Auburn football: Handing out team superlatives for the 2021 regular season
It’s understandable for Auburn to be disappointed. Things certainly didn’t work out as the Tigers had hoped.
Auburn was once in control of its fate to win the SEC and more. We all suspected that wouldn’t last. It didn’t. The Tigers lost their last 4 games, finished the regular season 6-6 (3-5 in the SEC) and wound up in the Birmingham Bowl opposite Houston. However, there is reason to think that brighter days are ahead.
In his first season at Auburn, coach Bryan Harsin inspired his team to play hard and physical. There are countless programs that would take that attribute and let the chips fall where they may. Harsin is a very solid coach — at the very least. Now, he just needs to prove that he can recruit at a high level in order to compete for championships. He’s proven he can coach them and manage games. However, given what happened against Alabama, Harsin needs to make sure that closing out games doesn’t become a concern.
Here are the superlatives for Auburn’s 2021 regular season:
Bo Nix is sidelined with a season-ending ankle injury, but there’s no denying he was the most valuable player when he was on the field. First, Nix plays quarterback, which is the most difficult and most important position in the game. That makes him valuable, especially since there was a severe drop-off at the position when he was hurt. Nix, however, is valuable in another way. He was benched in September during a game. That had to be embarrassing. Nix didn’t let that hold him back. He returned to the field and continued to lead his team. Auburn could have been in disarray had Nix let a quarterback controversy envelope the team. That didn’t happen.
While Nix deserves credit for how he lead his team, running back Tank Bigsby deserves plenty of praise for productivity. The sophomore rushed for 1,003 yards and 10 touchdowns on 207 carries this season. He also caught 16 passes for 116 yards this season. Auburn was better when Bigsby was on the field even though there were a couple of strange instances in which his coaches didn’t agree with that notion.
I’m going to cop out on this superlative. Apologies to my editor. However, I can’t pick just one. The Defensive MVP award is officially presented to Auburn’s defensive front, most notably edge rushers Derick Hall, Eku Leota and TD Moultry along with defensive end Colby Wooden. They accounted for 24 sacks, 37 tackles for a loss and 183 tackles this season. It’s hard to imagine what Auburn’s record would have been without them. A bowl game certainly would have been out of the question.
True Freshman of the Year
Running back Jarquez Hunter was not a highly rated prospect when he signed with Auburn. The former Mississippi Mr. Football had scholarship offers from several schools but not many notable programs. Iowa, Virginia and Mississippi State were the most prominent. Hunter didn’t let that bother him. He became the change-up tailback to Bigsby while rushing for 576 yards and 3 touchdowns on 84 carries.
Transfer of the Year
Leota transferred to Auburn with a respectful résumé. He earned 3rd-team All-Big Ten honors at Northwestern. He left to become a Tiger, in part, because of the SEC’s gameday atmosphere and fan support. However, Leota also did his homework. Leota decided he wanted to be a part of Auburn defensive coordinator Derek Mason’s game plan. Why? It’s simple. In Mason’s scheme, Leota believed that he could showcase more of his skills if he were allowed to lineup in multiple positions, including inside the offensive tackle’s inside shoulder. That way he could win more 1-on-1 battles. See, simple. The move worked. Leota has 9 tackles for a loss this season, including 6 sacks. That research paid off.
It seems like ages ago that Hall was ejected for targeting in a season-opening loss against Kentucky last season. The rest of Hall’s season wasn’t nearly that bad, but it wasn’t that impressive either. Hall had just 21 tackles and 3.5 sacks last season. His stat line looks a bit different this year. As part of an overall improved defensive front, Hall registered 12 tackles for a loss, including nine sacks, and 51 tackles this season.
Auburn’s ability to stymie Alabama in the Iron Bowl has to be the biggest surprise of the season. The Tigers had nothing tangible to play for while Bama was playing for yet another shot at a national championship. That didn’t seem to matter. Auburn’s attacking defense kept Alabama off-balance. That kept the Crimson Tide from scoring a single point until midway through the fourth quarter. Alabama went on to win 24-22 in 4 overtimes, but Auburn wasn’t even expected to compete in a game that they dominated for most of the contest.
Play of the Year
Auburn’s 6-6 record isn’t anything to brag about. However, things could have been much worse had quarterback TJ Finley not led the Tigers to a comeback victory against Georgia State. Finley took over for Nix, who struggled mightily with his accuracy before being benched in the second half.
The game was ultimately decided as Finely avoided pressure from a Georgia State defender and found receiver Shedrick Jackson for a 10-yard touchdown reception on 4th down with just 45 seconds left in the game. Auburn converted on the ensuing 2-point conversion and took the a 27-24 lead over the Panthers. Georgia State didn’t handle that well. Panther quarterback Darren Grainger threw an interception that was returned 36 yards for a touchdown by Smoke Monday. Auburn won 34-24 in a game that it looked destined to lose.
Win of the Year
It seems rather odd that Auburn was able to beat Ole Miss considering how the season played out. Auburn lost 4 consecutive SEC games after beating the Rebels. Ole Miss won its last 4 games after losing to the Tigers. The Auburn-Ole Miss game is even more surprising with a quick glance at the box score. Auburn led the entire game, including 28-17 at halftime, and didn’t allow Ole Miss’ offense to score a touchdown in the second half.