AUBURN — The quarterback matchup that will take center stage at AT&T Stadium on Saturday features two players on completely different ends of the spectrum.
Oregon’s Justin Herbert is widely regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in college football. He passed for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns as a junior last season. He’s in the conversation with Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Georgia’s Jake Fromm to be the top quarterback on 2020 NFL draft boards.
Auburn’s Bo Nix may one day do and be all of those things. For now, though, he is a five-star true freshman making his collegiate debut in a season-opening game — something no Tigers quarterback has done since Travis Tidwell in 1946.
That will have an affect on how Gus Malzahn constructs his team’s offensive game plan.
“You’re talking about a true freshman and his first start is against one of the best teams in the country. College GameDay’s there and (Kirk) Herbstreit’s doing the game. It’s as big as it gets,” Auburn’s seventh-year head coach said ahead of Saturday’s opener in Arlington, Texas (6:30 p.m., ABC).
“I’m just asking him to play and to be himself, and we’re going to try to do some things he feels comfortable with. We’re taking in a game plan that really is a lot built around him, what his comfort zone is and everything that goes with it. I’m excited for Bo. I know our team is. He’s earned the right to lead us out there, and we’ll see what happens.”
“Comfort zone” does not mean “conservative,” though. Malzahn made that clear Tuesday. He doesn’t believe Auburn can afford that — between Herbert, 1,000-yard rusher CJ Verdell and an offensive line that returns more starting experience than any in the nation, the Ducks should have enough firepower to put up some points, even if they are going up against a Kevin Steele-led defense that has the potential to be the best the Tigers have had in a decade.
What it does mean is being “really good around him.” If an offensive line returning five senior starters can protect the quarterback and create holes for a group of running backs that could rotate up to six players, and a wide receiver group featuring at least a healthy Seth Williams, Eli Stove and Will Hastings can make plays, Nix shouldn’t be put in a position where he has to force the action — like he did when he threw three interceptions in Auburn’s first fall scrimmage earlier this month.
“Being a freshman, it’s different. Playing a high school game in front of 5,000 versus playing on College GameDay, it’s going to obviously be a big jump,” senior right tackle Jack Driscoll said. “But if things do go wrong — which I hope they don’t, but obviously there’s ups and downs to every game — I think that’s what’s important with having a line with five fifth-year seniors: We can kind of say, hey we’ve got your back. Just pick it up the next play. You’ve just got to forget about the last play and just keep moving on. I think he has the mental capacity to do that and not just explode after making one mistake.”
If there is a quarterback able to do that in his collegiate debut, it is probably Nix, an early enrollee who Malzahn described as “not your normal freshman.” He’s the son of former Tigers quarterback Patrick Nix — who coached at the college level for 17 years — and a decorated high school standout who set Alabama state records for total yards (more than 12,000) and touchdowns (161), led Pinson Valley to back-to-back Class 6A state championships and earned Mr. Football honors as a senior.
“I think I was coached well in high school and as far back as I can remember with my dad,” Nix said last week. “Coach Malzahn, him and Coach (Kenny) Dillingham, they really got started really quickly, and in the spring, they put a bunch on us. So really just tried to get the whole offense as much as they could in so we could learn it quicker. The more reps I got, the better and more comfortable I got with it.”
That being said, Auburn’s offense has been a bit of a mixed bag in season-opening games during Malzahn’s tenure as head coach, despite have a 5-1 record in those six games. In the years the Tigers have entered with the same clear-cut starting quarterback as the season before (Nick Marshall in 2014 and Jarrett Stidham in 2018), they averaged 507.5 yards and 33 points while turning the ball over only once against Power 5 opponents Arkansas and Washington, respectively.
In the other years (Marshall in 2013, Jeremy Johnson in 2015, Sean White in 2016, and Stidham in 2017), Auburn averaged 379.5 yards and 28.8 points while turning the ball over 10 times, defeating Washington State, Louisville and Georgia Southern but losing to Clemson in a messy game that also featured Johnson, John Franklin III and H-back Chandler Cox taking snaps at quarterback.
“I think first games are unique, because you’ve got to be prepared for adjustments. You’re liable to get something that either you haven’t seen or you’re not thinking you’ll do a lot,” Malzahn said. “So I think the big thing is that you’ve got to go in doing what you’re good at, and you’ve got to have the answers — if they do this, we do this; if they do that, we do that. So we’ve worked really hard in fall camp to build a foundation with our base runs and passes and everything that goes with it. We’ll at least be able to execute the answers if needed in a first game.”
How well Auburn is able to do that with a true freshman making his starting debut at quarterback remains to be seen. That has happened only six other times in the program’s modern history — Chris Vacarella in 1973, Ken Hobby in 1981, Gabe Gross in 1998, Kodi Burns in 2007, Jonathan Wallace in 2012 and Jeremy Johnson in 2013 — and none of those instances were in season openers. The Tigers are 5-1 in those games.
Oregon is far from a cupcake, too. The Ducks are a top-15 team in both major polls and among the favorites to win the Pac-12. Auburn has some familiarity with head coach Mario Cristobal (who was an offensive assistant at Alabama from 2013-17) but none with defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, who is in his first year with the program after coming over from Boise State.
Avalos is known for utilizing multiple fronts and exotic blitzes, which helped the Broncos improve from 46th to 27th to 12th nationally in sacks over his three seasons running the defense. Returning sack leader Gus Cumberlander and five-star true freshman defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux (the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2019 class) will surely want to get after a rookie quarterback.
“We watched a lot of Boise State film just to try and figure out things here and there,” senior Auburn left guard Marquel Harrell said. “Personnel-wise, no matter who is the defensive coordinator, how you show up on film is how you show up. Not worried about personnel-wise, but where to line up and alignments and stuff like that, that’s what we have to focus on.”
There are actually some parallels between Saturday’s game and Auburn’s opener against Washington one year ago, and not just that both foes were out of the Pac-12 and both games were at neutral sites. Washington was also a top-15 team (top-10, actually), and it also had a new man calling plays on defense — Jimmy Lake, who was promoted from co-defensive coordinator to primary defensive coordinator during that offseason.
The difference for the Tigers’ offense is that, last season, it went to Atlanta with a returning starter at quarterback and myriad questions at running back and on the offensive line. This season, it goes to Arlington with its top three running backs and five senior starting offensive linemen back from a year ago, but with an unproven quarterback.
Driscoll doesn’t believe Nix will be unproven for too much longer, though.
“I think he’s definitely in that caliber of player,” Driscoll said, referring to Herbert, Tagovailoa and Fromm. “I think you guys will see on Saturday night that he’s in that group of players. Obviously, we don’t 100 percent know going into the game, but some of the plays he makes and the throws he makes are spectacular. I think he’s mature enough where he’s not going to let going against Justin Herbert or Jake Fromm bother him, that he’s ready for the challenge.”