Hand up.

If you had asked me to speak about Bo Nix or the Ole Miss defense before the 2021 season, I would’ve said some not-so-nice words. Nix, I predicted, was out as Auburn’s starting quarterback once Gus Malzahn was fired. Ole Miss’ 2020 defense, I said, couldn’t even tackle at a Pop Warner level.

Let me be the first to say that 2021 is much different from 2020.

As that relates to Nix, he’s more poised in the pocket, he’s a more dynamic playmaker when plays break down and he’s significantly more reliable on the road than he was under the previous Auburn regime (more on that later). Mike Bobo’s offense did indeed produce the best version of Nix, and even if it isn’t necessarily a version that has Cam Newton-level upside, it’s still one that can win a bunch of football games in the most challenging division in college football.

As for the 2021 Ole Miss defense, it tackles at an SEC level, it isn’t out of position constantly and it can actually do the heavy lifting. It produced its best SEC performance of the Lane Kiffin era in a win against LSU, which was a week removed from holding a top-20 Tennessee offense to 11 points less than its season average.

Dare I say, Saturday’s SEC West showdown between Ole Miss and Auburn is the “something’s gotta give” game that the 2020 version of myself would’ve never believed. And like all quality, late-season SEC West showdowns in 2021, there are New Year’s 6 bowl implications on the line.

Oh, and in case you’re into that sort of deal, the all-important title of “this week’s No. 2 team in the SEC West” is also up for grabs.

If you had used “broken” to describe Nix or the Ole Miss defense in 2020, you would’ve been well within your rights.

Both parties had their fair of defenders who pointed to other culprits for their shortcomings. For Nix, it was the poor offensive line, Chad Morris or Gus Malzahn. For the Ole Miss defense, it was the pandemic, the new system and the non-complementary offense. Nix finished No. 11 among qualified SEC signal-callers in quarterback rating. Ole Miss was dead last in scoring defense.

Compare the year-to-year differences and you’ll be surprised that Nix’s numbers really aren’t a whole lot different outside of a few things (I’m only doing against Power 5 competition because that’s all SEC teams faced in 2020):

Bo Nix vs. Power 5
2020
2021
Passing yards/game
219.5
237.3
Completion percentage
59.9
59.3
QB rating
123.9
118.4
Sacks taken/game
1.9
1.0
Points/game on road
20.0
27.3
Road TD-INT
3-6
3-1

Ah, you see there? The road numbers. That’s what’s been most encouraging. And keep in mind that those 3 road games this year were against Penn State (No. 6 scoring defense), Arkansas (No. 8 pass defense in FBS) and LSU (no Auburn QB had won there in the 21st century). Nix doesn’t have a pad-the-stats road game against Vandy or Mizzou in there.

Of course, Saturday is at home, where Nix has been at his best throughout his career. That point just illustrated that the biggest knock on Nix coming into 2021 seems to have been figured out.

It’d be premature to say that Ole Miss’ defense is entirely figured out, but the last 2 weeks with a healthier group were certainly encouraging.

Think about this. In the last 2 games, Ole Miss held Tennessee to 26 points and LSU to 17 points. Last year in 9 games against SEC competition, Ole Miss only held 2 opponents to fewer than 33 points. They were against Vandy, who had the worst Power 5 offense in America, and MSU, who had the No. 13 offense in the SEC … and both of those teams actually scored more points than their season averages against Ole Miss.

In fact, of the 9 SEC teams that Ole Miss faced in 2020, every single one of them scored more than their season averages. In 2021, Ole Miss faced 4 SEC teams and Arkansas was the only team that scored above its season average.

Yeah, that’s wild.

It’s by no means an elite SEC defense — Ole Miss still only ranks No. 11 in the league in scoring defense — but it’s absolutely improved. In addition to having a guy like Maryland transfer Chance Campbell in the middle of that defense, part of the reason the past 2 games have seen such a turnaround could be attributed to the return of safety Jake Springer. The Navy transfer played against Louisville, Tennessee and LSU. Coincidence that those were the 3 best defensive games of the year for Ole Miss? Probably not. Springer is graded as the No. 7 SEC safety on PFF, but like fellow 2020 transfer defensive back Otis Reese, he plays all over the place. This is his snap count:

  • Box: 65
  • Free safety: 58
  • D-Line: 26
  • Slot CB: 17
  • Wide CB: 3

That allows Springer to be in the right place at the right time, like he was on that strip sack of Max Johnson on Saturday:

With Springer forced to sit in 2020 because of NCAA transfer rules, Reese was really the only guy who could do that last year for Ole Miss, and he was stuck in SEC transfer purgatory until the end of the season. Kiffin had this great quote about Springer’s impact after the LSU game (via Rebel Walk).

“Just a few weeks ago, sitting here really not stopping Arkansas. Jake Springer has a lot to do with it (improvement). He’s kind of like Matt on offense. Players feed off him.”

The emotional leader of that group, linebacker MoMo Sanogo, told me in the offseason that the defense was finally holding its own and getting stops against the high-octane Ole Miss offense. No longer could Kiffin predict a play would result in a touchdown knowing that the defense really wasn’t prepared to stop it.

And for all the talk in the offseason about Nix being a more natural fit in Bobo’s offense than Malzahn’s offense, we’re actually seeing that play out.

The question is which side will continue their 2021 turnaround on Saturday.

Perhaps both will have their moments and it’ll instead come down to the health of Corral against an Auburn defense that improved lately itself. Whatever the case, there’s no denying that without defensive improvement, Ole Miss wouldn’t be in the top 10 in the Associated Press Top 25 and without Nix’s Year 3 strides, Auburn wouldn’t be on the cusp of a top-15 ranking for the first time in the Bryan Harsin era.

Hand up. I can’t say I thought I’d type that sentence in 2021.