Two college football seasons are on the brink for a pair of Texas teams, forcing two coveted freshman quarterbacks into the spotlight this week for very different reasons.
Barring shocking news on the medical front, the College Football Playoff hopes for No. 2 Baylor (7-0) will rest on the shoulders of Jarrett Stidham, who played last season for Stephenville High School. Postgame X-rays and a CT scan showed Bears starter Seth Russell, a fourth-year junior who leads the nation in touchdown passes (29), fractured a bone in his neck during Saturday’s 45-27 victory over Iowa State. School officials announced that Russell will see a specialist this week.
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No timetable has been set regarding Russell’s projected recovery time. But it’s difficult to envision any player diagnosed with a fractured neck bone returning to action this season, much less by the Bears’ next game, Nov. 5 against Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan. That puts Stidham, who has completed 24 of 28 passes (85.7 pct.) in limited duty this season, in control of the Bears’ offense heading into the season-defining November stretch.
Asked about his team’s situation heading into this week’s well-timed open date, Baylor coach Art Briles did not sugarcoat his message in Saturday’s postgame news conference.
“It’s all about health. That’s it,” said Briles, who also is concerned about an Oct. 17 ankle injury sustained by defensive tackle Andrew Billings that kept him out of the Iowa State game. “I think the next six to eight days will determine a lot of that. If we can walk into the stadium in Manhattan with everybody suited up and ready to go, then we’ll be like we want to be. But if we’re not, we’ll just have to figure out a way to be like we want to be.”
The focal point of those efforts, from all indications, will revolve around Stidham. A January enrollee, Stidham took part in spring drills after landing at Baylor as one of Texas’ two most-heralded high school quarterback prospects in the 2015 signing class.
It’s all about health. That’s it. I think the next six to eight days will determine a lot.
Baylor coach Art Briles on his team’s playoff outlook
The other, who joined Stidham in receiving four-star acclaim from Rivals.com, is Texas A&M’s Kyler Murray. The Allen High School graduate finds himself in the news, but not because he is viewed as the solution to a struggling A&M attack that managed only one offensive touchdown under starter Kyle Allen during consecutive losses to No. 7 Alabama (41-23) and No. 19 Ole Miss (23-3).
Instead, the issue is why Murray, the team’s season-long backup, was bypassed Saturday in favor of third-teamer Jake Hubenak, a junior-college transfer and former walk-on at Oklahoma State, when Allen was benched during a loss to Ole Miss.
Some reports cited a disrespectful response from Murray toward offensive coordinator Jake Spavital during the Alabama loss as a factor in Saturday’s decision about playing time.
Regardless, the setback eliminated the Aggies (5-2, 2-2 SEC) as realistic SEC title contenders and removed them from Sunday’s updated college football polls. A separate issue is why A&M coaches needed to watch Allen, who injured his throwing shoulder against Alabama, throw his final 22 passes without a completion for positive yardage against Ole Miss before he was lifted from the lineup.
During his postgame interview in Oxford, Miss., A&M coach Kevin Sumlin downplayed questions about any disciplinary action toward Murray. He also channeled his inner Allen Iverson while explaining the decision to play Hubenak after Allen (12 of 34, 88 yards) was benched, dropping the word “practice” five times in the first 90 seconds of his interview with reporters at the game.
“We got whipped. Offensively, we couldn’t move the ball,” said Sumlin, adding that the decision to bypass Murray was “based on practice, how practice had been going.” Asked specifically about disciplinary issues regarding Murray, Sumlin reiterated that his call was “based on practice” and indicated things could change this week. Depending, of course, on what happens in A&M’s closed practices.
Bottom line: There seems to be more at play in the Murray decision than just a bad week at practice. But until Sumlin shares the details, that’s the reason offered for public consumption.
85.7 Completion rate for Baylor QB Jarrett Stidham (24 of 28) in his freshman season
The irony is that, seven games into the college careers of last year’s top Texas-based QB recruits, a change of starting quarterbacks could be imminent at both schools. But Murray seems to be burying himself on the A&M bench while Stidham is about to be handed the keys to the Ferrari that is the Baylor offense.
54.8 Completion rate for Texas A&M QB Kyler Murray (17 of 31) in his freshman season
While it would be unrealistic to expect the Bears to maintain their current FBS-best pace in scoring (61.1 avg.) and total yards (686.1 per game) under Stidham, this much is true: Stidham has a higher passing efficiency rating this season (255.7) than Russell (189.7), albeit on far fewer attempts. He has all the attributes you’d expect from one of Texas’ elite QB prospects.
With an off week to prepare for a possible Nov. 5 start at K-State, Stidham may shine brightly in that setting. He’s been an asset in cameo appearances this season, with a 6-0 ratio of TD passes to interceptions, and will be surrounded by a veteran line and multiple proven playmakers.
While Bears cornerback Ryan Reed expressed concern about carrying on without Russell, if that becomes Baylor’s reality, he echoed the thoughts of teammates who plan to fight to preserve their playoff dream.
“Our offense has depth. I hope he [Russell] comes back and I hope he’s ready to play,” Reed said. “I also hope Stidham’s ready to step in and make some plays for us.”
As of this week, Stidham seems much closer to the Baylor starting lineup than Murray does at Texas A&M.