Gus Malzahn and Bo Nix sent a loud message to the Auburn faithful: We're here to stay
Entering Saturday night, Auburn fans were searching for a few things — a quality SEC win, a dagger to Alabama’s Playoff hopes, possibly a New Year’s 6 berth, etc. It was a somewhat lofty wish list, but hey, it’s Auburn. That’s sort of par for the course on The Plains.
There was another thing that was atop the Auburn fan wish list — a reason to believe in Gus Malzahn and Bo Nix.
It was fair to stay that between boo birds after stalled drives and 5 games of failing to exceed 28 points against ranked foes that there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the future heading into the Iron Bowl. Auburn was quality quarterback play from getting over the hump in their 3 losses, all of which were winnable games.
Doubt about the future? Sure. Skepticism that Auburn could play in a shootout if Alabama’s offense continued to roll despite not having Tua Tagovailoa? Absolutely.
One 48-point, Iron Bowl shootout victory later, Auburn fans got exactly what they wanted.
Malzahn and Nix are the present and the future. Saturday showed exactly why that was the case.
Now to be clear, as I’m sure many have already pointed out after seeing the words “48-point,” Auburn benefited from a pair of pick-6s. And if you want to say that Auburn got the benefit of the doubt with the field goal at the end of the first half after an extra second was added, sure. I suppose Malzahn and Nix, even for the most skeptical person, only gets credit for 31 points.
Alabama was banged up, too. The injuries in the front 7 certainly prevented Nick Saban’s defense from looking as good as we’re used to seeing.
But let’s back up for a second.
That’s still 31 points that Nix helped lead Auburn to against a Saban defense. That’s more points than he and the Auburn offense put up against Oregon, LSU, Florida and Georgia. He still made plays that we haven’t seen all year. Shoot, just look at the drive that tied it at 24-24.
We saw Nix hit Seth Williams with a perfect ball on the left sideline that he caught 1-handed while falling down. We saw Nix somehow float an on-target ball to an open Will Hastings that looked like a scramble and throwaway. We saw Nix end the drive with a pass to Sal Cannella that allowed the lengthy wideout to miraculously tap his toes and avoid the outstretched arms of Patrick Surtain.
Oh, and it’s easier to score a go-ahead touchdown when your skill players are out there taking dudes’ helmets off:
Shaun Shivers, not a fan of helmets. pic.twitter.com/mpyjBbu5wu
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) December 1, 2019
Yes, Nix got help. But the true freshman put his offense in spots in which it could succeed all afternoon. He used his legs better than he has all year against a quality opponent, too. Even though the numbers weren’t gaudy — 217 yards from scrimmage and 2 TDs (1 passing, 1 rushing) — Nix showed the resilience that Auburn fans needed to see from their quarterback of the future.
Finally, there wasn’t doubt about whether Nix and the Auburn could keep up. He kept battling back when Alabama took the lead. And yes, it would’ve been a different type of challenge to keep up with Tagovailoa, but Alabama’s offense still looked plenty dominant. Nix, to his credit, tackled the challenge at hand and unlike Mac Jones, he avoided the colossal mistakes.
More than ever, it looked like he and Malzahn were on the same page. The coach who took play-calling duties back and spent the past 15 months on the hot seat bet all his chips on Nix. It yielded transfers of quarterbacks Malik Willis and Joey Gatewood, both of whom were once believed to have favorable cracks at the starting gig.
Nix made Malzahn’s gamble look like a smart one. Those words haven’t been said or written much since the A&M game, and understandably so. Nix has felt like the thing that’s been holding Auburn back from being a Playoff team. On Saturday, he felt like the thing that helped push Auburn over the top.
(A couple of timely pick-6s and Derrick Brown playing like a man possessed on that last Alabama possession didn’t hurt, either.)
Now, we’ve seen it. The potential is there. It wasn’t just some lucky last-minute pass against Oregon fueling the belief in the offense. Saturday night was Nix and Malzahn’s 2019 peak. What a peak it was.
You got the sense they understood the magnitude of Saturday’s showing once they celebrated after Alabama’s too-many-men-on-the-field penalty. It was anticlimactic from an entertainment standpoint, but it was fitting that Nix got to have a victory formation. Plenty of Auburn quarterbacks have never gotten to witness a sea of people hurdle the hedges — and later roll Toomer’s Corner — after an Iron Bowl victory.
Nix earned that moment. Malzahn did too for sticking with the ups and downs of Nix’s freshman season.
Who knows if Nix will follow in the steps of former true freshmen starters like Jalen Hurts, Trevor Lawrence and Jake Fromm, all of whom also had their share of tough moments in their first seasons (maybe not Lawrence). Surely their successes factored into Malzahn’s decision to name Nix QB1 in the middle of fall camp. He saw Nix as the face of the program.
Now, as Brown and Marlon Davidson take their oversized talents to the NFL, Auburn’s identity is going to shift again. This is Nix’s team. Saturday was the perfect launching point for the Auburn offense. It was the performance fans were waiting for, some more patiently than others.
Malzahn isn’t going anywhere. Nix isn’t going anywhere, either.
Welcome to your future, Auburn fans.