Auburn football: Is it time for Gus Malzahn to consider benching Bo Nix?
Let’s be clear: Auburn doesn’t have a quarterback controversy. It’s Bo Nix’s show.
The question for Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris is whether Auburn should have one.
Nix, the 5-star recruit with the Auburn legend bloodlines, surprised many when he won the job last fall over more experienced options like Joey Gatewood, who eventually transferred to Kentucky.
Nix rewarded Malzahn’s faith by leading Auburn to a glorious comeback victory over Oregon in the season-opener but struggled in losses to Florida and LSU, completing only 42% of his passes in those games and tossing 4 interceptions. Still, Nix rallied, and he was instrumental in guiding Auburn to a 48-45 win in the Iron Bowl, accounting for 2 Auburn touchdowns and 217 total yards between his arm and legs. That victory likely cemented SEC Freshman of the Year honors for Nix and left Auburn fans hopeful that their talented young quarterback, who only trailed Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler in the 247Sports recruiting rankings, was ready to turn a corner.
Auburn changed offensive coordinators in the offseason, bringing in Chad Morris, who was brilliant in that role at Clemson. Malzahn insisted it was a good fit, telling SEC Network before the season that “Nix will win a championship before he leaves, and Chad Morris will help make that happen.”
Early returns aren’t promising.
Through 3 games in 2020, Nix’s completion percentage has dipped a percentage point, from 58% to 57%, his yards per attempt has slipped from a below the national average 6.7 to a poor 6.3, and for all the talk about his legs, Nix has managed just 2.8 yards per rush attempt early in 2020, down a yard from his freshman campaign. Rumors of improved accuracy from fall camp appear misplaced. Per Stats Solutions, Nix is 6-for-17 for 96 yards, a touchdown and an interception on intermediate throws of 10-20 yards. In the SEC, only Vanderbilt freshman Ken Seals has been worse.
Morris appears to be doing little to help Nix.
As a freshman, Nix was most successful as a passer in RPO concepts, where he ranked 7th nationally in success rate. Malzahn used these concepts on 24.1% of all Nix’s throws a season ago. This year, Morris has utilized RPOs on only 11% of Nix’s pass attempts. Malzahn insisted in the offseason he was turning the keys of the offense over to Morris. That’s fine, but Morris’ job is to do what’s best for his personnel, and he hasn’t yet with Nix.
This raises the larger question of whether Auburn should consider a change at quarterback.
Forget the boneheaded play that should have resulted in another Auburn loss Saturday at Arkansas.
The truth is that Nix wasn’t quite good enough Saturday well before that moment and colossal break went the way of the Plainsmen. Nix attempted only 8 passes in the first half Saturday as Auburn leaned on its defense and running game to build a 20-12 halftime edge. Overall, outside of an early scoring drive in the 3rd quarter when Nix completed 7-of-7 passes for 72 yards and TD, he was 10-for-21 for 115 yards.
When Gatewood transferred, an early narrative in the offseason was that it was “Bo Nix’s show” and there wasn’t much behind him. That made sense at the time, as the only other scholarship quarterback Auburn had during the winter was Cord Sandberg.
By the time fall camp started, that narrative was no longer accurate. In fact, Malzahn may have built the deepest quarterback room he’s had in his tenure. In addition to Sandberg, the Tigers added Grant Loy, a graduate transfer out of Bowling Green, who has played 29 collegiate games and started 12. There’s a talented true freshman in Chayil Garnett, a 3-star out of Lakeland, a Florida football factory, who can run and throw and has played big-time prep football. There are 2 preferred walk-ons with big arms. The first is Sawyer Pate, who threw for 3,100 yards and 41 touchdowns as a senior at Thompson High in Alabaster, where he won a state championship. The other is Trey Lindsey, who walked on in 2019 from nearby Montgomery Academy and threw for a school-record 48 touchdowns as a senior.
Finally — and perhaps most intriguing — there’s Caylin Newton. You may have heard of his brother Cam. Yes, Newton moved to wide receiver when he transferred to Auburn. But Newton was marvelous at quarterback at FCS Howard, where he threw for 5,061 yards, rushed for 1,257 yards and earned MEAC freshman of the year and Player of the Year honors in 2017 and 2018, respectively. While at Howard, Newton orchestrated what is currently the largest upset based on point-spread in college football history in 2017, when Howard upset UNLV in a game where the Bison were 45-point underdogs. In the 43-40 win, Newton passed for 140 yards, ran for 189 more, and accounted for 3 touchdowns. Newton may not be an answer at quarterback, but on a team searching for playmakers beyond Seth Williams, Tank Bigsby and Anthony Schwartz, he seems like a guy that Morris may want to get the football.
Nix is an immense talent from a physical tools standpoint and he’s an Auburn legacy, which shouldn’t matter but probably does. He is the reigning SEC Freshman of the Year and he won an Iron Bowl as a freshman. He has played extremely well in spots. The problem is to win the championship Malzahn promised Nix would win, he’ll need to play more than a good half here and a good quarter there. Nix will need to show consistency, and this season, he’ll need to show he can adjust to a slightly different scheme.
Auburn is 2-1, should be 1-2, and has 7 games remaining. It’s fair to wonder when, if ever, Nix will run out of time. Malzahn has assembled a deep well of talent behind him. Will Gus have the courage to call on it? Would benching Nix, even if only for a half or two, send a message to Nix that he has to play better to lead this football team? Should Malzahn send that message? If Auburn struggles against Will Muschamp and South Carolina this weekend, the answer to the latter question ought to be yes.