10 questions I have as Auburn enters preseason camp
The 2021 college football season grows ever closer, and so too does the first game in the Bryan Harsin era at Auburn.
Coming off a 6-5 season and a coaching change, there’s definitely more uncertainty than Auburn fans are used to, but the roster that Harsin and Co. inherited is much more robust than most coaches get in similar situations.
Did the Tigers bottom out in 2020 with only greener pastures ahead, or will Auburn face even more growing pains as they hope to return to the top of the SEC? These are the 10 biggest questions facing Auburn this preseason …
1. Is this Bo Nix’s year?
New coaching regime aside, the biggest elephant in the room for Auburn this season is what to make of Bo Nix. By the end of this season he’ll either be the G.O.A.T or the goat. Auburn’s and Nix’s successes are tied at the hip.
Complicating things will be a lack of a certified stud at receiver for the time being, but success for Nix doesn’t necessarily just have to be defined by more passing yards. Is he staying in the pocket? Is he more consistently hitting open receivers? Has he reduced the self-inflicted wounds?
Nix may never live up to his 5-star freshman hype, but can he do enough to not be the reason Auburn loses games, something which wasn’t always the case in 2020.
2. What is Nix’s grace period?
Speaking of trying to progress in his third year as a starter, how long will Auburn fans give Nix until they try to run him off the field with their pitchforks that had previously been reserved for Gus Malzahn?
Obviously the Tigers brought in TJ Finley from LSU to immediately compete and fans are always excited to see a freshman QB like Dematrius Davis get some snaps, but Nix likely has a bit more time to adjust in the first year of a new system than had it been the third season of Malzahn.
Harsin and Mike Bobo are supposed to be quarterback savants, but a new system is a new system, and it’s not like Nix has Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz to look for as a security blanket.
If Nix’s per game numbers stay the same as 2020, when is the earliest time to pull the plug? Would he make it to mid-October against Arkansas at that point?
3. Can Tank Bigsby stay healthy?
With the offense a work in progress, the one known commodity will be the reigning SEC Freshman of the Year, Tank Bigsby. It’s fair to assume Auburn fans will be seeing a lot of Bigsby with the ball in his hands on offense and special teams, but there is a fine line with over-doing it.
Bigsby struggled to stay 100% last season, and he was clearly impacted by the accumulation of injuries by year’s end, despite having a career-high 192 yards rushing in the SEC finale against Mississippi State. He’s not exactly a guy that avoids contact, so just how sustainable is his style of play when the cat is out of the bag about just how great of a player he is?
He’s Auburn’s best option to return kicks, but maybe keeping him on the sidelines for special teams will be just one more way to try to reduce his workload, as well as a decent dose of Shaun Shivers.
4. Who is WR1?
The biggest handicap in the first year of Harsin’s offense will be the receiving position.
Shedrick Jackson and Elijah Canion lead the team in terms of returning receiving yardage from a year ago — a whopping combined 9 catches for 164 yards. Will one of these players take a giant leap in their first year as a go-to guy, or will it be a new face?
Ja’Varrius Johnson was all the rage this spring but he’s yet to prove he can stay healthy. Perhaps the best new addition to the receiving corps will be former 5-star recruit and Georgia transfer, Demetris Robertson. Unquestionably Robertson has the most raw talent among the pass-catching options, but will a legal issue prevent him from ever making a significant impact?
5. How important will the tight end position be?
For what Auburn may lack in terms of depth at receiver, the Tigers for some reason have a ton of tight ends, despite Malzahn’s proclivity to not regularly use the position as a pass catcher.
It was clear from the get-go of the spring game that tight end is going to take on a much more prominent role this season with a heavy dose of 12- and 22-personnel, and with guys like John Samuel Shenker, Tyler Fromm, Brandon Frazier and Luke Deal to choose from among others.
Is it crazy to think a tight end could finish as high as No. 2 or 3 in terms of receiving production?
6. Can the offensive line be average?
Every single unknown thing on the Auburn offense in 2021 will be made a heck of a lot better with improvement by the offensive line.
With all 8 of Auburn’s offensive linemen who made starts in 2020 set to return, lack of experience isn’t a valid excuse anymore. It comes down to execution.
Bo Nix will look so much better when he’s not scrambling for his life. Receivers are going to be more open when they’re alotted more time to get deeper into their routes. Some bigger holes for Tank Bigsby to run through would go a long way in keeping him on the field.
Improved offensive line play is essential.
7. Are Owen Pappoe and Zakoby McClain up for an encore?
McClain’s conference-leading 113 tackles and a combined 206 tackles from the pair is a tough act to follow, but sustained veteran excellence from the linebacker duo is needed as a new defensive scheme is ushered in with Derek Mason.
Auburn’s defense should be toward the top of the SEC this season, but having the best pair of linebackers in the SEC would go a long way in helping tame some of those high-powered offenses in order to keep Auburn’s own offense out of a shootout.
If Auburn plans to keep games close, it’s going to be led by a defensive effort, and Pappoe and McClain will be the backbone.
8. Can Auburn keep the Penn State game within a score?
Early parts of a schedule are always important, but even more so when its the first few games for a new coaching staff.
Akron, Alabama State and Georgia State should all be cupcake games, but a trip to Beaver Stadium in September could make or break the season early on. If Auburn can keep things close in that hostile atmosphere, that will go a long way in building momentum for the rest of the year.
Winning at Penn State isn’t as important as just being competitive. It’s Auburn’s and Harsin’s first real dress rehearsal before opening SEC play with LSU and Georgia, and confidence could be at an all-time high with a great showing in Happy Valley.
9. How bought in are the players?
One of the more interesting things in Harsin’s otherwise lukewarm SEC Media Days appearance was his reference to players essentially quitting on the season last year. There were a lot of assumptions that that may have been the case, but to hear a coach actually say so just speaks to perhaps some of the lack of cohesion among teammates in 2020.
It’s easy for players to be excited about a new coach, but how long will the honeymoon last if Auburn hits its expected troubles along the way? Just as important as building a winning team on the field will be the type of chemistry Harsin can build off it, and hopefully have some of that positivity from players lead to wins on the recruiting trail.
10. What does success look like in Year 1 of Bryan Harsin?
No one is expecting an SEC championship in 2021 for Auburn, but where exactly is the bar set?
The media picked the Tigers to finish 5th in the SEC West and they were 1 of only 2 schools in the division along with Mississippi State to not receive a first-place vote.
Is 8-4 the goal, with a loss to Penn State and then 3 losses from the tetrad of SEC behemoths in Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M and Alabama? How about 1-11 with a win over the Crimson Tide?
More realistically, success in 2021 will likely be defined by wins not on the scoreboard and things like improvements by certain position groups and a return to the top 25 of recruiting rankings.