AUBURN -- I found it interesting Bo Nix was the first to run out of the tunnel when Auburn entered the field Saturday night, sort of symbolic of the leadership qualities the freshman quarterback possesses.
He doesn’t necessarily seek the attention, but certainly doesn’t shy away from it.
And brother, he was in the spotlight more than ever during a heart-stopping 20-14 win over Ole Miss on Saturday night that wasn’t decided until the reliable defense picked off a pass on the final play of the game.
Talk about a near disaster. The defense bailed out this team once again.
The offense? Well, it’s in pretty much disarray.
Most of that blame should be pointed towards head coach Gus Malzahn, who is running the show on that side of the football and seems to be digressing.
Yet the young quarterback will continue to be under the microscope as well.
With the departure of back-up Joey Gatewood this week, the unit rests squarely on the shoulders of Nix — though that has actually been the case since the team broke camp going into the season.
Malzahn saw enough of Nix leading up to the season to believe he was the one who is best suited to run his offense. The coach hasn’t wavered in the least, which has drawn the ire of many.
Sure, it was a bit puzzling that Gatewood didn’t get more opportunities when Nix struggled in losses at Florida and LSU. But we don’t see what goes on during practice sessions, so to question the selection of the starting quarterback, or how much the back-up should play when the starter struggles, would only be speculation on my part.
What is evident is the loss of Gatewood puts more pressure on Nix to succeed and the growing pains can be excruciating for Auburn fans to watch.
Case in point Saturday night: A poorly underthrown ball midway through the second quarter should have been intercepted. A bad exchange with freshman tailback D.J. Williams was fumbled and almost lost. A pass behind Seth Williams and another over the head of Anthony Schwartz during a two-minute drill at the end of the first half.
A friend of mine aptly described it during a Facebook post by writing “Watching Bo Nix is like house breaking a puppy. You know eventually it’s going to be OK but it can unbelievably frustrating.”
But don’t place all of the blame on the signal-caller. Tiger receivers dropped a handful of passes that Nix put right on target as well, especially during the early going. The running game — while improving — couldn’t get a needed first down to put the game on ice.
And all of this against an Ole Miss defense that ranks among the worst in the SEC.
For the game, Nix completed 30-of-44 passes for 340 yards — mostly coming on short, quick passes. He ran eight times for 20 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown early in the third quarter that would end up being a pretty big deal.
While Nix shows flashes of why he was considered a prized recruit, there doesn’t seem to have been much progression from Game 1 to Game 9, which is troubling for those who follow the orange and blue.
Of course the predictable play-calling by Malzahn isn’t helping the cause. For Nix to succeed, Malzahn has to make a bunch of adjustments during the upcoming bye week before a revived bunch of Georgia Bulldogs come to town.
Blame in on inexperience, or blame it on Malzahn’s seemingly lack of ability to develop quarterbacks. No matter the reasoning, Nix has to get better for Auburn to get better.
With Gatewood transferring out, there will be no more second-guessing of who should be under center this season. New back-up Cord Sandberg will only see action if Nix is injured or the game is out of hand.
I do believe Nix has the talent, grit and leadership to be a big winner on this big stage. A 7-2 record at this point with close losses at two of the toughest places in America to play is nothing to sneeze at.
With that said, Auburn’s best win thus far came in the opening week against Oregon when Nix directed a game-winning drive in the final minutes. Auburn supporters want, and expect, more of those kind of quality wins.
The rugged defense wearing the orange and blue gives the Tigers a fighting chance against Georgia and Alabama in the coming weeks. A win over at least one of those is needed for this season to be viewed a success.
We know what the defense is capable of.
The offense is in the hands of Nix — for better or worse.