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AUBURN — Tim Tebow was speaking at an event in Alabama last year when a local high school senior came up to him and began asking him questions. That’s nothing new for the former Florida quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner.

But these weren’t the same type of questions that he usually gets from teenagers.

“He wasn’t like, ‘Oh hey, can I take a picture with you?’” Tebow recalled. “It was, ‘Hey man, what did you see against that when you were in this game? How can I prepare? How can I learn defenses?’ Just different. That’s the first thing that stood out. ‘Who the heck is this kid?’”

That kid was Bo Nix. Tebow, of course, knew exactly who he was as soon as he heard the name — Nix was a five-star recruit and the top-ranked dual threat quarterback in the Class of 2019 who finished his prep career by leading Pinson Valley High to a second straight 6A state championship and earning Mr. Football honors.

But it was the questions Nix asked, his knowledge of the game and the hunger to gain a better understanding that stood out more to Tebow than anything he had done on the field.

“I think he has a unique composure about him,” Tebow, now an SEC Network analyst, said when he was on Auburn’s campus for last week’s game against Mississippi State. “I think he’s talented, but there are a lot of guys that are, though. All those four- or five-stars are very talented. But I think he’s a winner. I think you saw that in high school, the way he competed in the spring and in the fall, the way he came back against Oregon, the way he played in a hostile environment last week at Texas A&M.

“The chemistry of his mold, I really like. I was really impressed with it.”

Nix displayed the full breadth of that physical talent in No. 7 Auburn’s 56-23 thrashing of the Bulldogs last week, completing 16 of 21 passes for a career-best 335 yards and two touchdowns and rushing seven times for a team-leading 56 yards and another score — a stat line not seen on the Plains since the days of Cam Newton in 2010.

Up next this Saturday, though, might be his toughest test yet: A date with No. 10 Florida on the road at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. That “unique composure” Tebow talked about is going to be crucial, maybe even more so than what Nix is able to do with his arm and legs.

“Some say it’s the toughest environment to play in, so I’m excited,” Nix said ahead of the top-10 game between two 5-0 teams. “We’ll be ready to go. It’ll be tough, though.”

Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is the man who will try to make sure of that. Saturday will mark the sixth time he has gone up against Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn — 2010, 2011 and 2013 while he was at Georgia; 2015 while he was at Louisville; and 2017 when he and Florida head coach Dan Mullen were at Mississippi State. Malzahn’s teams won four of those games — 49-31 in 2010, 43-38 in 2013, 31-24 in 2015 and 49-10 in 2017.

Those games were played at either Jordan-Hare Stadium or a neutral site, though. The lone loss came in the only true road matchup at Georgia in 2011, when the Bulldogs racked up five sacks and an interception and held the Tigers to 195 total yards in that 45-7 rout.

Those are the type of things Grantham’s current Florida defense excels at. The Gators rank second nationally in both sacks (24, including 10 in the opener against Miami) and takeaways (13 — nine interceptions and four fumbles) through five games. They also rank fifth nationally in scoring defense (8.8 points per game) and haven’t allowed a touchdown in nine straight quarters.

“They’re really aggressive,” Malzahn said. “Of course, their defensive coordinator — we’ve went against each other a lot of times — he’s one of the best. He has an aggressive mind-set. Their players are playing that way and they’ve got some guys that can flat get after it.”

Grantham is just as wary of Auburn’s offense, though. Malzahn’s strength as a play-caller, his opponent said, is that “he does a really good job of getting the ball to his playmakers,” and the Tigers have a fair amount of those this season — running back JaTarvious Whitlow is third in the SEC with 463 rushing yards and first with seven touchdowns; speedster Anthony Schwartz is averaging 22.4 yards per play over the last two games; and big-play wide receiver Seth Williams, who caught eight passes for 161 yards and two scores against the Bulldogs.

It will be by far the best offense the Gators have gone up against this season after opening the season against Miami, FCS UT-Martin, Kentucky, Tennessee and FCS Towson. And Nix has Grantham’s respect.

“When you look at him, the first thought is he’s a guy who’s really progressed from Game 1 to now,” Florida’s defensive coordinator said. “Probably got a little more poise than he had earlier. Really good athlete that can make guys miss, very competitive guy on tape that works hard at knowing where to go with the ball, both from a pass standpoint but also on the quarterback designed runs.”

Nix also hasn’t seemed susceptible to the things that veteran defensive coordinators like to throw at true freshmen quarterbacks to rattle them, such as pressures and exotic blitzes. He fled the pocket a little too much against Oregon and completed less than 54 percent of his passes through the first four games of the season, but he has taken only five sacks through five games, and he has played 18 consecutive quarters without a turnover since he threw two first-half interceptions against the Ducks.

“I think that shows a lot of maturity for a young guy that he’s conscious of protecting the football, No. 1. Of course, that’s what we tell them, but a lot of quarterbacks don’t do it in the heat of the moment,” Malzahn said. “He understands the big picture of it, that we’ve got a good defense, we’ve got good special teams. That’s really been one of the biggest bright spots, I think, that he’s protecting the football.”

That will be put to the test Saturday. Florida has created almost as much havoc as Mississippi State. It didn’t affect the outcome of the game, but the Tigers fumbled four times against the Bulldogs and lost three of them. The only one they didn’t lose was Nix’s, which bounced out of bounds at the tail end of a 30-yard run in the second quarter.

Nix will also be facing what is likely the most hostile environment he has experienced yet. The 88,000-seat Ben Hill Griffin Stadium isn’t quite as big as Texas A&M’s 102,000-seat Kyle Field, but it is certainly more raucous. There aren’t many people he can ask about what it’s like to play there, either — senior right tackle Jack Driscoll is the only player on the roster who has, and that was as a redshirt freshman at UMass in 2016. It’s the only stadium in the SEC that Malzahn hasn’t been to.

The thing that worries the head coach most is communication; Nix’s ability to relay play calls and checks from the sideline to the rest of the offense and slide the protections in front of him. Malzahn said the team has piped in crowd noise and music during practices for the last six weeks to get players accustomed to what they will face on the road.

“I think he’s handled a lot of different environments, and that helps,” Tebow said, referencing Nix’s game-winning drive against Oregon at a neutral site, home debut at Jordan-Hare Stadium and first true road trip to Texas A&M. “I told him today, though, I said, ‘Hey, those were loud; The Swamp is going to be even louder.”

Malzahn believes Nix can handle all of that, however. Every week, he said, you can sense that the true freshman quarterback is getting more and more comfortable and that the game is slowing down for him. He’s reading defenses and going through his progressions better, and he’s more in tune with a wide receiver corps that has finally gotten healthy enough to practice with him consistently.

And The Swamp has been quieted before. Twenty-five years ago, an Auburn quarterback by the name of Patrick Nix, coming off a career game against Mississippi State, hit favorite target Frank Sanders with 30 seconds remaining to lift the Tigers to a 36-33 victory over the Gators.

Bo Nix has watched that play more times than he can count — it’s one of the ones he and his brothers used to reenact with their father in the backyard growing up. And, coincidentally, he is also coming off a career game against Mississippi State.

Maybe history will repeat itself.

“I knew when I came here that we were going to have games that were similar and flashbacks were going to be brought up. I think it’s cool,” Nix said. “Auburn, when they play at The Swamp, they play pretty well, and that’s for any year they’ve played at The Swamp. We’re just looking forward to playing.”

This article originally ran on annistonstar.com.

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