Then — suddenly — it all clicked.
Stafford stepped onto the field at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, facing a championship-minded team ranked No. 5 and a nearly two-touchdown favorite. Over the next three-plus hours, he delivered the sort of performance that everyone in red and black had been longing to see from one of the nation’s most heralded recruits.
With one game, Stafford turned his career around. Today, he’ll get a chance to face the Tigers again in a bit of role reversal.
"His best is yet to come," coach Mark Richt promised.
These days, Stafford is a calm and collected sophomore who’s helped position No. 10 Georgia for a run at another Southeastern Conference championship. But the Bulldogs (7-2, 4-2) will have to get by 18th-ranked Auburn, which has been eyeing this game ever since its humiliating 37-15 loss last season.
"It was just a bad game all around," Tigers quarterback Brandon Cox said. "This is one we’ve had circled for a whole year. We’re just ready to get back out there and play them again."
To claim a spot in the SEC title game, Georgia needs to win its final two conference games — Auburn and next week’s home finale against Kentucky — and hope that Tennessee loses one of its final three conference games, which are against Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. The Vols hold a tiebreaker edge over the Bulldogs because of their 35-14 win in Knoxville last month.
Auburn (7-3, 4-2) is virtually eliminated in the SEC West, needing to win out against Georgia and Alabama while first-place LSU would have to lose both its remaining conference games against lowly Mississippi and Arkansas. A tie in the division would do Auburn no good because of its last-second loss at LSU three weeks ago.
Still, the Tigers don’t have to be in the title hunt to get fired up for the Deep South’s longest-running rivalry. This is the 111th meeting between the schools, and the closeness of the series is demonstrated by the total scores: Georgia leads by all of 20 points, 1,685-1,665.
Since Auburn recruits heavily in its neighboring state, these teams know each other as well as anyone.
"I grew up a Georgia fan," said Auburn linebacker Tray Blackmon, a native of LaGrange, about 15 miles east of the Alabama line. "I’m for them until we play them."
The dividing line of Stafford’s development falls directly on last year’s game against Auburn.
Before that day on the Plains, he had completed just over half his passes and been picked off 12 times, while throwing only four TDs. He looked totally lost in back-to-back losses to Florida and Kentucky, giving little indication that he could lead the struggling Bulldogs to a win over a team as highly ranked as Auburn.
But, with a big hand from a turnover-forcing defense, Stafford looked as smooth as a senior. He completed 14-of-20 for 219 yards and a touchdown. He ran for a career-best 83 yards on seven carries, scoring a TD.
Stafford went on to lead the Bulldogs to wins over Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech before 2006 was done, and he’s kept up his progress this year. Over his last 12 games, essentially a full season, he’s completed 56 percent for 2,317 yards, with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Asked what he considers his biggest improvement, Stafford answers quickly.
"Turnovers," he said. "Keeping the ball on our side. Just being able to manage a game better than I could last year."
For much of Stafford’s freshman season, the Bulldogs had to dumb down the offense so their young quarterback wouldn’t be totally overwhelmed. That’s not the case this year. The Bulldogs definitely seem to be hitting their offensive stride, scoring 86 points in their last two games with nearly perfect balance between running and passing.
"I’m being smarter with the ball," Stafford said. "It just comes from experience, really. Last year, I had more picks than I had ever thrown just because I didn’t know a lot of times what was going on. The more you know, the better you’re going to play."
Led by redshirt freshmen Knowshon Moreno, Georgia rushed for 436 yards in its last two wins over Florida and Troy, while Stafford threw for 442 yards. Also give credit to a young offensive line that is quickly growing up, now that its two true freshmen and one redshirt freshman have nine games under their belts.
"There’s really no limit on what we can do," Richt said.
There’s no limit on how much Auburn would like to spoil Georgia’s season, especially after what happened a year ago. The Tigers still sound a bit dumbfounded at how poorly they played with so much on the line.
"It’s kind of more fuel to the fire," senior Quentin Groves said. "We let our guard down. We saw they had lost to Kentucky and lost to Vandy and ... we thought we’d just roll through it. It’s not going to be like that this year."