Auburn is 6-2, controls its own SEC West destiny and has a starting quarterback playing as well as he ever has.
With November around the corner, Auburn has a lot to play for and that’s a credit to first-year head coach Bryan Harsin and his staff’s work with this team, particularly quarterback Bo Nix.
How Harsin and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo developed Nix was easily the biggest question headed into this season. The former five-star recruit did some good things under Gus Malzahn, but never quite reached the lofty expectations fans had for him when he signed with the Tigers. His pronounced road struggles were well documented. Too often he bailed out of the pocket too soon, opting to use his legs when patience could have led to a better play. At times, Nix made Auburn’s offense too one-dimensional.
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Some of that is still there but Nix looks like a much more confident, adept quarterback under Harsin and Bobo. And it’s hard not to look back at how Harsin handled the Georgia State situation as the reason Nix and Auburn are where they are after eight games. Malzahn never challenged Nix the way Harsin did in that situation, benching his starting quarterback for backup T.J. Finley who guided the Tigers to a comeback win over Georgia State. It was the most adversity the young quarterback had ever faced in his career after a magical high school tenure that included two state championships. That following week, with many calling for Finley to be the starter moving forward, Nix responded to the uncertainty with one of his best games in a road win over LSU, breaking a 20-year drought in Baton Rouge.
Since those Georgia State struggles, Nix is 3-1 as the starter and has Auburn positioned to make a run in November. He didn’t fare particularly well against Georgia — no quarterback has — but otherwise has looked more and more like the guy fans expected when he arrived on the Plains. Against Ole Miss, Nix accounted for three touchdowns and finished the night 22 of 30 for 276 passing yards. The offense sputtered in the second half, but Nix and running backs Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter made the necessary plays to win the game.
Auburn’s upcoming schedule looks treacherous, starting next week with a road trip to Texas A&M. If they can survive the Aggies, the Tigers get a rising Mississippi State team, a road trip to South Carolina and then their annual battle against Alabama. The SEC West gauntlet has been known to break good teams and that November slate will be extremely challenging to survive unscathed.
But the work Harsin and others have put into this team gives Auburn a real chance to make some noise next month. And it all starts with Nix’s improvements.
Florida’s talent deficiencies evident against GeorgiaThere’s a popular refrain in football that it’s not about the X’s and O’s, it’s the Jimmies and Joes. If you ever doubted the validity of that, you need to go and rewatch Georgia’s 34-7 win over Florida.
Georgia has the nation’s best defense because it has the best players. Just ask Georgia head coach Kirby Smart.
“There’s no coach out there that can out-coach recruiting,” Smart said. “No coaching is going to out-coach players. Anybody will tell you our defense is good because we have good players.”
After learning at the hand of Alabama head coach Nick Saban, Smart has been a tireless recruiter at Georgia. He assembled a coaching staff that is a good mix of coaching skills and recruiting prowess, and has emphasized at every turn the importance of signing the top players. He puts in the work to do it, and it has paid off in a big way for No. 1 Georgia. The Bulldogs have signed six top 10 recruits and 20 five-star prospects overall since 2018, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings.
Against Florida, that approach paid off. Nolan Smith, who intercepted Florida QB Anthony Richardson late in the first half, was the No. 1 overall recruit in 2019. Nakobe Dean, who also intercepted Richardson late in the first half and returned it for a touchdown, was a five-star recruit and the No. 19 overall recruit in 2019.
Conversely, Florida hasn’t signed a top 10 recruit since 2015 under a different head coach (Jim McElwain). That talent deficiency was obvious throughout Georgia’s win over the Gators. In coachspeak, Florida just doesn’t have the necessary dudes to keep up with Georgia.
And under Mullen, there’s a reason to believe it never consistently will. Yes, Florida beat Georgia just last year on its win to an SEC East divisional title. But if you look at the way Florida has recruited under Mullen, it isn’t signing enough upper echelon recruits to consistently compete and beat Georgia and Alabama. That was acceptable at Mississippi State, but it is not at Florida.
I wrote about a lot of these issues in this week’s Inside College Football newsletter detailing just how difficult it is to project whether a coach’s success at one school will carry over to another. One industry source assessed that Mullen’s issues at Florida all related back to recruiting.
“One thing he hasn’t done is recruiting at a higher level,” one plugged in source said. “Dan Mullen might be a better coach than Kirby Smart, but hands down he’s not recruiting nearly at the level Kirby is.”
This season that’s the difference between being 4-4 with a future trip to the Texas Bowl on the horizon, and already clinching the SEC East title on Oct. 30 as the nation’s best team.
