Bo Nix, Auburn football offense face toughest challenge: Keep up with Alabama in Iron Bowl

 eu.montgomeryadvertiser.com  11/26/2020 03:04:31 
Josh Vitale   | Montgomery Advertiser
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What Auburn quarterback Bo Nix said about Alabama's Mac Jones, the Iron Bowl
Bo Nix, a lifelong Auburn fan, is 1-0 going into the second Iron Bowl of his college career.

AUBURN — Bo Nix has celebrated victory inside Bryant-Denny Stadium. The 2017 Class 6A state championship game against Wetumpka. Pinson Valley won, 31-10. It was the first of his two high school state championships.

Nix has celebrated victory over Alabama, too. Last year’s Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn won one of the wildest games in the series’ storied history, 48-45. The freshman quarterback completed 15 of 30 passes for 173 yards, rushed for 44 more and totaled two touchdowns.

Look back: 2019 Iron Bowl victory a testament to a team that never quit believing in itself

On Saturday, though, Nix will try to do both at the same time (2:30 p.m. CT, CBS). It will be the toughest test the sophomore and the Tiger offense he leads have faced yet:

Trying to keep pace with No. 1 Alabama on its home turf.

“It’s going to be a tremendous amount different than what it was, I guess, three years ago now,” Nix said. “A lot more people, probably a lot louder and a better defense.”

No. 19 Auburn (5-2) does head to Tuscaloosa carrying a good deal of confidence, even as it deals with injuries to star running back Tank Bigsby and both starting tackles. The offense got off to a sluggish start against Tennessee last week, but that may have been the result of a 21-day layoff between games.

More: Latest Auburn injury, COVID-19 updates

Once Nix completed a 54-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Schwartz on his very next pass attempt after being intercepted for the first time in his Jordan-Hare Stadium career, Auburn was off and running. It scored 27 unanswered points (and 30 overall) over the span of seven drives after falling behind by 10 early.

Go back to the wins over Ole Miss and LSU, the Tigers are averaging 33 offensive points per game over their last three. Nix has played the best football of his career during that stretch, completing 72.5% of his passes for 758 yards and six touchdowns since throwing three interceptions in a loss at South Carolina.

“I feel like it’s all coming together,” junior running back Shaun Shivers said. “We’re looking like a great offense.”

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Auburn coach Gus Malzahn previews Iron Bowl vs. Alabama
The Tigers and Crimson Tide will meet for the 85th time in the rivalry's storied history on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CT (CBS).

Alabama (7-0) leads the SEC and ranks third nationally, scoring 49 per game. Alabama hasn't scored fewer than 41 since the opener against Missouri, when it scored 38. Quarterback Mac Jones, wide receiver DeVonta Smith and running back Najee Harris each rank first or second in the SEC at their respective positions.

More: Can Auburn contain Alabama’s DeVonta Smith like it has other top SEC receivers?

Auburn (5-2) ranks third in the SEC, surrendering 22 points per game. But Alabama has faced the second-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-ranked scoring defenses in the SEC (Georgia, Texas A&M, Kentucky and Mississippi State, in that order) and hung 52, 41, 63 and 41 points on those teams, respectively. It won all of those games by at least 17.

The team with the best scoring defense in the SEC? That would be Alabama, which is allowing 19.3 points per game and has let only one opponent (Ole Miss) top 24 points.

More: Nick Saban tests positive for COVID-19, will not coach Alabama against Auburn

“If you hurt them with something, they’re going to have an answer right off the bat,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “If you’re going to have a chance to beat them, you got to make plays.”

Two areas where that’s most necessary stand out. The first is on third downs. Auburn converted fewer than 44 percent in each of its first four games, going 2-2. It has converted at least 60% during its three-game winning streak.

The second is in the red zone. The benefit of extending drives on third down is more trips inside the 20 — 14 over the last three games compared to 15 over the first four. The Tigers started the season scoring touchdowns at a 46.7% clip. Against Ole Miss and LSU, that number skyrocketed to 90%.

Alabama, though, ranks second in the SEC holding opponents to a 38.1% conversion rate on third downs and first allowing touchdowns on just 45.5% of red-zone trips.

And Auburn scored only one touchdown in four trips to the red zone against Tennessee. Nix threw an interception on the first, and the offense had to settle for chip-shot Anders Carlson field goals on two of the others. Those are things the Tigers cannot afford to do against the Crimson Tide.

They didn’t last year. They scored three touchdowns on three red zone trips. They did lose one fumble, but the defense made up for it with a pair of pick-sixes against Jones in the first road start of his career.

And even with all that success, Auburn needed Alabama to miss a short field goal just to win by three points. That’s why the challenge Saturday is so great for the Tigers. They’re playing in a stadium where they haven’t won since 2010. Jones has gone from fill-in starter for an injured Tua Tagovailoa to a Heisman Trophy contender.

Perfection may be what’s required. Nix, though, doesn't buy that.

"You look at 2010, when we had a high-powered scoring offense, they held us in the 20s. You look at 2013, they held us," Nix said. “You can kind of throw statistics out the window when you get this late in the season when you look at both teams. It’s kind of like you can scratch the whole entire year and just come and show up for a day and play."

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.

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