The peaks and valleys of Bo Nix’s freshman campaign had a pretty straightforward demarcation.
When Nix was playing within the comforts and confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium, he was stellar; when he was on the road, he oftentimes struggled. It was day and night for the then-freshman quarterback, who threw all six of his interceptions away from home, including four combined in pivotal SEC road losses at Florida and at LSU.
“He had some of the best atmospheres in all of college football with some of the best defenses in college football when he was on the road last year,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “I think there’s nothing like experience. You go through it once or twice and you understand what your challenges are and what you’ve got to deal with…. It was definitely good for him to be able to experience those hostile environments against really good defenses.”
Malzahn and No. 7 Auburn (1-0) are banking on Nix to learn from those freshman experiences as a struggling freshman on the road as the Tigers head into their first road test of the season — a 6:30 p.m. kickoff against No. 4 Georgia (1-0) in Athens, Ga., on Saturday.
In six games away from Jordan-Hare Stadium last season, Nix completed just 51.3 percent of his passes for 931 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions while averaging just 6 yards per pass attempt. That completion rate away from home was ninth among qualifying SEC quarterbacks, while his six interceptions were second to only Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond’s seven picks.
Nix’s 112.76 passer rating and 6 yards per pass attempt were also in the bottom half among SEC quarterbacks away from home last season.
It was a stark contrast to Nix’s numbers at home, where he completed 62 percent of his passes for 1,611 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions while averaging 7.3 yards per pass attempt and posting a 133.68 passer rating. Nix was the only qualifying SEC quarterback to not throw an interception at home in 2019, though his overall numbers still ranked in the bottom half of the league.
Of course, two of Nix’s worst performances came in two of the most hostile environments in college football: LSU’s Death Valley and The Swamp at Florida.
“You can put no price tag on experience,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “I saw that with Jake Fromm. The first year, you saw these simple mistakes, and then the next year it was like, ‘OK, I know the down and distance better. I know where the yard marker is. I know I’m in field goal range, don’t take a sack. I know where I’m going with the ball. I’ve seen this defense already about eight times. I know exactly what to do with the ball.’ It’s one of those deals that with experience you make better decisions.”
This year, Nix will be dealing with completely different road atmospheres due to the circumstances of the ongoing pandemic, with most SEC teams capping attendance at 20-25 percent capacity. That includes this weekend at Georgia, where the Bulldogs will have between 18,000-23,000 fans Between the Hedges for the 125th installment of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.
“This year’s a little bit different in that it’s not going to be 90,000,” Malzahn said. “But still they’re going to have the piped in noise and all that stuff.”
It will still present a challenge for Nix, especially against a top-five team like Georgia with a stout defense and impressive secondary, but this is also supposed to be a different Nix than the one everyone saw last year — the one who oscillated between brilliant and mistake-prone and, at certain points, lost his swagger as a freshman. If the season opener for Auburn was any indication, the Bulldogs should expect to see a new iteration of Nix on the road too.
“It’s very obvious that his learning curve is really fast in terms of being able to understand his offense, how to use it,” Smart said. “He made some decisions in the last game that last year he wouldn’t have made that decision that fast. What happens is when you make that decision a split second sooner, it gives that wideout an extra yard to run after the catch. And also, that’s a big play instead of a catch and a tackle. He’s done a tremendous job, and he’s a really good football player.”
Against Kentucky, Nix completed 16-of-27 passes for 233 yards and three touchdowns while also leading the team in rushing. He averaged 8.6 yards per pass attempt, which he eclipsed just twice last season against SEC teams, and he played error-free football in his first game manning Chad Morris’ offense.
Now Nix will try to build on that season debut, as well as the lessons he learned on the road as a freshman last season, against one of the nation’s best teams.
“I just saw a different guy,” Auburn receiver Anthony Schwartz said. “… Now, he’s like a professional quarterback, not panicking, getting through his reads and just being able to throw the ball under pressure. Throwing accurate balls. He was throwing dimes (against Kentucky). I don’t think there was one that wasn’t a great pass (Saturday). I think that he still has a lot to improve, which I think is scary for other teams.”
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.