By Wil Crews
I believe in Bryan Harsin as Auburn University’s head football coach. But he’s got a lot of work to do.
In their 35-19 bowl game loss against Northwestern on Friday, I saw an Auburn team that looked listless and lifeless. Like a team with less talent than their opponent and even less direction. Yes, the Tigers were without star offensive playmakers Tank Bigsby and Anthony Schwartz. Yes, they had nothing to play for while Northwestern had one of the best seasons in program history on the line. Yes, Auburn were without a head coach. But that doesn’t change how the Tigers looked as bad on Saturday as they’ve looked since a 3-9 season in 2012.
Although it was hard to watch, it seemed like a fitting culmination of the Gus Malzahn era at Auburn. One that started with such promise slowly disintegrated into mediocrity. And Saturday was mediocre.
Thankfully, however, the fan base can now put that period behind them. The football team can move forward. But it won’t be easy. Going into 2021 with a clean slate, there are masses of questions facing the program and their new coach. There’s a good, bad and ugly reality facing the Tigers.
This isn’t Star Wars, but there is a new hope. The Tigers have a young, proven, successful and charismatic head coach who demands excellence from his players. And he has a young team on which he can build No longer will “same ol’ Auburn,” be uttered from the mouths of Auburn fans. . . at least for a while. It’s a refreshing reset. Simply hiring an outsider like Harsin was an unorthodox move from the university and a signal of good things to come. Harsin oozes the right mix of composure and ferocity. He brings a “no BS” mentality to a program that – let’s face it – has been surrounded by lots of “BS” recently. Auburn is a cow college after all. But farm animal business aside, Auburn looks to have a leader on its hands. Hopefully Harsin will be the coach who brings the consistency and class that Auburn needs to close their gap on their rivals and pacify a fan base with unrelenting high expectations.
Auburn is definitively behind the curve in terms of competing with their SEC rivals. The Tide look better than ever. A&M has stability with Jimbo Fisher. Georgia has a strong recruiting basis with Kirby Smart. Despite a rough season, LSU underwent its culture change last year and appears confident in Orgeron. Dan Mullen may be crazy, but he’s the perfect fit for any unhinged “Florida Man” who wants to play for the Gators.
Harsin has to find a way, without any Dixie connections, to compete with these rival coaches in recruiting the best of the best to Auburn. The first thing he needs to do to deal with that is fill out his staff. Auburn is losing a respected and reputable defensive coordinator in Kevin Steele, and a less proven offensive coordinator but a good recruiter in his own right, Chad Morris. Furthermore, the 2021 Auburn recruiting class has already fallen behind its typical marks to no fault of Harsin. Filling out his staff with young, innovative and polarizing assistant coaches will go a long way for the new head ball coach on the Plains. Retaining quality in-house recruiters like linebacker coach Travis Williams and running back coach Cadillac Williams would be smart decision too in my opinion.
It will be an uphill battle as the “Auburn sells itself” mantra will be useless as long as COVID-19 restrictions prevent recruits from visiting campus. Harsin will have to sell his recruits on football alone. Surrounding himself with the right company – quickly – will only ease that process.
Auburn might be severely lacking talent in 2021. And there is nothing Harsin can do to change that. The NCAA’s decision to not count this season against any players’ eligibility could help the Tigers, but they’ve already had some surprise declarations of intent to move on to the professional ranks.
The Tigers have already lost the fastest man in football, wide receiver Anthony Schwartz, to the NFL, along with his receiver counterparts, the Nos. 6 and 7 all-time reception-getters, respectively, in program history, Eli Stove and Seth Williams. All-SEC linebacker K.J. Britt has been a forgone conclusion to go pro all season. Auburn likely loses No. 1 corner Roger McCreary, defensive end Big Kat Bryant and starting safety Jamien Sherwood. It’s possible they lose starting defensive back/safety Christian Tutt and this year’s team-leading tackler Zakoby McClain. And. . . this is worst-case scenario. . . Auburn could lose SEC Freshman of the Year Bigsby to the transfer portal after he mysteriously missed the team’s bowl game against Northwestern. “UGGGG-LEE.”
The Tigers desperately need a number of the aforementioned guys to return. But the unfortunate thing is: unless Bo Nix takes a huge leap going into his third season as the starter, none of it matters. Dematarius Davis, Auburn’s quarterback commit of the 2021 class, could enroll early in the spring and give Nix a competition, but no matter who’s taking snaps, the passing game has to improve for the Tigers to take the next step. If not, Auburn will do well to scratch and claw its way to a “good” season in 2021.