With Gus Malzahn out, don't expect Bo Nix to start another game at Auburn
Rewind almost exactly 16 months ago.
The day was Aug. 20, 2019. Auburn was getting set to play a monumental season-opener against Oregon at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. Several months into a heated quarterback battle, Gus Malzahn did something that hadn’t been done on the Plains since 1946. It was something that Malzahn had never done; he announced that Auburn was starting a true freshman at quarterback.
Bo Nix won the battle. The 5-star true freshman legacy who made his own name in the state as one of its most prolific high school quarterbacks ever won over the coaching staff. Then-offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham had previously praised those roots and how they’d allow Nix to succeed in the high-pressure role:
“He’s all in on Auburn,” offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham said in Aug. 2019. “He’s all in. He’s been born and raised all in. And I think for him, that’s where he finds his comfort zone and being here, which is one of the hardest things to do as a freshman is: Do you feel comfortable?”
Sixteen months later, Nix still isn’t comfortable.
He’s still the quarterback who’s more likely to scramble a total of 40 yards behind the line of scrimmage to throw an incompletion than he is to set his feet and throw a perfect 40-yard pass downfield.
Now, the same coach who rolled the dice on Nix is out of a job, albeit with a cool $21 million on the way. It’s fair to expect that Nix’s days as the Auburn starter are also all but over. That is, assuming Nix wants a chance to live up to that 5-star potential.
It’s true that, as Dillingham said, Nix is all in on Auburn. That’s not debatable. Following in the footsteps of his dad instead of following his own path to one of the blue blood programs that recruited him proves that.
But as his second full season as a starter comes to a close, nobody can deny Nix’s lack of progression.
For the sake of this argument, we can mostly ignore Nix’s freshman season in which he racked up some impressive wins — nobody can ever take Oregon or Alabama away from him — while he also averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt and 24 rushing yards per game.
Nix is currently tied with Myles Brennan for 7th in the SEC with 11 passing touchdowns. Of note, Brennan hasn’t played in a game since Oct. 10. Also of note, it’s currently mid-December.
In 2020, Nix finished his regular season ranked No. 11 in the SEC in quarterback rating behind Ken Seals and Jarrett Guarantano. Collin Hill and Feleipe Franks were the only SEC quarterbacks who took more sacks than Nix, who finished his regular season as Pro Football Focus’ No. 12 graded passer in the league.
What about the rushing, you ask? Nix actually improved in that department. His rushing yards per game went up by about 11.5 yards. Still, Nix finished No. 23 among FBS quarterbacks in rushing, and it was only 35.6 yards per game. And in road games, all but 31 of those rushing yards came against the porous Ole Miss and South Carolina defenses.
Speaking of road games, that’s where the lack of progression is most evident:
It’s fitting that Nix is coming off a road game in which he averaged 3.9 yards per attempt and he completed 47% of his passes. That’s not all on Chad Morris, either.
Why bring all of this up? Because if there’s a section of the Auburn fan base who still believes Nix is part of the future for the next regime, they’re ignoring 2 seasons’ worth of data. They’re be ignoring the fact that he had talented skill players like Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Tank Bigsby. They’re ignoring the likely scenario that Auburn brings in a new offensive mind who has different plans at the starting quarterback position than the guy with 6.7 yards per attempt in 2 separate SEC seasons.
Look at places like Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Mizzou. All 3 of those programs had offensive-minded head coaches take over in 2020. All of them either had an incumbent starter like John Rhys Plumlee or Garrett Shrader, or they had an expected inherited starter from the previous regime like TCU transfer Shawn Robinson at Mizzou. None of those 3 quarterbacks are starting.
I mean, go back to Malzahn when he took over at Auburn. He went to the JUCO ranks and declared ex-Georgia defensive back Nick Marshall his first starting quarterback after a 4-way battle in camp.
Whoever takes over at Auburn likely isn’t going there with Nix as a selling point. And for what it’s worth, that’s not to say that Nix will never become a decent FBS quarterback. There’s talent there, especially as a runner. But what’s the path for Nix to stay and emerge at Auburn under a different regime at Auburn than the one who went all in on him 16 months ago?
Even if Kevin Steele were to get promoted to head coach after years of establishing himself as one of the best defensive minds in the sport, what sort of loyalty would there be to Nix? It’s Nix who put Steele’s defense in tough spots over the last 2 years. And assuming that hypothetical would involve Steele hiring someone to take over the offense, is Nix really a selling point to hiring a top-tier offensive mind? Nah. Tank Bigsby is a selling point. Besides, history tells us that most high-priced offensive minds taking over would either want to start over completely or dip into the transfer portal.
Shoot, it might be more likely to see Hugh Freeze take over and bring Malik Willis back to Auburn than it would be to see Freeze take over and turn to Nix. Assuming Nix doesn’t follow Morris for some strange reason, he’ll be working with his third play-caller in as many years. That’s sure to be brought up in any spin zone argument if Nix plays and doesn’t succeed in 2021 (see: Guarantano, Jarrett).
I’ll agree to disagree on that. I’ve seen enough of Nix over the last 16 months to know that he’s not taking the Tigers to where they want to go, no matter who takes over. Maybe he’ll take some other program where they want to go like Willis did at Liberty. Lord knows the market would be there for a former 5-star quarterback with 2 years of starting experience in the SEC, even if he has yet to finish in the top 80 in FBS in quarterback rating.
A lot happened in the last 16 months. Nix had his highs like the 2019 opener against Oregon, the 2019 Iron Bowl and the 2020 LSU game. Sunday was a low. Upon hearing the news, Nix shared an Instagram post thanking Malzahn for believing in him. Nobody can deny that Malzahn stuck with Nix through thick and thin. To a fault, perhaps.
Now, though, Malzahn is gone. Who knows what’s next for him. Who knows what’s next for Nix. At this point, it’d be a surprise to see Malzahn’s successor all in on Nix.
A new comfort zone awaits.