Content Exchange

AUBURN — As T.J. Finley put on his helmet and prepared to lead Auburn's offense onto the field in the final minutes of a tense September game against Georgia State, Bo Nix gave him one word of encouragement: "Operate."

Ever since Finley transferred to Auburn from LSU, he and Nix have been in each other's ears with advice and feedback, even after a preseason quarterback competition.

When Nix, the three-year starter, was benched against Georgia State, Finley had his back with a game-winning, 98-yard touchdown drive.

The next week, Nix had the Tigers' backs in a 13-point comeback at LSU, Finley's former school.

Now it's Finley's turn again.

Nix's broken ankle is season-ending with two games (plus a bowl) remaining. He has been synonymous with Auburn football since his arrival in 2019 and his 26-yard,game-winning touchdown pass that beat Oregon in his first career start. What's next for Auburn in the 2021 season's final stretch without him?

Finley will start. He has been the No. 2 option all season and played Auburn's final series in a 43-34 loss to Mississippi State after Nix could finally no longer play. (By the way: A moment of awe and admiration for Nix, who led three possessions, including a 90-yard touchdown drive, after the play that injured him.)

"I calm him down sometimes, and the same, vice-versa," Finley said after the 34-24 win over Georgia State earlier this season. "When I came off the sideline, (Nix) calmed me down sometimes. We both give each other positive feedback, and even negative feedback, because if a person is always giving you positive feedback, they’re not really keeping it real with you. I kept it real with him in the first half; he kept it real with me in the second half, and that’s just the level of relationship we have with each other to be able to do that. He trusts my word, and I trust his.”

If he's allowed with the team on the sideline after the injury, expect more of that from Nix.

As for the next man up: Freshman Dematrius Davis and senior Grant Loy are the other options in the quarterback room, where depth suddenly becomes far more important in the case of more injuries. Davis has not thrown a pass this season, and if coach Bryan Harsin wants to use him — "We haven't had those conversations," Harsin said Monday — the freshman can appear in remaining games while maintaining his redshirt status.

Davis was a four-star recruit and the No. 24 quarterback in the 2021 class, according to 247Sports. Giving him game action as an early learning experience certainly would not hurt. Whether Harsin wants to mess with that in the Iron Bowl against Alabama is another matter.

Finley is suddenly thrown into the immense spotlight of an Iron Bowl starting quarterback role. The collapse against Mississippi State cemented Auburn's fate — an SEC West title is out of the picture — but the cultural significance of the Iron Bowl and its power for a new coaching tenure remain.

In one sense, that's a mountain of pressure for a transfer who never expected to be in this position in his first season. After his appearance against Georgia State, his parents told The Advertiser that Finley was thrilled just to have that moment.

On the other hand, Finley and Auburn will have nothing to lose in this Iron Bowl. Alabama will be playing for its College Football Playoff hopes. What magic, what legend Finley's name would carry if he could play spoiler against the Crimson Tide?

Even Patrick Nix, Bo's father and a former Auburn QB, said it himself to The Advertiser in September: "When we beat Alabama at our place in ‘95, to me as a quarterback at Auburn, I hate to say it, but I’d sort of done my due diligence."

The bowl game loss to Penn State that season officially ended his college career, but in his mind, beating Bama was the end of the story. And the crowning moment of Nix's career was — no joke — as a young backup quarterback unexpectedly coming off the bench after a starter's injury in the Iron Bowl. When he entered in 1993, Auburn trailed 14-5. He led the Tigers to a 22-14 win.

It appears Auburn's penultimate game at 6 p.m. next Saturday in South Carolina will be Finley's tune-up for the 2021 Iron Bowl — and an indicator of whether Harsin wants to try other options under center.

Whatever happens, Auburn's season was shattered in a number of ways against Mississippi State. That doesn't mean it has to be meaningless. Nix found purpose last time he was sidelined, keeping Finley motivated and educated.

Nix is a second-generation Auburn quarterback. He was born and raised for this role, to be an Auburn ambassador, to battle through a broken ankle and play most of the fourth quarter of a must-win game. Chances are, he'll be back.

Until then, if it's Finley time again, that might mean it's Coach Nix's time, too.

This article originally ran on


Locations Content Exchange

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.