Last offseason, the members of FOX Sports’ Big Noon Kickoff came out with their list of top 5 quarterbacks for the 2020 season. That group of analysts was Urban Meyer, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Joel Klatt, Brady Quinn and Rob Stone.

Somehow, Bush and Stone ranked Bo Nix as their No. 4 quarterback in college football.

It didn’t matter that the previous season, Nix averaged 6.7 yards per attempt and Chad Morris, AKA the guy who ran an Arkansas passing attack that ranked No. 128 in FBS in passing efficiency the previous season, was set to take over as Auburn’s OC. Nix got the offseason buzz as a former 5-star quarterback heading into Year 2 after he had some bright moments as a true freshman starter.

Those preseason expectations were unrealistic. By season’s end, that preseason ceiling looked even more ridiculous, especially when Nix struggled behind an offensive line with just 1 returning starter.

So what would a good 2021 look like for Nix? I’m glad you asked.

Whatever ceiling referenced by at least part of the Big Noon crew last year is no longer there for Nix in Year 1 with Bryan Harsin and Mike Bobo. Part of that is because this is his third offense in as many years.

(If that sentence made you uncontrollably respond with “Jarrett Guarantano,” you’re not alone.)

Instead of inheriting a coordinator who previously ranked No. 128 in passing efficiency, Nix inherited Bobo’s No. 106 passing efficiency ranking. Hey, it’s baby steps.

A baby step for Nix would be correcting the single biggest mistake he made as a passer in his first 2 seasons. That is, his propensity for unnecessarily rolling out of the pocket and making a throw on the run. That correction has to be made before anything else improves with Nix. From the sound of it, he’s well aware of the adjustment he needs to make:

Yep. That checks out.

This was a pretty common occurrence in last year’s offense:

Here’s maybe a better example at the lack of awareness. It’s 3rd-and-5. Nix should able to recognize that he has a 3-man pass rush. Kentucky has a middle linebacker spying him, too. Nix looks at his first read and then tucks and runs outside the pocket to … nowhere:

When Nix doesn’t panic and he keeps his eyes downfield instead of drifting, the plays develops and he’s able to step into a throw using his mechanics instead of making a throw without his feet set:

To get back to the original question (what does a good Nix year look like?), more throws like that are obviously the first goal. That’s mental. That’s trusting that receivers can get separation and that a play can work as it’s supposed to instead of feeling like every play is a covered receiver from turning into Nix improvising.

It’s not breaking news to say that Nix has plenty of room to improve as a passer. Last year, he threw 1 more touchdown pass than Myles Brennan … who played in 3 games. Beyond that, here’s are just a few of the 12 SEC quarterbacks who had a better Pro Football Focus passing grade than Nix’s 66.4:

  • Stetson Bennett IV, Georgia
  • TJ Finley, LSU
  • Max Johnson, LSU
  • Collin Hill, South Carolina
  • Connor Bazelak, Mizzou

That’s not a group Nix should be behind. If he doesn’t make a push into at least the top half of the SEC there, as well as yards/attempt, one would think a new coaching staff won’t have the patience to stick with him for the duration of 2021.

A good Nix season looks like him being the starter for the entire year.

Obviously, that’s assuming he stays healthy. Nix’s durability and toughness has never been in question. For all the criticism Nix received in his first 2 years, that’s something that should always be brought up, even by his harshest critics.

(If that sentence made you uncontrollably respond with “Jarrett Guarantano” once again, you’re not alone.)

The best version of Nix, given the fact that he has a new group of go-to pass-catchers with Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz off the the NFL, would be 2020 Kellen Mond. The Texas A&M signal-caller had massive turnover at the pass-catcher position, but behind an experienced offensive line, he had a solid year for an A&M team that had its best AP Top 25 finish in 81 years.

Of course, Mond was entering Year 3 in Jimbo Fisher’s offense compared to Nix’s aforementioned third offense in as many years. What Mond did better in 2020 than he had at any point in his career was look like the same quarterback no matter where he played. Nix’s home-road splits in his first 2 years were pretty staggering:

Bo Nix career
Completion %
Rushing yards/attempt

That’s basically the same thing as Nix’s numbers in Auburn wins vs. Auburn losses. This is the year that Nix gets to face Alabama and Georgia at home, so even if he doesn’t make a stride as a junior, there probably shouldn’t be as sharp of a contrast. Still, though. The schedule shouldn’t dictate if a third-year SEC starter throws for 6 yards per attempt on a given Saturday (that’s happened 11 times in 24 starts).

Last Wednesday, Nix spoke to media members for the first time this spring. One of the things Nix cited that he was excited “to learn different things, maybe try some different things and, at the end of, the day they’ll put me in a great situation, and I’m confident of that.”

Nix seems like a quarterback who understands that it’s now or never. Sooner or later, it can’t just be the offensive line. It can’t just be the coaching staff. It’s probably worth noting that this year, unlike last, Auburn returns everyone from the offensive line. And this year, Auburn has an established back in Tank Bigsby, whom PFF named the top returning running back in college football.

There are still plenty holding out hope that Nix can develop into an elite SEC quarterback. There are others (myself included) who assumed that the new coaching staff would bring in a transfer and that Nix would find another home. So far, the latter hasn’t happened. There’s no guarantee that’ll remain true throughout this offseason, but based on everything Harsin said publicly, it appears Auburn will ride it out with someone who has more experience than any returning SEC quarterback.

The best version of Nix turns non-believers into believers. It keeps Auburn competitive in the SEC West in a year when it appears the rest of the division is destined for improvement, perhaps with the exception of Alabama. That version of Nix might have the occasional bad game, but he winds up being the steadying hand who helps guide the program through a transition year, and perhaps even leads an above average SEC offense to a top-25 finish in the AP Poll.

Will that happen? Who knows.

Whatever the case, the bar is certainly lower now than it was a year ago.