Better or worse? Previewing Auburn's offense in 2021
Editor’s note: This is part 3 of SDS’ annual series previewing every SEC team’s offense. Coming Wednesday: LSU. Next week: The SEC East.
Auburn’s offense is an enigma. There may not be an offense in the SEC West with a wider disparity between its potential ceiling and potential floor than the one Auburn will have in 2021.
For what it’s worth today, Auburn finished middle of the SEC in nearly every offensive statistic in 2020. They averaged 25.1 points — 9th in the league and a touchdown off their 2019 pace vs. SEC opponents. There was little development from any of the returning starters, and aside from a breakout freshman campaign by Tank Bigsby, the offense had grown stale. It was time for a house cleaning.
The tools are there for success in 2021. Bryan Harsin and Mike Bobo both have proven track records, at one point or another, of developing offensive talent. The Tigers have the last two SEC Freshman of Year winners. The entire starting offensive line returns, and while the receivers are unproven, spring ball showed signs of potential.
But then there’s the glass-half-empty perspective. Maybe Bo Nix was just high school hype. The offensive line is back, but they were about as effective as a colander at stopping water last year, and there’s no sure-thing pass-catcher who can replace Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz. Just how steep will the learning curve be with a new scheme?
The jury is out on what measure of success Harsin can have in his first year on The Plains, but change was needed, particularly on offense. So what can be expected from the Tigers on that side of the ball in 2021?
Passing game: Worse
Projecting the Auburn passing game at this point in the year is a bit like asking how a movie will be when you don’t know the actors, plot, director or producer.
For one, there’s no guarantee that Bo Nix is the starting quarterback by the time Georgia comes to Jordan-Hare. Nix showed very little improvement from Year 1 to Year 2, posting almost identical numbers. He still hasn’t completed 60% of his passes in a season and last year his TD-to-INT ratio actually worsened a bit.
But even if Nix does retain the starting job, what exactly is he working with? The Tigers are tasked with trying to replace over 70% of their receiving yards and over 80% of their receiving touchdowns from a season ago.
Elijah Canion closed out 2020 on a high point and Ja’Varrius Johnson had a strong spring, but there’s no combination on this roster that is expected to come close to the production of Williams and Schwartz, not to mention Eli Stove.
If there was anything to glean from A-Day, the tight end position will be much more predominantly featured in this offense, which is good news given that Auburn is fairly deep at the position with John Samuel Shenker, Luke Deal, Brandon Frazier and Tyler Fromm to name a few. It’s safe two say we’ll see a lot more 2-tight end personnel in 2021 than maybe the last decade combined.
Deal told reporters this spring that he’s excited about the changes and possibilities.
“It’s definitely different,” Deal said. “We’re all having a good time right now. It’s definitely difficult. It’s more of a pro-style offense, and we’re having to learn a lot of different things which was — early on it was tough. We’re starting to get used to things. Now it’s a little more fun and a little more advanced, and we’re enjoying it. We’re a big part of the offense right now, so that’s something that everybody’s looking forward to for this season.”
Outside of receiver, there’s really no bigger question about this team than to what degree the offensive line will improve from 2020. Regardless if it’s Nix or transfer TJ Finley taking snaps come October, if there isn’t a modicum of improvement from the 8 returning starters when it comes to giving the quarterback more time in the pocket, the Auburn offense is destined to stall, no matter how Bo Jackson-esque Tank Bigsby is in Year 2.
Running game: Better
The Tigers finished 2020 ranked 7th in the SEC rushing the ball, averaging 162.5 yards a game, but by all standards that should stand to improve in 2021.
Tank Bigsby is, in my opinion, the best returning back in the SEC. When healthy, he frequently runs through first contact and excels at making defenders miss. Especially early in the season to relieve pressure off Nix, Bigsby is going to be a workhorse and focal point of Harsin and Bobo’s offense. Bigsby has plenty of room for upside in his sophomore season, which is saying something considering he rushed for 834 yards and 5 touchdowns in a shortened rookie season.
But Bigsby won’t be alone in carrying the load from the running back position.
Shaun Shivers was always a competent Robin to Bigsby’s Batman, but he looked particularly strong in the spring scrimmage, albeit take all A-Day stats with a grain of salt.
Shivers ran for 276 yards on 62 carries last season, which is about 8 carries a game. If spring told us anything, that number should be expected to hit double-digits with the quarterback going under center more often and Bigsby potentially taking off entire series for rest, rather than select downs.
Again so much of the running game’s success will hinge on the offensive line. Auburn finished 7th last season in the SEC in tackles for loss allowed, and that’s with how many countless times Bigsby broke initial contact. Nix will continue to be used as a rusher as well, but he must improve his reads and decision-making. Too often, still, he flees and takes losses rather than getting rid of the football. This is particularly troublesome when he is pushed to his left, and this year, he won’t have jump-ball artist Williams to bail him out.
Kicking game: Better
Anders Carlson led the SEC with 20 field goals. He made 2 from beyond 50 yards and made all 5 tries between 40 and 49 yards. There may not be a more reliable kicker in the league, and it’s maybe a bit surprising he opted to return, rather than join his brother in the NFL, despite the coaching upheaval at Auburn.
Under the notion that Tank Bigsby would be returning kicks again, Auburn was already poised to be a threat for opposing special teams, but the Tigers got a new weapon this spring from the transfer portal.
Donovan Kaufman is a former 3-star recruit who played safety and kick returner for Vanderbilt last year in his freshman season. He started just 2 games before contracting COVID-19 and developing myocarditis, but in those games, he averaged 27.4 yards a return, which led the SEC.
Aside from the to-be-determined receiving corps, Auburn returns every other offensive starter from 2020. Naturally with another offseason of development, and what is hopefully better coaching guidance, the offense should stand to improve this season. To what degree depends on whether Nix can enter the upper third of SEC passers.
While the talent is set to be better this year, offense isn’t performed in a vacuum, and Auburn was gifted no breaks by the schedule gods. Calling plays just 3 weeks into a new scheme at a hostile Beaver Stadium that will potentially be Penn State’s Whiteout is no cupcake. Neither is trying to do so in Baton Rouge just a couple of weeks later.
There are bound to be growing pains in 2021, but this roster is built to win now.