Dave Matter | St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ATLANTA — Missouri quarterback Drew Lock will gladly trade in touchdowns for victories this season. The record-smashing passer made that clear Wednesday at SEC media days. He wants to play clean, efficient quarterback and deliver wins.

In other words, he wants to be his close friend Jarrett Stidham.

A season ago Lock produced the glitziest passing numbers in the SEC, throwing a conference record 44 touchdowns and an SEC-best 3,964 yards. For the first time at Mizzou, Lock guided the Tigers to the postseason, albeit an uninspired performance against undermanned Texas in the Texas Bowl.

Lock earned first-team All-SEC honors and was named the first-team preseason choice when the media’s ballots were tabulated Friday.

But by some measures — the ones Lock values heading into his senior season — Auburn’s Stidham had the better 2017.

Stidham, a transfer from Baylor, faced the nation’s most difficult schedule last fall — Auburn played Clemson, Alabama and Georgia (twice) and lost to undefeated UCF — but led the Tigers to 10 victories, including wins over both teams that played in the College Football Playoff championship game, Alabama and Georgia. He took Auburn to the SEC championship game for the first time since 2013.

Stidham’s numbers didn’t jump off the stat sheet like Lock’s but signaled more substance than sizzle. Stidham posted the SEC’s best efficiency rating in conference play (159.1), threw 13 touchdowns to just one interception in nine SEC games and logged the league’s best rating in the month of November (176.0) when the season’s stakes are highest.

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Stidham’s best asset might be his accuracy — and that’s what separates him from Lock heading into their senior seasons. Stidham completed 66.5 percent of his passes last year, compared to 57.8 for Lock. Stidham completed 75 percent of his attempts in twice as many games (six) as Lock completed 65 percent (three).

In a league loaded with seasoned players at the game’s most scrutinized position, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn treasures his returning starter.

“From a quarterback standpoint, in this league, experience, there’s nothing like it,” Malzahn said Thursday. “Because the defenses are different than other leagues, and I just really like the way (Stidham) handled himself.

“He’s a very tough young man, mentally and physically. And I think our offense is in very good hands going into this second year.”

So much that Malzahn is handing Stidham more control at the line of scrimmage this season. The defending SEC West champions are breaking in four new starters along the offensive line and must replace first-team All-SEC running back Kerryon Johnson but Stidham decided against entering the NFL draft when Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey granted him audible authority.

“He understands Coach Lindsey’s expectation,” Malzahn said. “He’s like a coach on the field. And toward the end of the year, they were thinking the same, talking the same.”

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“They’ve promised me, ‘Hey, you’re going to have more freedom at the line,'” Stidham said. “Looking back on last year when we had check plays 99 percent of the time I knew what we were doing. I knew what they were looking at up in the box. Now, playing freely and having experience, I know a little more football this year. I know what to expect. I know what the coaches are looking for. I’m anxious to have more control.”

New Missouri offensive coordinator Derek Dooley has redesigned Lock’s offense, adding more passing routes and concepts from his days as an NFL assistant with the Dallas Cowboys while giving Lock some autonomy to change plays and protections at the line. Under Dooley, the Tigers plan to play at a slower pace, which might reduce the team’s offensive possessions and affect Lock’s statistics. But he’s convinced the changes will benefit the team.

“You look at our games (last year) and we either blew people out or lost by a lot,” Lock said. “We needed a way to fix that and I think this offense will help. It’ll help keep the defense fresh. It’s not going to be a two-play drive where we score a touchdown or a three-and-out. We’re going to be able to play winning football.”

Stidham and Lock first met at the Elite 11 passing camp as seniors in high school, then reunited this summer at the same camp where they worked as counselors and roomed together. Last month, they were back together at the Manning Passing Academy, where they served as counselors alongside organizers Eli and Peyton Manning in Thibodaux, La.

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“We spent every minute together at the Manning camp,” Stidham said. “It was good to get to know him better and obviously he’s a close friend of mine and I wish nothing but the best for him. He’s one of the top quarterbacks in the country and I’m looking forward to seeing how he plays this year.”

Just not in person, unless Lock and Stidham return to Atlanta on Dec. 1 — for the SEC championship game. 

This article is written by Dave Matter from St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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