Gus Malzahn believes Auburn will win championships with Bo Nix at quarterback
AUBURN — Bo Nix won two Class 6A state championships at Pinson Valley High School, in his junior and senior seasons. This past Saturday, the quarterback won an Iron Bowl to cap his freshman season at Auburn.
So, a reporter asked him after the game, how does the latest victory compare to the first two?
“Obviously,” Nix answered with a smile, “that makes it three state championships.”
Nix completed 15 of 30 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown and carried the ball six times for 44 yards and another score during Auburn’s 48-45 victory over Alabama in the annual cross-state rivalry game. In doing so, he joined two exclusive clubs.
He’s one of just six quarterbacks that have beaten the Crimson Tide over the past five seasons, joining Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham and LSU’s Joe Burrow. He’s one of just two true freshman quarterbacks to ever beat a Nick Saban-coached Alabama team, joining Lawrence (who did it in last season’s national championship game) and Mississippi State’s Wesley Carroll (who did it during Saban’s first season in 2007).
Gus Malzahn thinks there is much more to come from Auburn’s true freshman quarterback.
“He's got something special to him. He'll win a championship — I told you that this week — before he gets out of here,” the head coach said Saturday. “With his leadership, the moment's not too big. He's got real good command. When he makes a mistake, he owns up to it: 'Hey, I'll make up for it.' He's got the special traits.
“I think the future is going to be a lot of fun with him leading us.”
There are reasons to believe that.
Nix had more bright spots than bad games
If you judge Nix based on what Lawrence did during his true freshman season at Clemson in 2018, you might come away underwhelmed. Lawrence completed 65.2% of his passes for 3,280 yards, 30 touchdowns and four interceptions in 15 games on his way to a national championship. Nix is at 57% completion, 2,366 yards, 15 touchdowns and six interceptions through 12 games.
But that’s not exactly a fair comparison. Both were five-star recruits in their respective classes, but Lawrence is a generational sort of prospect, considered by many to be one of the best of the last 20 years in terms of recruiting rankings. And Nix’s totals, despite being lower, have been record-setting — he now ranks first in program history in passing yards, attempts, completions and touchdowns by a freshman, breaking the marks set by Stan White in 1990.
Nix has been a threat on the ground, too — take out sacks, and he has carried 76 times for 434 yards (5.7 per attempt) and seven touchdowns.
The biggest knock against Nix this season has been his play away from home, specifically in a neutral-site game against Oregon (his college debut) and road games at Texas A&M, Florida and LSU. He completed just 51 of 113 passes in those games (45.1%) for an average of 144.8 yards and threw five touchdowns to six interceptions. The Tigers beat the Ducks (on Nix’s game-winning touchdown pass to Seth Williams in the final seconds) and the Aggies, but they lost at The Swamp and Death Valley.
At home, though, Nix was quite efficient. He completed 62% of his passes for 230.1 yards per game and threw seven touchdowns to zero interceptions. That includes games against Georgia and Alabama. The quarterback helped Auburn to a 9-3 overall record as a true freshman, and the Tigers weren't far off from winning the three they didn't.
If Nix can carry that success into next season and perform better on the road now that he has some experience under his belt, he could make a significant leap as a sophomore.
“Auburn is going to be in good hands,” senior defensive tackle Derrick Brown said. “A lot of people doubt Bo Nix, but you've seen what he's done as a true freshman. At the end of the day, he's a special player.”
Auburn is set to return a ton of skill talent
There will be plenty of questions to answer about the offensive line this offseason. Center Nick Brahms will be back, but the other four players who started in the Iron Bowl — Prince Tega Wanogho, Marquel Harrell, Mike Horton and Jack Driscoll — need to be replaced.
There will be no such concerns at the skill spots, which are brimming with talent. Auburn totaled 354 yards in the Iron Bowl on Saturday. More than 94% of those yards came from players with eligibility remaining, and more than 85% came from underclassmen.
At running back, the Tigers will lose reliable senior Kam Martin but return JaTarvious Whitlow (147 carries, 739 yards, nine touchdowns), D.J. Williams (79 carries, 387 yards, two touchdowns) and Shaun Shivers (52 carries, 277 yards, three touchdowns). And that’s just the start — Auburn loves four-star true freshman Mark-Antony Richards, who missed the entire 2019 season with a knee injury but should be healthy in 2020; and will add five-star Hogansville, Georgia, commit Tank Bigsby provided he signs.
At wide receiver, Nix will still have top weapons Seth Williams (55 catches, 801 yards, eight touchdowns) and Anthony Schwartz (46 touches, 509 yards, three touchdowns). Seniors Will Hastings, Sal Cannella and Jay Jay Wilson will be gone, as will transfer Marquis McClain, but Eli Stove, Matthew Hill and Shedrick Jackson should all return. Auburn also has former four-star Ja’Varrius Johnson coming off injury and an impressive class of 2020 commitments led by four-stars Kobe Hudson, Ze’Vian Capers and J.J. Evans.
Only one of those nine returning players (Stove) will be a senior next season.
The SEC could go through a changing of the guard at quarterback
Nix, obviously, was one of the least experienced quarterbacks in the SEC this past season. Next year, he might be one of the most experienced.
Look at Auburn’s conference opponents. Ole Miss and Mississippi State also had true freshman quarterbacks this season (John Rhys Plumlee and Garrett Shrader, respectively), but neither were full-time players like Nix was. Kentucky spent the last few weeks playing wide receiver Lynn Bowden at quarterback because of injuries at the position — former Auburn quarterback Joey Gatewood announced on Thursday that he would transfer there, but he'll likely have to sit out next season. Arkansas employed a quarterback carousel during a very bad 2019 campaign.
LSU will definitely have a new starting quarterback (Joe Burrow is a senior) and Georgia and Alabama both could, as well, if Jake Fromm and Tua Tagovailoa decide to leave school early (a legitimate possibility given their talent). The only team that might be guaranteed to be more experienced at that position than Auburn is Texas A&M, assuming Kellen Mond comes back for his senior season.
That doesn’t mean Auburn will automatically be better than any of those latter four teams. But going through an entire offseason with Nix solidified as the starter with 13 games of experience under his belt — rather than as a true freshman with no experience trying to win the job — certainly gets the team off to a good start.
“You’re taking about a true freshman quarterback that went through a gauntlet. He’s learning against the best defenses in college football, and of course, he played a great game Saturday,” Malzahn said during an appearance on ESPN’s Golic and Wingo on Monday. “We’re going to win championships with him. He’s a championship quarterback. He’s got everything it takes.
“The future is very bright here at Auburn with Bo Nix as our leader.”