Even with an offense that often could be as unreliable as satellite TV in a heavy rain, the Auburn Tigers have been a team not to be readily dismissed.
First of all, there’s that defense, one of the better units in college football. There’s the general belief that the Tigers seldom line up against superior athletic talent.
Auburn’s 56-23 win over Mississippi State Saturday night takes it to another level.
The Tigers’ complete dismantling of a respectable Bulldogs bunch left the impression that they just may have been undersold. Not that being ranked No. 7 in the country could be considered a slight. But with freshman quarterback Bo Nix executing the offense almost flawlessly, the Tigers sent a strong message to the rest of the college football world.
“We’re the real deal,” said receiver Sal Cannella. “We want people to know we’re the real deal and we’re coming for it all, for sure.”
The Tigers scored touchdowns on six of their seven possessions in the first half, beginning with their first offensive play. Jatarvious Whitlow burst around right end for a 30-yard touchdown run that even jolted State’s bulldog, Bully.
That set off an already rocking Jordan-Hare Stadium, and the place almost started shaking when Nix added the second touchdown just five minutes into the game. The Tigers scored on their next three possessions.
The scoring streak was a strip fumble of Seth Williams. And that may have been a bad call, but there lacked conclusive video evidence to reverse the ruling.
The Tigers scored again on their first possession of the third quarter, Nix firing a perfect strike to Williams in the left corner of the end zone. The drive: 75 yards in just four plays and 92 seconds.
They had three other scoring possessions even shorter than that, beginning with the first one in just nine seconds. Given the pace at which they were scoring, they happily ceded the time of possession advantage to the visitors. Well, and to the replay booth.
Nix looked more like the player who passed for more than 12,000 yards and 127 touchdowns -- along with 34 more on the ground -- at Pinson Valley High School than a true freshman just trying to keep his head above water.
Nix secured his first 300-yard passing game of his brief college career by the third quarter, when he connected with Cannella for 39 yards on the right sideline. That was his 15th completion in 19 attempts, and a couple of those incompletions were heady throw-aways.
“I think you see him every game and every snap, he feels a little more comfortable,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “The game gets slower.”
The Bo Nix we saw Saturday night was the Bo Nix that Malzahn and the players have been seeing in practice.
“To be honest with you, the way he’s carried himself in practice, he’s been the same every week,” Malzahn said. “It’s a matter of, he’s got to get out there. And when you get out there, that’s when you learn. That’s when the game starts to slow down.”
“Just his moxy, his poise,” Cannella said. “He’s always a confident guy. What I saw was when some of the plays didn’t go the right way, he didn’t get too down on himself. He kind of just said, ‘OK,’ and wiped it away and was ready for the next play.”
Nix’s final numbers were by far the best of his young career: 16 completions on 21 attempts for 335 yards and two touchdowns. Add to that his 56 yards rushing and Nix accounted for 391 of Auburn’s 578 total yards of offense.
“I felt like tonight I was seeing things about as good as I’ve seen them at the college level,” Nix said. “The coaches did a really good job of preparing me of what to see in that situation. A bunch of film study. So the game is slowing down for me. That helps a lot.”
The Tigers are now 5-0, a bit astonishing given that they trailed Oregon 14-3 just 13 minutes into the season and then 21-6 in the third quarter.
Sure, Auburn certainly has much work still ahead. It begins this week at Florida, the Tigers’ first trip to The Swamp since 2007. They have to play at LSU three weeks after that. Then there’s the traditional -- for one last year, at least -- finish against rivals Georgia and Alabama.
“Teams that have a chance to improve each week have a chance to be there at the end,” Malzahn said. “We’re improving right now.”
That’s a comforting thought for Auburn fans. A bit overdue, but welcomed just the same.