To tame the Auburn Tigers in Saturday's Southeastern Conference championship game, Georgia must accomplish something that nobody came close to this month.
Contain Jarrett Stidham.
Auburn's redshirt sophomore quarterback was nothing short of brilliant in November, completing 75 of 102 passes (73.5 percent) for 954 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception in wins over Texas A&M, Georgia, Louisiana-Monroe and Alabama. Stidham conquered the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide when they were No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
"He's a really good quarterback who, I think, has shown the greatest amount of improvement during the year of any player that I've seen from early in the year," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said this week. "I think he's got confidence in the system. He's gotten used to the SEC. I think he's playing at a high level."
TOPPED BY TIGERS
Two sets of Tigers, Clemson and Auburn, head the College Football Playoff rankings entering Saturday’s slate of conference championships:
1. Clemson (11-1)
2. Auburn (10-2)
3. Oklahoma (11-1)
4. Wisconsin (12-0)
5. Alabama (11-1)
6. Georgia (11-1)
7. Miami (10-1)
8. Ohio State (10-2)
9. Penn State (10-2)
10. Southern California (10-2)
11. TCU (10-2)
12. Stanford (9-3)
13. Washington (10-2)
14. Central Florida (11-0)
15. Notre Dame (9-3)
16. Michigan State (9-3)
17. LSU (9-3)
18. Washington State (9-3)
19. Oklahoma State (9-3)
20. Memphis (10-1)
21. Northwestern (9-3)
22. Virginia Tech (9-3)
23. Mississippi State (8-4)
24. N.C. State (8-4)
25. Fresno State (9-3)
Auburn is No. 2 in the latest playoff rankings that were released Tuesday night, while Georgia is No. 6.
Stidham will enter Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium coming off his finest all-around performance, having completed 21 of 28 passes for 237 yards in last Saturday's 26-14 upset of Alabama in Jordan-Hare Stadium. The 6-foot-3, 214-pounder also rushed 12 times for 51 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown scamper with 12:49 left that capped the scoring.
On third downs against the Crimson Tide's top-rated defense, Stidham was 7-of-9 passing for 106 yards and six first downs.
"It's a testament to his growth as he's played the position throughout the year," Auburn first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said. "He made really good decisions as far as when to pull the ball down and run, and he threw it away a couple of times, which was good. He can throw it, but that was a given, so I think his decision-making is what's been most impressive."
Stidham, who was 16-of-23 for 214 yards and three touchdowns in the 40-17 win over Georgia on Nov. 11, has completed 202 of 295 passes (68.5 percent) for 2,682 yards with 19 touchdowns and five interceptions this season. After beginning his career at Baylor University in 2015 and sitting out last year at McLennan (Texas) Community College, Stidham's debut with the Tigers against Georgia Southern consisted of two passing touchdowns and a rushing score but also an interception and a fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
In his second game, a 14-6 loss at Clemson, he completed 13 of 24 passes for just 79 yards and was sacked 11 times.
"Believe it or not, I actually felt pretty comfortable in the Clemson game, regardless of what happened that night," Stidham said. "Being comfortable in that kind of environment, I actually felt like I was on the way to having success. After that Clemson game was when it really started to hit for me personally, and I've just tried to work as hard as possible to get better every week."
That has included a reduction in sacks, as Stidham was taken down just once for a 4-yard loss in the Iron Bowl.
"It's a collective effort, and a lot of those sacks at Clemson were honestly on me," he said. "I should have just thrown the ball away. Over the course of the season, I think we've gotten a lot better collectively as far as knowing protections and picking everything up."
Against Alabama, the Tigers came out of the gate with three consecutive passes that netted 15 yards. On their second possession, they threw on eight of the first nine plays on a 12-play, 94-yard march that ended with a 3-yard jump pass from running back Kerryon Johnson to Nate Craig-Myers.
Stidham finished the first quarter 12-of-14 for 115 yards, and he could be just as busy in the early stages Saturday, especially if Johnson's shoulder injury renders him out or ineffective against the Bulldogs.
"People put extra guys in the box, and you can't block them all," Lindsey said. "When you play good teams, they're not going to miss tackles, so you've got to have answers for that. Sometimes it's throwing screens on the perimeter. Sometimes it's crossing routes and different things to try and offset some of that, and I think we've improved in that area."
Said Smart: "A lot of their passes sometimes are seven-man protections. When they're protecting with seven, unless you bring eight, you're going to have trouble getting there. They do a good job with mixing up their protections."
In the first half of Alabama's 54-16 thumping of Florida in last December's SEC title game, Stidham posted on Twitter, "Can't wait to be playing on this day next year." A week later, he committed to Auburn.
A year later, he has lived up to his message as one of the nation's hottest and most efficient quarterbacks.
"It really is cool as far as my personal journey and the process of the last two years," Stidham said. "It's been a long ride, and it's really exciting to be in this position."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.