Bo Nix isn't an elite SEC quarterback yet, and I have serious doubts about him becoming one in 2020
When I came out with way-too-early 2020 SEC quarterback rankings in January, I didn’t have Bo Nix in my top 5.
Needless to say, Auburn fans disagreed. And needless to say, they let me know that they disagreed. I resisted to urge to ask them why they disagreed with my belief that Nix doesn’t deserve to be ranked as a top 5 SEC quarterback heading into 2020. As great as Auburn fans are — I truly mean that and promise that isn’t sarcasm — I question if they would have been able to avoid the words “5-star” or “Iron Bowl” in those responses as to why Nix is elite.
It’s true that Nix is a former 5-star recruit, and subconsciously or not, we tend to project big things for 5-star players in Year 2. And it’s also true that he beat Alabama in his first Iron Bowl, and subconsciously or not, we tend to give a quarterback credit for winning a 48-45 game … even if he only completed half of his passes for 5.8 yards per attempt and he was responsible for 2 of his team’s touchdowns (that was as many as Auburn’s defense scored that day).
Am I anti-Nix? Absolutely not. I think you can do much worse than building around a kid with his background and experience. Under the right circumstances, I believe he can have success.
But I’m not of the impression that Nix is elite among SEC signal-callers heading into 2020, nor do I expect that he’ll get there by season’s end.
Let’s start with the here and now. Based on what we’ve seen so far, a few things give me pause to believe that Nix is ready to make that proverbial next step.
If you’re in the pro-Nix camp, you’re probably quick to point out his best wins. They were against Oregon and Alabama. Late in both games, Nix made plays that made Auburn fans breathe a sigh of relief to say “this is our guy.” This play was one of the biggest all year for Auburn:
Bo Nix for six!
Auburn beats Oregon!pic.twitter.com/h6K080MchJ
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) September 1, 2019
Credit a true freshman playing in his first collegiate game for stepping up in the pocket and allowing Seth Williams to make a play. But nothing about that first-read throw screams “elite SEC quarterback,” nor does the fact that Nix’s 42% passing only came in a winning effort because Auburn’s defense held Justin Herbert and the Oregon offense to 1 score in the final 47 minutes.
And though Nix made some big-time throws against Alabama, we’re still talking about a 50% passing performance that only came in a winning effort because the Tigers returned 2 Mac Jones passes for a touchdown.
My point is not to say that Nix played zero part in winning those games. He executed late and did exactly what you’d hope your starting quarterback would do in the 4th quarter. But how much responsibility did Auburn’s defense deserve for what they did to win those games? Plenty. Rushing for an average of nearly 200 yards didn’t hurt, either.
Some might look at that criticism and argue that the same things were said about Jake Fromm after his true freshman season. It’s true that 2017 Georgia relied heavily on that defense and that all-world ground game with Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift. But compare those efficiency numbers between true freshman Fromm and true freshman Nix:
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Nix threw the ball 86 more times than Fromm, yet he had 73 fewer passing yards. Maybe some of that was because of game flow, and my belief that Gus Malzahn wanted to develop Nix by giving him more of those throwing opportunities. The pro-Nix crowd will say “but you have to account for the rushing ability.”
Sure, Nix is mobile and his escapability allows him to get throws off that certain quarterbacks can’t, but how much was that really a part of his ability to move the chains? In 2019, he hit 30 rushing yards in 38% of Auburn’s games. He was ranked No. 49 among FBS quarterbacks with 313 rushing yards last year (an average of 24 yards per game). And for what it’s worth, he was only sacked 17 times last year thanks to that experienced offensive line, so those rather average rushing numbers weren’t skewed from that (Kellen Mond was sacked 31 times and he still finished with 500 rushing yards).
Speaking of that offensive line, that’s one reason I have concerns about Nix moving forward. Last year, Auburn returned all 5 starters. This year, Auburn returns just 1 offensive line starter (that’s another reason anyone making the comparison of Joe Burrow’s Year 1 at LSU to Nix’s freshman season is off the mark). Oh, and Auburn lost both its offensive line coach and their offensive coordinator.
Ah, that brings us to Chad Morris, AKA “the best offensive coordinator in college football,” according to Malzahn.
Morris’ well-documented arrival on The Plains came with the promise that he’d be calling plays. I’d say that’s not ideal for Nix’s outlook in Year 2 as a starter. Why? Last year, Morris led the nation’s No. 128 passing attack in terms of efficiency (out of 130 teams). Even more alarming is that after his successful run at Clemson, he led 1 top-70 scoring offense in his past 5 years on the sidelines, during which he drew up as many victories vs. Power 5 defenses as me (zero).
Most alarming was the fact that Arkansas started 8 quarterbacks the past 2 years (it was 7 in the 22 games that Morris coached in before he was fired).
I want to emphasize that Arkansas was not only blown out by a C-USA team, but by a team whose starting QB transferred from Arkansas, in a game in which neither of the grad-transfer QBs Chad Morris brought in to replace him saw the field. pic.twitter.com/TsuwcB7ref
— Matt Hinton (@MattRHinton) November 9, 2019
The way that Malzahn praised Morris’ background as an offensive mind made it seem like he was a no-brainer hire. Add that all up and it sounds more like Malzahn is trying to catch lightning in a bottle.
I say all that while still believing that Nix is talented, and I’m optimistic about the 2020 outlook for Seth Williams and D.J. Williams (I probably should have mentioned that Auburn’s leading rusher JaTarvious Whitlow being in the transfer portal doesn’t help Nix). But if I’m betting on an SEC quarterback to shine in 2020, there are several situations with more promising situations.
He might not be a 5-star talent, but I’d rather have Kyle Trask working with Dan Mullen and that experienced offensive line after what we saw during Florida’s 11-win season in 2019.
As inconsistent as he is, I think Mond has more ways to beat you than any SEC quarterback (Mond lost the head-to-head but had more than 2.5 times as many scrimmage yards as Nix that day).
Auburn fans might think that Mac Jones doesn’t deserve to be ahead of Nix because Alabama lost the Iron Bowl, but if you can look beyond those 2 costly mistakes you’d see that Jones also averaged 331 passing yards with 3.5 touchdown passes and 66% accuracy against a pair of top 25 defenses away from home to end the season.
Though he’s unproven in the SEC and he’s got entirely new surroundings, Jamie Newman is the top-graded deep-ball thrower returning in America and he’s a more established running threat than Nix.
And as raw as he is as a passer, I’m more optimistic about John Rhys Plumlee in Lane Kiffin’s system after we saw the true freshman rush for over 1,000 yards and double-digit scores as a part-time starter (including an average of nearly 300 scrimmage yards and 3.5 touchdowns against LSU and Alabama).
Every SEC quarterback enters 2020 with a “yeah, but.” The problem for Nix is that those “yeah, buts” created a steeper path to success than what lies ahead for some of his fellow SEC signal-callers.
Maybe he will have a 2013 Nick Marshall-type year and by season’s end, I’ll be banging the drum for why Nix is 1 of the top 5 quarterbacks in America. It wouldn’t be an Auburn success story if it didn’t at least have some element of surprise, right? At this point, yes, it would be a surprise if Nix overcame those aforementioned hurdles en route to becoming one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks.
If you’re all aboard the Nix hype train, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend jumping off and taking cover. Just tap the breaks and temper those 2020 expectations.