Bo Nix has a chance to do something that only a few players in Auburn football history have previously done:
Lead the Tigers in passing for a third straight season.
No Auburn quarterback has done that since Brandon Cox from 2005-07, and he was just the sixth since 1947, when the program first began keeping track of such statistics. Jason Campbell (2002-04), Stan White (1990-93), Phil Gargis (1974-76), Pat Sullivan (1969-71) and Travis Tidwell (1947-49) are the only others who accomplished the feat.
Nix could be the seventh, provided he can hold off LSU transfer TJ Finley for the starting role under new coach Bryan Harsin and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.
Doing so will likely require improvement. Nix did not make the sophomore leap many expected last season, completing just 59.9 percent of his passes for 2,415 yards, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions during a 6-5 campaign.
But there is some precedent for that third year being the best for the few Auburn quarterbacks that have held the job for that long. Tidwell’s completion percentage, yard and touchdown totals all improved from 1948 to 1949. Same goes for Gargis from 1973 to 1974.
Sullivan’s completion percentage and yardage totals decreased, but his impact increased — he threw a career-high 20 touchdown passes on his way to winning the first Heisman Trophy in program history.
The best example, though, is Campbell. He was a good-not-great quarterback in his second season as the team’s leading passer in 2003, completing 61.8 percent of his throws for 2,267 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. In 2004, those numbers improved to 69.6 percent, 2,700, 20 and seven, respectively.
Auburn went 13-0, won the SEC Championship and fell just one spot shy of playing in the BCS national title game.
That’s not to say the Tigers will do the same with Nix in 2021. The career arcs of the two quarterbacks are different. Nix has started all 24 games and hasn’t really even had to battle for the job since beating out Joey Gatewood prior to his freshman season. Campbell, on the other hand, split quarterback duties almost 50-50 with Daniel Cobb as a freshman and sophomore before finally taking over as the full-time starter in 2003.
But there are some parallels that can be drawn between the two quarterbacks. Like Campbell, Nix has yet to play two seasons for the same offensive coordinator. This will be his first under Bobo after a year each under Chad Morris and Kenny Dillingham. Campbell played for four — Noel Mazzone, Bobby Petrino, Hugh Nall and Al Borges.
The biggest challenge that provides is that it doesn’t give a quarterback a chance to build on what he did the season before.
“You’re going, ‘OK, got though Year 1, learned a lot of things, and now I can watch the film and get ready for Year 2,’” Campbell told the Advertiser. “Then it’s like, ‘Oh, nope, coordinator’s fired or coordinator took another job, start over.’”
That was even tougher for Nix going into his second season, as COVID-19 prevented him from having a full spring and summer to learn Morris’ offense.
The tipping point for Campbell was when he said he felt like he had enough experience on the field that the changes made to the offense weren’t as jarring. That came midway through his junior season. Perhaps Nix can reach the same point at the same time in his career. He has a coach who understands what he’s gone through — Harsin played for three different coaches when he was a quarterback at Boise State in the late 1990s.
And as Campbell pointed out, Nix’s most significant source of struggle during his career has been playing on the road, where he has completed 54.5 percent of his passes for nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions compared to 63 percent for 15 touchdowns and one pick at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Nix had never been to any of those road stadiums as a player before. This year, he’ll have been to all of them other than Penn State, where Auburn has never played before. Trips to LSU, Arkansas, Texas A&M and South Carolina won’t be new for the third-year quarterback.
Maybe that will help pave Nix’s path into an exclusive club.
“I think he can learn a lot from the adversities he’s gone through in Year 1 and Year 2 and acknowledge them,” Campbell said. “You go back and watch those games and say, ‘OK, what can I do better next year that I didn’t do the year before and now that I’m a year older and know a little bit more?’ That can be a different outcome.”