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Lane Kiffin on tilt, Part TwoThere’s something about playing in the state of Alabama that seems to bring out the worst in Lane Kiffin’s coaching tendencies. The Ole Miss head coach just can’t help himself when there’s a chance to go for it on fourth down.
For the second time this season, Kiffin’s ultra aggression blew up in his face. Ole Miss left at least nine points on the board in a 31-20 loss to Auburn after going for it on fourth down three times inside the redzone in the second half. Kiffin’s aggressive approach is better than the coaches who punt it on 4th-and-1 from the 35-yard line, but there’s a time and place for it. Down 28-17 with a 4th-and-1 from Auburn’s 20-yard line, a field goal cuts it to a one-score game. Instead, Ole Miss goes for it and fails.
Later when Ole Miss was down 28-20 late in the third quarter, the Rebels called a 4th-and-7 play from Auburn’s 13-yard line and thought they got it off before realizing Auburn called a timeout. Would Kiffin now opt for a field goal after Auburn adjusted its defense? Nope, and the play got completely blown up.
Finally, there was the 4th-and-3 at Auburn’s 18-yard line while down 31-20. Again, it’d seem to make sense to kick a field goal to make it a one score game and yet again Kiffin decided to go for it and failed.
What’s even more egregious about Kiffin’s aggression is Ole Miss was down multiple key offensive contributors. The Rebels were without their top three receivers for most of the game against Auburn, and it showed when quarterback Matt Corral had limited trusted options to turn to once Ole Miss got in the redzone. One would think this would be even more a reason to take the available points but Kiffin kept forcing the issue.
None of this should be much of a surprise, though. This is who Kiffin is. I wrote about the same issues earlier this month when Kiffin’s aggressive fourth down approach against Alabama seemed to do more harm than good. After the Alabama game, Kiffin cited the analytics and didn’t seem likely to change. His aggressive mindset can be a lot of fun when Ole Miss is racking up points. It’s not as fun when a different decision here or there can be the difference in the game.
Most pumped fanbase: Michigan StateSome might say the fanbase is too pumped up after the scene in East Lansing Saturday night. Michigan State is a legitimate playoff contender now after knocking off rival Michigan on Saturday. The Spartans will have to get past Ohio State on Nov. 20 to make the playoff, but the path is realistic now after the win over the Wolverines. The job Mel Tucker has done in only two years is tremendous and makes it easy to see why his name has popped up with the LSU coaching search.
Most panicked fanbase: IowaOnce a real contender to win the Big Ten, the Hawkeyes’ chances of making the playoffs are now over. It has to be depressing for Iowa fans initially pumped up about what the future held following a win over Penn State, only to follow it up with consecutive losses to unranked teams. The remaining schedule looks easy, making the pain of what could have been even more pronounced.
Ranking Week 10 SEC games:1) No. 18 Auburn at No. 14 Texas A&M: This should be a terrific game between the only team that has beaten Alabama this season versus the only team left in the regular season capable of doing so.
2) Liberty at No. 10 Ole Miss, 11 a.m.: Hugh Freeze returns to Oxford as a head coach for the first time since his ignominious exit. This game will prompt a lot of attention and memories of the Freeze era at Ole Miss, but the game itself should be a fun chess match between two gifted offensive minds.
3) LSU at No. 3 Alabama: Ed Orgeron gets his last shot at taking down Alabama after famously proclaiming “We Comin’” in 2017. He was right — the Tigers beat Alabama in 2019 — but Orgeron’s LSU team shouldn’t have much of a shot in this one.
4) Mississippi State at Arkansas, 3:00 p.m.: The Bulldogs are riding high after beating Kentucky on Saturday. Mississippi State looked shaky early this season but is now 5-3 with wins over the Wildcats, Texas A&M and North Carolina State. Arkansas is the opposite, starting hot before cooling down, but should still be a tough test for Mike Leach’s offense.
5) Tennessee at No. 12 Kentucky, 6:00 p.m.: The Volunteers have looked better recently but are still on a two-game losing streak after losses to Ole Miss and Alabama. Kentucky looked rough in a loss to Mississippi State, especially defensively, that ended any chances of winning the SEC East.
6) Florida at South Carolina, 6:30 p.m.: The Gators hung tough with Georgia for about a half before the dam broke. The Gators have little to play for this season now, but a loss to South Carolina could be disastrous for embattled head coach Dan Mullen.
7) Missouri at No. 1 Georgia: The SEC’s most dominant team versus perhaps its most disappointing. The Tigers are coming off a much-needed win over Vanderbilt, but this one won’t be close.
John Talty is the sports editor and SEC Insider for Alabama Media Group. You can follow him on Twitter @JTalty. Want more SEC stories like this straight to your inbox? Sign up for the Inside College Football with John Talty newsletter here.
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