Just a little over a week ago, on a sun-splashed September Saturday in the loveliest little village on The Plains, Auburn looked like a football team with a very high 2020 ceiling.

Playing a physical Kentucky team that has NFL talent on both lines of scrimmage, Auburn’s offensive line protected Bo Nix, allowing the quarterback to make strong, accurate throws, including 3 touchdown passes. Auburn appeared to have an unstoppable playmaker in Seth Williams, and there were flashes that Anthony Schwartz, himself a human Flash, was developing nicely under new offensive coordinator Chad Morris.

Meanwhile, Auburn’s perennial program strength, its defense, looked steady. Kevin Steele’s unit limited an outstanding Kentucky run game to just 3.5 yards per carry and looked like it wouldn’t skip much of a beat despite the colossal losses of Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson, and Nick Coe up front.

It was a fun Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium and sent Auburn into Athens and the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry feeling confident, a trendy national upset pick.

What a difference a week makes.

No. 3 Georgia flattened Auburn 27-6 in a game much even less competitive than the unflattering final score.

In the game’s aftermath, the trendy thing to do, both among national analysts and fans, was to blame Auburn sophomore quarterback Bo Nix.


I get it, by the way. The numbers don’t lie.

But before you bury the 2019 SEC Freshman of the Year and call for Gus Malzahn to make a change, hear this. Auburn’s problems on offense run a lot deeper than Bo Nix.

Take the curious image PFF used to accompany Nix’s woeful downfield passing numbers. In that one image, Georgia linebacker Nolan Smith is about to eat Nix’s lunch.

If you looked hard enough, you could find a bunch of those. In fact, Nix had a clean pocket on only 47.2% of Auburn’s 40 pass attempts Saturday night at Sanford Stadium. That was the lowest number in the SEC, and LSU’s front seven just played a Vanderbilt team with a freshman quarterback. Auburn’s offensive line, which looked promising against a physical, talented Kentucky front, was overwhelmed by Georgia.

No offensive line in America lost more returning starts than Auburn, which lost 160 — that’s not a misprint — career starts this offseason. Some growing pains were expected, as only Nick Brahms returned as a starter. The problem was complicated even further by the lack of spring and summer practice time, with COVID-19 protocols preventing the unit from getting vital repetitions to gel and learn the intricacies of Chad Morris’s blocking scheme. Opening the season with Kentucky and Georgia, two of the league’s toughest defensive fronts, was a challenge borne of COVID, and a far more demanding ask than a September of Alcorn State, North Carolina, at Ole Miss and Southern Miss would have been.

But it should have been better for Nix Saturday night, and most every time the sophomore threw off his back foot, he did so because he was under intense pressure. Even on Auburn’s successful plays, like the one below, Nix was running for his life.

That’s tough on any young quarterback, but especially hard on one still acclimating to a new set of demands under a new offensive coordinator. Ultimately, the pressure got to Nix mentally, causing some poor throws and eventually, Nix’s first interception in over 230 throws, which was the 2nd-best mark in the Power 5 (Trevor Lawrence).

That Nix entered the 2020 season with work to do as a passer was never a secret, and we shouldn’t act like it is after one bad performance against Georgia. Nix produced 23 touchdowns as a freshman, but his numbers were heavily inflated given Malzahn’s affinity for RPOs. In only 2 games under Morris, Auburn has used RPO schemes 18% less than under Malzahn in 2019, per Stats Solutions. That begs the additional question: Does the Chad Morris offense set up Bo Nix to succeed?

The answer to that question isn’t clear, but last season, no quarterback in the SEC, even the RPO king Tua Tagovailoa, topped Nix’s 24.1% RPO throw rate. Auburn used RPO designs on 35% of its plays last year, and Nix was 3rd in success rate in the SEC on those concepts. He fell to 7th in passing success rate on all throws overall.

In other words, there are certain types of RPO plays that work well with Nix, and he’s still figuring it out when it comes to other concepts. Auburn’s offense, when catered to Nix’s strengths, still has the bulk of the playmakers that posted 40+ points to win the Iron Bowl last November. There are weapons, like surefire NFL early rounder Williams and the emerging Schwartz, who should come together and put up points. But Morris has to put Nix in positions to succeed, and he didn’t do that Saturday evening in Athens.

Morris was a fascinating hire. He failed spectacularly at Arkansas and his scheme isn’t entirely consistent with Malzahn’s.

Still, while Auburn’s offenses, at least from an S&P+ standpoint and yards per play standpoint, improved modestly after Rhett Lashlee’s departure in 2016, the improvement wasn’t striking. In 2018, Auburn did reach the top 20 in S&P+ offense and top 40 in yards per play for the first time since 2014; the Tigers finished 19th and 32nd in each category, respectively. But last year, talk of “new Gus” fizzled, as the Tigers dipped to 34th in S &P+ and a Malzahn-era worst 78th nationally in yards per play.

Can Morris fix it, and do so with Nix? We will find out soon. The schedule softens in the next 3 weeks, but that stretch includes games against quality secondaries in Arkansas, with great safeties in Jalen Catalon and hybrid Bumper Pool, and South Carolina, with terrific corners in Israel Mukuamu and Jaycee Horn.

Given how tight the Kentucky game was for stretches, it’s clear Auburn doesn’t have much room for error. How Malzahn and his staff adjust to this reality will define Auburn football in 2020.