Forget the refs: Bigsby keeping Auburn out of the tank in 2020
In the instant reaction social media world we live in, the freshest hot take out there is that Auburn should be 1-4.
I get it. There’s no question that Auburn should have lost to Arkansas when Bo Nix threw a backward pass attempting to spike the clock. The refs got that wrong and it immediately and materially impacted the outcome of the game. The SEC even said so the following week.
I’m sympathetic to the Ole Miss claim, too, though a bit less so. Yes, the SEC said that their referees and replay crew again got it wrong, and that it should have reviewed a play where an Auburn player touched a kickoff and Ole Miss appeared to recover for a touchdown. But in that game, Auburn still had to drive the length of the field to win the game. And Ole Miss got the football back and failed to score. Bad calls happen, so spare me the hot takes.
Whine about refs all you want. If you want to talk football instead, let’s do that. Here’s a reality: Whether you think Auburn is a legitimate 3-2 or not, the biggest reason they haven’t gone in the tank in 2020 is a true freshman named Tank.
Tank Bigsby, a consensus top 50 recruit and high 4-star from LaGrange, Georgia, has been far and away the most effective part of Auburn’s offense in 2020. Bigsby leads the Tigers in explosive plays, with a total of 13 runs of 10 yards or more on the season.
Further, while you’d expect a running back named “Tank” to be a bit bigger than 6-0, 200 pounds, Bigsby runs with a brusing physicality that suits his name:
The stiff arm 😱
The diving TD 👀
TANK. BIGSBY. pic.twitter.com/NDethhkXkI
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 24, 2020
Bigsby also shows outstanding vision — he’s made 31 defenders miss on 85 total touches, a number that ranks in the top 5 in the SEC per touch, according to Stats Solutions. He leads SEC running backs in yards gained after contact and most broken tackles per 25 rushing attempts as well, both remarkable accomplishments for a true freshman.
Tank Bigsby is running over SEC defenders at an incredible rate pic.twitter.com/eiJSeG2jRH
— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) October 26, 2020
Bigsby’s blend of physicality and elusiveness are why he’s been able to succeed despite running behind an inexperienced offensive line that has not produced consistent leverage or push. Bigsby grades out at 8th among all college running backs, per PFF, ahead of such household names as Travis Etienne of Clemson and Chuba Hubbard of Oklahoma State. Bigsby ranks 3rd in the SEC in total rushing yards (432), and at 5.8 yards per carry, trails only Isaiah Spiller of Texas A&M for the SEC lead in that category.
It’s hard to know what the future holds for Auburn in 2020. There’s not really a “lock” of a win left on the schedule — and dates against rivals LSU and Alabama beckon over the course of the next month. But what’s become clear is that as Bo Nix struggles to adjust to Chad Morris’ offense, the workload and demands the Tigers will place on their Tank will only increase.
Against Ole Miss, Tank carried a season-high 24 times, tallying 129 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns and breaking 11 tackles in the process. That shows the increasing trust the staff has in the freshman, and it’s likely no coincidence that Nix’s best game of 2020 came on a Saturday where the Tigers were a “Tank first” offense.
Despite facing only SEC defenses, Bigsby already is climbing the Auburn record books in terms of freshmen production. By season’s end, Bigsby is on pace to at least threaten Michael Dyer’s Auburn freshman record of 1,093 yards rushing — and in fewer games. Bigsby has already joined Bo Jackson and Dyer as the only freshmen in Auburn history to tally 100 yards rushing in 3 or more games.
Tank Bigsby has 432 rushing yards as a freshman this season, 16th most in Auburn history. He surpassed Ben Tate and Brad Lester, among others, in the Auburn rushing yards as a freshman leaderboard. Another 100 yards will launch him from 16th to 9th.
— joshdub (@joshdub_) October 26, 2020
Will Bigsby’s emergence steady Nix?
Saturday suggested yes, but that came against an Ole Miss defense that has struggled in every game it has played. One thing it should do is open up RPOs, which have been good to Nix in his young career. Nix’s success rate in RPO pass concepts is 53%. His success rate on other pass plays is only 47%. With the threat of Bigsby looming, Morris should begin to utilize the RPO concept more than the 14% of Auburn snaps we’ve seen him use it this season and closer to the 25% Gus Malzahn deployed last year in helping Nix earn SEC Freshmen of the Year honors.
Tank’s talents should also continue to free things up for Seth Williams on the outside. If Auburn can consistently pound the middle of the field — and the Tigers have managed 5,9 yards a pop on runs inside or to the left with Tank in 2020 — defenses are more likely to cheat safeties toward the line of scrimmage. This potentially means safeties stay home on RPO concepts, instead of helping on Williams. A mismatch nightmare who simply overwhelms corners, Williams is almost impossible to contend with in the absence of safety help.
In other words, Tank makes everyone around him better, precisely the type of difference-maker the Tigers have been searching for. With Bigsby leading the way, Auburn finally is showing signs of being the diverse and balanced offense many anticipated given the way the Tigers closed the 2019 regular season with a potent offense and win in the Iron Bowl.
Regardless of coordinator or staff, a great Auburn offense tends to begin with a battering ram of a running back who stresses defenses and forces safeties to cheat. For the first time since Kerryon Johnson, the Tigers clearly have a bellcow. Referee help or no, Auburn’s Tank should keep a season on the brink from going in the tank.