Auburn football: Grading 2021 Tigers regular season
Auburn’s incredibly eventful season nearly ended in grand fashion in the season finale against Alabama with a victory in the Iron Bowl. But instead of celebrating a monumental victory to end the regular season, Auburn must look back at a season full of “what if” thoughts.
Auburn certainly had high points in 2021 that earned national respect. Then, the Tigers closed out the 2021 season with a month that they’d like the college football world to ignore. Auburn finished 6-6 overall, 3-5 in the SEC. That won’t sit well with an Auburn team that lost four consecutive SEC games to end the season on a very sour note.
Auburn was once 6-2 and 3-1 in the SEC. That seems like a long time ago.
Here are the grades for the Tigers as we look back at a season of hope that was derailed by a succession of failures:
The Tigers began the season with Bo Nix as their starter. Nix was known for his scrambling and his erratic passing. Accuracy was never a strength for the junior. However, he laid some of those concerns to rest early in the season thanks to first-year head coach Bryan Harsin’s simplified system. Then, the accuracy issues reared their ugly head when Nix was benched for T.J. Finley against Georgia State in a comeback victory for the Tigers. Finley took over again when Nix suffered a broken ankle against Mississippi State on Nov. 13. The good news was that Finley was ready. The bad news was that he had the same accuracy problems that plagued Nix.
Offensive line: C+
Auburn’s offensive line was slightly above average this season in both running the football and protecting the passer. The latter became more of an issue when Nix was injured. Nix knew when things were breaking down and would instinctively abandon the pocket. Sure, he sometimes ran when he didn’t need to, but most often he fled when the pressure was too great. Finley, who is less mobile in the pocket, didn’t have that ability and was easier for defenses to zone in on. If Auburn coaches are considering Finley as a long-term solution at quarterback, the Tigers must improve in pass protection or make Finley more mobile.
Receivers/Tight ends: C+
Auburn had five players with over 250 yards receiving this season. There’s good and bad in that. Harsin’s system is designed to spread the ball around. Mission accomplished. However, Auburn never had a bona fide superstar receiver emerge at wideout. Auburn’s offense is also designed to feed the ball to its tight ends. The Tigers will miss senior John Samuel Shenker when he moves on to the NFL. He has been a perfect fit for Harsin’s offense.
Running backs: A
One could certainly argue that running back Tank Bigsby was Auburn’s best offensive player. The stats would back that up. The sophomore rushed for 1,003 yards and 10 touchdowns on 207 carries while averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Bigsby was the big bruising tailback while Jarquez Hunter emerged as a perfect complement. The freshman was a bit shiftier and quicker than Bigsby. Hunter ran for 576 yards and three touchdowns on 84 carries for a 6.9-yard average per attempt. The combination of Bigsby and Hunter was as good as any in the SEC.
Defensive line: A
Auburn’s defensive front was plenty talented before former Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason made them better as defensive coordinator. Mason took advantage of edge rushers Derick Hall, Eku Leota and T.D. Moultry along with defensive end Colby Wooden. The four showed enough versatility that Mason could make subtle changes and everyone benefitted. Those four players accounted for 24 sacks, 37 tackles for loss and 183 total tackles.
In fairness to Auburn’s linebackers, some of the Tigers’ production came from edge rushers like Hall, Leota and Moultry. They could technically be considered linebackers if they didn’t have their hand on the ground when the ball was snapped. As for more traditional linebackers, Auburn lacked some production at that position. Zakoby McClain was the best of the true linebackers. He had 95 tackles, eight tackles for loss and two sacks.
Auburn’s secondary was woefully average this season. The Tigers’ defensive backs only accounted for seven interceptions and were ranked toward the bottom of the SEC in most every statistic that keeps track of passing defense. In defense of Auburn’s secondary, it was often asked to play man coverage as the Tigers tried to blitz and apply more pressure up front.
Special Teams: B-
Auburn’s punt coverage team was spectacular this season. Punter Oscar Chapman had 20 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. Chapman also hit 12 punts of more than 50 yards. Chapman proved to be an unlikely weapon for Auburn, especially against Alabama as he constantly pinned the Crimson Tide deep in their own territory.
Kicker Anders Carlson wasn’t as consistent as he needed to be. The senior made 14-of-21 field goal attempts but missed 2-of-4 from 30 to 39 yards and didn’t hit one over 50 yards in 3 opportunities this season. As far as kick and punt returns, Auburn didn’t get much there this season. That’s something they need to address in the offseason.
It looked as if head coach Bryan Harsin would be a highly rated coach in his first season at Auburn. That was before Harsin and his team lost four consecutive SEC games to finish the season. Harsin’s team had to adapt to his style on offense and his tough, physical approach. To his credit, his players didn’t fold even as things were going bad — for the most part.
An optimist would look at the Mississippi State and Alabama games as games that Auburn could have and should have won. A pessimist would point to the fact that Auburn allowed historic comebacks in both games and could have lost to lowly Georgia State. Harsin’s coaching ability is somewhere in the middle.
Auburn had more talent than most teams that had just fired their previous head coach. A 6-6 record wouldn’t have been considered a success before the season and certainly won’t be considered a success after the Tigers were 6-2 in November. Auburn looked like an 8-4 team through much of the season. Then, the bottom fell out. Barely making a bowl game can’t be considered a rousing success even if the Tigers do have a new coaching staff.