Why TJ Finley's decision to transfer to Auburn made sense for both parties both short and long-term
We knew that by the time that TJ Finley announced his next college choice on Monday, he was reportedly down to Alabama, Auburn, Houston and Penn State.
The former LSU quarterback had a legitimate Power 5 market after entering the transfer portal as the third-stringer in Baton Rouge. Why? He’s a rare quarterback with 4 years of eligibility and 5 games worth of SEC starts. He has the size needed to play immediately at 6-6, 240 pounds. And while Finley lost the starting job at LSU because he’s far from a perfect prospect — he struggled with dissecting pressure — there was value to be had by winning his transfer portal recruitment.
In an offseason that hasn’t exactly featured a ton of intriguing transfer portal options at the quarterback position, Finley was one of the few. One of those other options was Oregon transfer Tyler Shough, whom Auburn reportedly pursued but lost out to Texas Tech.
That led to Monday. Auburn, AKA the team with the starting quarterback who boasts more career starts than any SEC returner at the position, landed Finley.
If you’ve been paying attention, it made sense for Finley and Auburn, both in the short- and long-term.
Auburn had a clearer path to playing time Finley than Alabama, where the decorated Bryce Young is expected to have a stranglehold on the starting quarterback job for at least another 2 years and 5-star quarterback recruit Ty Simpson arrives next year (the coaching staff is also incredibly excited about true freshman Jalen Milroe).
Playing for Dana Holgorsen at Houston could’ve been attractive, but clearly, Finley wanted another shot at playing at a big-time program.
So why not Penn State, where Sean Clifford had an up-and-down career and is set to enter Year 5 in Happy Valley? The Lions lost Will Levis to Kentucky and Micah Bowens to Oklahoma. Assuming it wasn’t strictly a geographical decision for Finley (a Ponchatoula, La., native), Clifford technically has 2 years of eligibility left. Even though Mike Yurich is the new offensive coordinator, James Franklin recruited Clifford and started him in 20 games. That’s still not the easiest situation to break through for Finley.
That brings us to Auburn, where Bo Nix was the obvious QB1 throughout spring with a new coaching staff. But that last part bears repeating.
That’s a new coaching staff that didn’t recruit Nix and a new coaching staff that didn’t stick with him as a starter throughout 2 years of inconsistent play. Bryan Harsin and Mike Bobo don’t necessarily owe Nix the starting job. They don’t owe him a non-competitive quarterback battle so he feels comfortable as the guy, either.
They’re going to give Finley an opportunity to compete for the starting job. Can he be QB1 from the jump? Possibly. I’d probably still bet on Nix, but this goes beyond that. It’s not just trying to light a fire under Nix, who by all accounts, has never lacked motivation to succeed. This wasn’t some psychological ploy from the Auburn coaching staff.
It was a move made to add depth for a team that didn’t want to have former Bowling Green transfer Grant Loy or true freshman Dematrius Davis as the backup, and will now theoretically at least have Finley in that role.
But Finley could also be Auburn’s answer at quarterback. In that limited sample size at LSU, Finley excelled with a clean pocket, and as you can see from this from @SEC_StatCat, the intermediate passing game and working off play-action was where he thrived:
Per my charting, amongst SEC returners Finley has
– Top intermediate Adj Comp%, Acc%
– Top dropback play action Success Rate with top3 Depth Adj Acc%, 1D+TD Rate
– Top3 cumulative profile when passing “behind the chains”
But still raw especially vs pressure/ targeting Deep pic.twitter.com/nAYfCJXIDC
— SEC StatCat (@SEC_StatCat) May 24, 2021
I’d expect to see a lot of play-action and intermediate passing routes in Bobo’s offense. That hasn’t exactly been a calling card of Nix at Auburn.
One would think if the Auburn staff was dead set on Nix as the quarterback of the present and future, they wouldn’t have appealed to Finley as much as they did. At the same time, Finley’s addition doesn’t necessarily mean that the coaching staff is bailing on Nix. It would still be beneficial if Auburn could do something that Nix’s previous 2 offensive coordinators couldn’t. That is, turn him into one of the league’s better quarterbacks. Harsin wins big in that scenario.
But what’s also beneficial for Auburn’s new staff? Not being stuck with Nix if that gauntlet of a first-half schedule proves to be too big of a challenge. Auburn of course will travel to Penn State in nonconference play and then it’ll kick off SEC play with a game at LSU and then home against Georgia. And just that wasn’t brutal enough, Game No. 7 is a trip to Arkansas, where Barry Odom returns all but 1 starter on his defense.
Considering Nix’s troubling home-road splits, nobody should be surprised if Finley was Auburn’s starter by that bye week in mid-October.
Nix’s leash as a starter is shorter now. There’s no denying that. Even if Finley struggles to grasp the new offense he signed up to play in, there’s a perfectly realistic scenario for him to be an SEC starter at some point in 2021.
This is going to be a much different battle than the one Finley and Nix engaged in last Halloween. That was a scary afternoon for Finley, who made plenty of true freshman mistakes in a 48-11 blowout loss on The Plains. Nix got the upper hand that day.
Now, though, all things are equal. Unfortunately for both of them and the rest of the SEC, nobody will get the benefit of throwing passes against Bo Pelini’s defense. Finley and Nix both have the same new playbook to learn with the same weapons around them. Finley said he and Bobo went over plays on Zoom calls several days in a row leading up to the announcement on Monday.
— Garland Gillen (@garlandgillen) May 24, 2021
Finley recognized that his opportunity came and went at LSU. Most quarterbacks at this level don’t approach that point as true freshmen, but Finley knew that he had to find a new place to play, or else there was a good chance his debut against South Carolina would end up being the peak of his college career.
Auburn addressed an important need, and it did so without waiting until fall camp started. That in itself was another win for Harsin and Co.
Finley and Auburn both made a decision that could yield significant short- and long-term results. They took advantage of the inevitable change coming to the SEC’s intra-conference transfer rule, which previously forced undergraduates to sit for a year. Barring a stunning vote, that rule will change when SEC presidents vote on June 3.
Finley found his second SEC West home in as many years. He was the first scholarship quarterback that Harsin and Bobo successfully hand-plucked to come to The Plains.
Will they ride off into the sunset together? Time will tell.
At the very least, they were wise to join forces.