AUBURN — Naturally, the question came up after Bo Nix completed just 15 of 35 passes for 157 yards, one touchdown and one interception in Saturday’s 23-20 loss at LSU. Multiple times, actually.
On Saturday, moments after that game ended in Baton Rouge, it was, did you ever consider changing quarterbacks? On Sunday, after the team had returned home and watched the film, it was, are you committed to Nix being the starter no matter what? And on Tuesday, as the team previewed Saturday’s game against Ole Miss, it was, has there been any thought given to rotating Joey Gatewood in more?
Head coach Gus Malzahn’s answers to those questions, essentially, were “No,” “Yes,” and “Every game is different,” respectively.
Nix is still Auburn’s starting quarterback. But he needs to perform better if Auburn is going to have a chance to achieve its goal of winning out at home (against Ole Miss, Georgia, Samford and Alabama), and the rest of the offense needs to help the true freshman more than it has.
“We’re going to do what’s best for our team, but right now a lot of the things — Bo was put in some pretty tough situations on nine third-down-and-10-plus, and there was some things that he would like to have back, but there was also some things that he did well,” Malzahn said, referring to the entire offense’s struggles against LSU.
“So he’ll continue to improve. That’s how we’re looking at it.”
Through eight games this season, Nix has completed 53.9% of his passes for 1,458 yards (7.1 per attempt), 12 touchdowns and six interceptions, which gives him an efficiency rating of 127.5. Those totals rank 13th, sixth, 10th, sixth, 17th and 10th among qualified SEC quarterbacks, respectively.
Gatewood, in limited action, has completed 5 of 7 passes for 54 yards and two touchdowns and carries seven times for 29 yards and three more scores. But if you take out his production in fourth-quarter mop-up duty, he has completed just one pass for a 9-yard score (against Texas A&M) and averaged just 2.9 yards per carry on designed runs.
The loss at LSU marked Nix’s second-worst game in terms of efficiency. The only one worse came three weeks prior against Florida, when he completed 11 of 27 passes for 145 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions.
It probably isn’t a coincidence that those games took place at The Swamp and Death Valley — two of loudest road atmospheres in college football — against talent-rich defenses coordinated by veterans Todd Grantham and Dave Aranda, respectively.
“Freshman year playing in Florida and LSU? It's a pretty rough environment,” said wide receiver Seth Williams, who has caught eight of Nix’s 12 touchdown passes this season. “You've got know how to produce in big games. That's all it is. But he's going to get there. He's a freshman, but he's going to come."
Some of the offense’s struggles in those games, specifically when it comes to passing accuracy, are on Nix. Because it’s not as if he can’t make all the throws Auburn asked him to against LSU — he completed 16 for 21 passes for 335 yards and two touchdowns against Mississippi State on Sept. 28, and 8 of 8 passes for 131 yards and three touchdowns in just the second half at Arkansas two weeks ago.
“Whether it was adrenaline or whatever, there were a few overthrows that were uncharacteristic,” Malzahn said. “He knows that and he said it on the sideline. Just got to improve that, but he knows that.”
But you can’t put all of the offense's struggles on the true freshman quarterback. Take out runs of 48 and 70 yards from true freshman D.J. Williams, and Auburn’s running backs averaged only 2.3 yards per carry against LSU. An all-senior offensive line committed five false start penalties, which is even more than it had against Florida. Center Kaleb Kim had two bad snaps that ultimately led to him being benched for backup Nick Brahms late in the game.
Nix completed 7 of 14 passes for 62 yards on third down, but only four went for first downs because Auburn’s average to-go distance was 11.2 yards.
“We didn’t help him,” Malzahn said. “He had a tough day, but at the same time, we didn’t help him with a lot of different things as far as putting us behind the sticks.”
The good news for both Auburn and Nix is that the entire month of November will be played at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The true freshman has been decidedly better in front of friendly home crowds than he has in front of hostile road ones.
Nix completed the road portion of his debut campaign (a neutral-site game against Oregon and road games at Texas A&M, Florida, Arkansas and Texas A&M) completing 48.5% of his passes for 755 yards (151 per game and 5.8 per attempt), eight touchdowns and six interceptions. That’s a rating of 108.3.
In three home games so far (against Tulane, Kent State and Mississippi State), Nix is completing 63.5% of his passes for 703 yards (234.3 per game and 9.5 per attempt), four touchdowns and zero turnovers. That’s a rating of 161.2.
“It's going to be a big difference from our away games. Florida and LSU, they had some pretty rough environments, loud, had to work on communication a lot,” Williams said. “But being back home is going to be good for the offense because that's when we put up a lot of numbers, a lot of big games and everything like that.”
Saturday against Ole Miss could be the perfect get-right spot for Nix — the Rebels rank last in the SEC and 121st in the FBS surrendering 284.4 passing yards per game. Five out of their seven opponents (Arkansas, Southeastern Louisiana, Cal, Alabama and Missouri) have topped 300 passing yards.
The top-20 passing defenses of Georgia and Alabama later in the month will provide a much sterner test, of course. But the Tigers haven’t lost faith in Nix being the right quarterback to lead their offense.
“We’re a better team at home. And especially a young quarterback, a lot more comfortable. And so, that’ll definitely help us these last four games,” Malzahn said. “You know, we’ve been on the road for, what, a whole month? And now we get a chance to come back home. I know our players are excited. I know our coaches are excited. I think that’ll help everybody.”