In his recent blog post, Ian Boyd makes a compelling case that now more than ever an elite passing game is necessary to win a national championship. (You should definitely go read it by the way.) And if this is true, then it would seem not to bode well for Malzahn’s preferred smash-mouth run-first play-action offense. When it’s working, it’s a thing of beauty as a crafty play designer like Malzahn can use the run game to set up easy deep throws. But as we’ve seen this past year, when the running game isn’t working for Malzahn, neither is the passing game. Establishing the run was a struggle for Auburn in almost every game this season which led to some offensive desperation at times. There were times when Gus asked Nix to throw 40+ times a game, and I’m certain he didn’t want to have to ask that of his true freshman quarterback. But that experience may be a blessing in disguise.
I don’t think this offensive trend we’re seeing is going away anytime soon. Bruising power houses like LSU and Alabama didn’t choose to transition to pass-happy schemes lightly (although Jimbo Fisher at A&M was probably more than happy to continue on that path). Stout defensive lines will continue to be a mainstay at the highest level of college football while finding a quality offensive line is proving to be more difficult than ever. So those schools are going to continue to stock talented quarterbacks and receivers and throw it downfield a lot. And while we may lament Gus’s stubbornness in not joining them, I think it’s understandable why he didn’t. First, Gus likes to do his own thing. All things being equal, he would rather have an offensive system that’s unique to him and clearly different from what his divisional rivals are doing. Second, he knows that a high-level passing game may pay big dividends, but it also demands a huge investment. It requires a talented and experienced quarterback, multiple high level receivers, a thicker play book, and lots and lots of practice reps. And all that focus takes away from the time you could be spending on what Gus rightly sees as the bread and butter that got him this far in the coaching profession to begin with. And last, it’s been a long time since Gus coached a team that passed first. He does technically have that on his resume, but he may have been hesitant to dust that hat off and wear it again. But now, I think circumstances have emerged on the plains to give Malzahn a unique opportunity to make this transition pretty seamlessly.
It of course starts with Bo Nix. LSU fans may disagree mightily with Nix being awarded the SEC Freshman of the Year honors over the phenomenal Derek Stingley, but I think there’s good reason to award it to the quarterback. Despite his bad moments in the LSU and Florida games, on the whole he took very good care of the football this year. He has the instincts to make good decisions. He was the better quarterback in the Iron Bowl precisely because he took better care of the ball. As a 5 star kid with a ton of athleticism, he clearly has as much talent as any QB to ever sign with Auburn except the Blessed IndividualTM. And after a full season as a true freshman starting quarterback in the SEC West, he has a trial by fire under his belt now. He also seems to have the intangible qualities of leadership a team needs from their quarterback. So if you were going to adopt a high level passing game, Nix seems like a good candidate to do it with.
On the perimeter, Seth Williams has emerged as a potential all-SEC talent at receiver. If he and Nix can continue to rep the back shoulder sideline throw all spring and summer, they can be as deadly with it as any combination in the league. Admittedly, Williams needs more pieces in the receiving corps to be threats with him. I don’t know who specifically can answer that call, but Auburn has been stacking enough 4 star receivers on the roster with each recruiting class that I’m confident a few more can reach the next level with Williams whether it’s Schwartz, Stove, Hill, Jackson, or someone else.
And the last piece of this puzzle has fallen into place so conveniently it makes me wonder if it’s not a direct sign from the football Gods. We now find ourselves with Chad Morris as our offensive coordinator, the former coordinator of the Clemson teams that illustrate Boyd’s thesis so clearly. It’s not simply that Morris is a good developer of quarterbacks (he is) or that he has a greater mind for the passing game than Gus (he does). His greatest value to Auburn is that as one of Gus’ most respected colleagues and friends, he may be the only person alive who could possibly convince Gus Malzahn to take this offensive plunge.
To be clear, I don’t expect Nix and Morris in 2020 to be the equals of Borrow and Brady in 2019. But the beauty of it is, they don’t have to be. They just have to be substantially better than the 2019 Auburn offense. Pair that with the dominant defense Kevin Steele will field and Auburn would have every right to expect to compete for a playoff spot. I don’t know what Malzahn will choose to do. He may settle for a more incremental change to the passing game, and maybe even that’s enough to take Auburn to the next level. But I think there is now a door open to Malzahn that has never been available to him before at the college level. I hope he takes it and I hope we get to see where it can lead.