The year may have changed, but the result in Friday’s Citrus Bowl imitated how the previous 3 months and change had unfolded for Auburn. There was a lot to be desired.

To be fair, the Tigers showed a lot more heart than they could have in the 35-19 loss to Northwestern, briefly hinting at a comeback in the 3rd quarter before the wheels ultimately fell off. But to borrow an idea from the great philosopher Dan Mullen, the last game the 2020 team played was 20 days ago.

Auburn was going to be in for a challenge against the Wildcats with a full roster. But with the injuries and opt-outs of the Tigers’ best offensive playmaker, fastest wide receiver, a starting offensive lineman and 2 of their best defensive backs, among others, a loss felt all but a fait accompli.

Bo Nix looked as uncomfortable as ever, still rolling out of the pocket on every other play, and the Auburn defense was picked apart by a slightly-better-than-mediocre QB Peyton Ramsey. But what did you expect from a team with only 4 days of practice since changing head coaches?

The most exciting part of the otherwise lackluster broadcast was the 2nd-quarter appearance of head-coach-to-be Bryan Harsin — not because Harsin is some sort of engaging and charismatic personality who makes for good television, but because the former Boise State head coach offers hope and optimism. His appearance on New Year’s Day was all the more fitting, as Tigers fans, like the rest of the world, just needed some glimmer of hope for 2021 with such a disaster of a year now finally in the rearview mirror.

“I know the importance of Auburn football,” Harsin said during the game. “I know from conversations I’ve had how excited coaches and future players want to be a part of what we’re doing. My responsibility is to show that vision and why I came to Auburn and things I believe about this program.”

Sure the Citrus Bowl could have been used as a springboard toward rounding out the 2021 recruiting class or building momentum heading into the spring, but in a period of so much transition, who can blame the players and lame-duck coaches for lacking a bit of focus. Heck, news broke during the 1st half that interim head coach Kevin Steele wouldn’t be retained on Harsin’s staff, not that that comes as any surprise.

With the 2020-21 season now in the books, Auburn can officially begin preparing for the future. They will begin by watching their archnemesis almost inevitably win another national championship, but that will be followed shortly after with Harsin building his staff and placing the finishing touches on his roster.

Harsin’s biggest offseason assignment will, of course, be addressing the quarterback position. Harsin is no stranger to developing quarterbacks, and if he is able to just turn Nix into something akin to his Citrus Bowl counterpart, Auburn’s offense would be in for a major upgrade with arguably the league’s best returning running back set to carry the load for the better part of the next 2 seasons. The last thing Auburn fans want to hear after Nix’s Citrus Bowl performance is that he deserves a 3rd year to show growth, but he did pass for nearly 300 yards against the nation’s No. 11 pass defense while still making those now trademark bone-headed plays.

Harsin will have to play defense on current QB commit Dematrius Davis as well as wade into the transfer portal if Harsin doesn’t think Nix is the answer. Auburn’s offensive coordinator is of equal importance to updating the offense to keep pace with the high-flying offenses of the SEC West.

With Auburn now out of the bowl game purgatory and the staleness of what had become the latter years of the Gus Malzahn era, it’s time for the Tigers to turn the page and return to SEC contender status. If Harsin was able to consistently build a power in the state of Idaho, there’s no reason that same success shouldn’t follow in the hotbed of the South.

Take one from Northwestern. The Wildcats will never be Ohio State, but Pat Fitzgerald now routinely has a bunch of 3-star athletes vying for a conference title. Auburn won’t be Alabama for the foreseeable future, but 4 and 5 conference losses should never be the norm.

“When you’re going to go over 200 miles an hour in a car in 6 seconds, that thing better work, right?” Harsin said at his introductory press conference last week. “… We work on cars, we build cars, it takes time, and people get extremely impatient. Do you want it done right, or do you want it right now?”

Auburn has spent 6 of the past 7 seasons slowly driving toward mediocrity. The program has finally installed a new driver, and he’s ready to return the Tigers to pole position. Now that’s a New Year’s resolution Auburn fans can get behind.