion of his press conference addressing the issue later that morning calmly making the case the two competitors would peacefully coexist throughout Auburn’s offseason program into the fall.
“When they bring in people like that, they are going to try to make the football team better that’s there job as coaches,” White said. “They are going to bring in a quarterback for competition and the best man will win. Jarrett seems like a great kid and a good player. I’m excited to welcome him into the family. I do have the underdog mentality as far I never really get picked it seems like. Before I had to prove myself, but I have no problem doing that at all.”
White played in 10 games this season with nine starts throwing for 1644 yards (129 of 198) with nine touchdowns to three interceptions. The third-year sophomore’s 65.2 completion percentage was the best in the SEC and he led the conference in pass efficiency rating for much of the season.
The efficient numbers don’t tell the full story with White openly admiting he hasn’t played a great game yet this season.
“I don’t think I've played a great game yet, what I would consider a great game,” White said. “I'm ready for the Sugar Bowl because I feel really good and feel like I've practiced well and that we've practiced well. I'm just confident we'll have a good game.”