TJ Finley rescued Auburn once. With Bo Nix out, he'll have to do it again
Quarterback Bo Nix’s injury may turn a surprisingly good season for Auburn into one it would just as soon forget.
First, Nix should be commended for playing when he thought he was just hurt against Mississippi State on Saturday. Nix hobbled through most of the fourth quarter after being tackled awkwardly late in the third. It’s really no surprise that Nix would react as he did. His toughness has been on display each and every week. His tenacity and dedication to Auburn’s program was evident when he was benched in September then returned as if nothing abnormal had happened. That’s just who Nix is.
Nix, however, isn’t Auburn’s starter for the remainder of the regular season after undergoing surgery on a broken ankle. That means the Tigers will turn to TJ Finley, who led Auburn from the brink of embarrassment in a comeback win over Georgia State on Sept. 25. Finley completed 9-of-16 passes for 97 yards in that game, which included a memorable touchdown in which Finley avoided a handful of Georgia State defenders and threw a strike into the end zone that was caught by Shedrick Jackson. Auburn survived and won the game 34-24 after trailing at halftime 24-12 when coach Bryan Harsin made the switch at quarterback.
Many thought that Finley would continue to be the starter for Auburn moving forward. That wasn’t the case. Nix was back in the starting lineup the next week when Auburn beat LSU. Nix has been the starter ever since. No longer.
Auburn may not lose the most proficient quarterback in the nation, but Nix is still 5th in the SEC with a 130-point passer rating. However, Nix is more than his rating might indicate. Nix is a gutsy quarterback who has a penchant for making highlight plays. He’s also very mobile, which has been important.
Finely also can run, but he’s only shown the willingness to do so when a play completely breaks down as it did at times against Georgia State. In that case, Finley looked like more of a straight-ahead runner whereas Nix has more lateral mobility to keep plays alive in the passing game. Auburn isn’t horrible at protecting the passer, but they sure aren’t great. The Tigers are 5th in the SEC allowing 1.5 sacks per game and 15 sacks so far this season. That number would surely be higher had it not been for Nix’s ability to escape pressure. Can Finley do the same?
Finley seems much comfortable standing in the pocket and surveying the field. He’s a bit statuesque and, therefore, could be an easier target for upcoming defenses. That starts Saturday night at South Carolina. The Gamecocks are tied for 11th in the SEC in sacks this season with 21.
The Gamecocks have been on a bit of a surge recently — relatively speaking. After being 4-4 and coming off 2 consecutive losses, South Carolina beat Florida 40-17 and challenged Missouri last week before losing 31-28 despite clawing back from a 17-point deficit. Is South Carolina a good team? That might be a stretch. However, the Gamecocks haven’t given up on the season and are still fighting for a bowl game. That would be a significant feat for first-year coach Shane Beamer, who took over a program in disarray.
Auburn will have to play a South Carolina team that excels at defending the pass. That’s not good news for Finley. The Gamecocks give up only 186 yards per game passing, which is 2nd in the SEC. South Carolina allows opposing passers a 126-point passing rating, which is 4th.
Finley may overcome all of that. He has the ability and a stronger arm than Nix.
It’s Finley’s opportunity to make sure Auburn finishes the season in respectable fashion.
Auburn was a considerable favorite to beat South Carolina before Nix was ruled out for the remainder of the regular season. Now, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will win. Auburn is already 6-4 with the South Carolina game and Alabama remaining. The Crimson Tide will be a heavy favorite to win the Iron Bowl. However, 7 wins could get Auburn into a much better bowl. Seven wins would also mean that Finley saved a season that is currently hanging in the balance.