Auburn football: It's not rocket science. Gus Malzahn's Tigers rarely lose when they reach this balance. They rarely win when they don't
Through 4 games, the Auburn offense ranks 12th in the SEC in scoring, 10th in passing yards, 7th in rushing yards and 2nd in offensive penalties.
Gus Malzahn, hired in 2013 for his offensive ingenuity with the RPO, established an Auburn brand of running the ball first, QB included, and passing when necessary.
Malzahn changed things up for his 8th season, hiring Chad Morris as OC and handing over play-calling responsibilities. And just like the majority of the SEC, Morris has embraced the aerial game, shifting away from a run-centric offense. The Tigers have departed from passing on just 37.4% of plays in the last 5 seasons to now throwing 52.6% of the time. The rush attempts have dropped by over 6 carries a game from last year.
It’s made sense for many programs to similarly throw more often when teams have quarterbacks like Mac Jones, Matt Corral or Kyle Trask capable of shouldering the load. Specifically, those QBs have explosive weapons to throw to, which in theory, so too does Auburn with Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove.
So what’s the difference? It’s Bo Nix. Nix isn’t a bad player. He just needs to be used differently, and so too do the running backs. Pro Football Focus College has Tank Bigsby as the 2nd-highest graded running back in the country, and yet Auburn fails to find every way possible to feed the freshman the ball.
Highest-graded rushers in College Football:
1. Khalil Herbert, VA Tech – 92.2
2. Tank Bigsby, Auburn – 91.2
3. DeAndre Torrey, N Texas – 91.1
4. Javonte Williams, UNC – 89.3 pic.twitter.com/XLcT21K5LD
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 20, 2020
With the offensive system in need of a quick overhaul, here’s what conditions have worked best for Nix and Auburn teams coached by Malzahn:
Of Nix’s 5 highest-rated games against SEC opponents, he threw the ball more than 28 times once. Auburn rushed at least 41 times in 4 of those games and had a record of 5-0. During those games, Auburn never averaged fewer than 5.6 yards a play.
Similarly, in Nix’s 5 lowest-rated games when he threw at least 30 passes, the Tigers were 1-4 and only averaged north of 5.1 yards a play once.
Against SEC opponents when Nix throws less than 26 times and the Tigers rush at least 40 times, Nix is 3-0. Malzahn is 23-2 under those same conditions.
Nix has thrown at least 40 passes in a game 4 times, accounting for over half of the games in Malzahn’s tenure that a QB has done such, and hasn’t had much success with a 1-3 record.
It doesn’t take a mathematician to see a trend develop.
Breaking Nix’s games against Power 5 foes into 4 tiers (40+ passes, 31-39 passes, 26-30 passes and 25 or fewer), his winning percentage increases in descending order of tiers from 25%, to 50%, to 60% and then 100%.
These trends are nothing new for Malzahn. Utilizing the same passing tiers, Malzahn’s winning percentage against SEC opponents goes from 17% with 40+ passes, to 25%, to 68% and then 80% when his team throws it 25 or fewer times.
All of this is to say don’t try to fit a square peg in a round hole.
College football is a copycat league, but it’s OK to buck the trend if it works. Auburn doesn’t have a Tua Tagovailoa or Joe Burrow. It doesn’t have the offensive line to consistently hold a pocket, and even on the few occasions that it does, Nix won’t use it.
Nix doesn’t have to be “the chosen one.” Nick Marshall wasn’t — heck, he played in the NFL as a cornerback. But he had a fine career with a 19-7 record and a trip to the BCS National Championship as Auburn’s run-first quarterback. He threw around 20 passes a game while he, Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne rushed for over 49 carries a game.
There’s no reason this year’s Auburn team and the 2021 version has to be any different than its predecessors with Nix as the QB and Bigsby and Co. getting the workload out of the backfield.
Not only does it make sense from an offensive standpoint, but ball control will be crucial with games still against Ole Miss, LSU and Alabama. The last thing Auburn needs is for Nix to be forced to sling it in a shootout. He has thrown for over 250 yards just 3 times.
On the bright side, Auburn has 4 games remaining against defenses in the bottom half of the SEC (Ole Miss, LSU, Tennessee, Texas A&M). But if the discussion remains much of the same come December, it may actually be time for some coaching changes.