Auburn football: Way-too-early look at the 2022 Tigers
Auburn seemed to be clicking on all cylinders midway through the 2021 seasons. Then, the engine locked up.
The Tigers controlled their fate in early November. They had just beaten one of the better teams in the nation, Ole Miss, and could make their way to the SEC Championship Game and beyond if they won out. That seems like ancient history. We all knew Auburn wasn’t ready to compete for a championship despite its surge in the first half of the season. However, no one could have predicted the free fall that was on the horizon.
Auburn lost its last 5 games and finished the season with a 6-7 record. First-year Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin went from a solid — and perhaps great — coaching hire to a ho-hum replacement for former coach Gus Malzahn. Did Auburn really trade up by switching coaches? The record doesn’t show it, but there certainly seemed to be more direction within the program. Let’s not forget that a key injury to quarterback Bo Nix in the Mississippi State game on Nov. 13 pretty much ended any chance the Tigers had to close the season on a positive note.
The Tigers had high and low moments in 2021. What will the 2022 season bring?
Here is a way-too-early look at Auburn’s 2022 season:
What worked in 2021
The running game worked for most of the season until Nix’s injury made the passing game much easier to defend. Auburn also utilized bigger formations with more tight ends and fullbacks, which was a considerable departure from the prevailing approach used by the rest of the college football world. While most programs would rather be built on light players and speed, Auburn could be on the front end of a trend with a bigger, more physical offense. It worked for Georgia. In order for it to work for Auburn, it will have to upgrade its talent. However, it’s still a unique offensive approach that opposing teams have to prepare for. The Tigers were also versatile and fundamentally sound on defense with coordinator Derek Mason heading up the unit.
What didn’t work in 2021
Consistency is the hallmark of any great program. Auburn had very little of that last season. The Tigers struggled against Georgia State in a game they should have easily won. Auburn beat Ole Miss, which finished the season just outside of the top 10. The Tigers almost beat Alabama before an incredible comeback by the Crimson Tide. The lack of consistency is a sign of a culture that still needs a major overhaul. Auburn needs better players, but they also need more maturity as well.
The Nix era is over in Auburn since he surprisingly decided to transfer to Oregon. Nix’s ability to scramble helped Auburn at various times when they struggled in pass protection. The Tigers won’t likely have that this season. TJ Finley looks like the obvious starter right now and he is a very statuesque quarterback. Finley’s sub-par play in relief of Nix could led the Tigers to sign transfers Zach Calzada (Texas A&M) and Robby Ashford, a 4-star from Hoover who signed with Oregon in 2020.
Nix is undoubtedly the biggest loss. He wasn’t a great quarterback, but there were times when he was exactly what the Tigers needed. Erratic? Yes. However, his scrambling ability helped avoid countless sacks.
The Tigers will have to replace their top two tacklers at linebacker: Zakoby McClain and Chandler Wooten. That will be tough. Harsin will also have to replace edge rusher TD Moultry and shutdown cornerback Roger McCreary, who is showing up in the first round of several mock drafts.
Running backs Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter are a formidable one-two punch. Bigsby is one of the better tailbacks in the nation. It would be wise for Harsin to find better and more ways to utilize him. Bigsby seemed visibly frustrated at times last season when he wasn’t on the field in key situations. Tight end John Samuel Shenker’s return is a huge positive considering the way Harsin leans on his tight ends.
Defensively, Colby Wooten is a key returnee in the middle of the defensive line. On the edge, Derick Hall and Eku Leota are bona fide, standout players on the edge, especially Hall. However, depth could be an issue up front if Auburn can’t pick up a defensive lineman or two in the transfer portal or find a freshman who can fill the bill, which is asking a lot in the SEC.
The Tigers signed a 4-star QB (Holden Geriner), but the 2022 battle likely will come down to Finley and the 2 transfers. The Tigers have a strong recruiting class with their secondary, defensive linemen and receivers.
The Tigers added 3 4-star high school recruits to the secondary — and all 3 rank among the top 25 nationally at their position. They also added the nation’s top JUCO corner, Keionte Scott, and nation’s top JUCO DL, Jeffrey M’ba, who has had an interesting football journey, to say the least.