BY WIL CREWS
The Auburn Tigers are facing a grim reality.
Following Saturday’s 48-34 loss to No. 9 Ole Miss, the Tigers are 3-4 on the season and 3-9 in their last 12 games, matching the program’s worst mark since the 2012 season in which Auburn went 3-9.
Second-year head coach Bryan Harsin is firmly embattled on the hot seat. With a bye this weekend, Harsin has this final stretch of the season to try and right the ship. The process may prove futile, however, with the majority of the fanbase firmly planted in the “Harsin out” camp. But there is much still to play for as the Tigers look to the future.
The hopeful turnaround for Auburn should begin by analyzing last weekend’s loss. The obvious negative arises from the Tigers’ defensive performance. Thought of as the strength of the team early this season, the unit has largely underperformed. Against Ole Miss, Auburn’s defense allowed a ghastly 448 rushing yards and 578 in total. Yes, the absence of edge rusher Eku Leota (who is out for the season with an injury that occurred earlier in the schedule) and the in-game injury to defensive tackle Coby Wooden meant Auburn was clearly not at full strength. But the fact that Auburn deployed only five different defensive linemen throughout the game lends to the unit’s overall lack of depth and quality. Furthermore, the strength of Auburn’s defense this year — the secondary — allowed Ole Miss quarterback Jaxson Dart to torch the unit for three touchdown passes, one more than the unit had previously allowed all season. And lastly, pointing to the defense’s struggles overall, were the 23 missed tackles. Riding the trend of season-worst performances, the Tigers’ previous high of missed tackles in a game in 2022 was 11.
The rest (as if there are not enough already) of Auburn’s problems stem from the offensive side of the ball. For starters, Auburn is tied at No. 130 nationally (second to worst) in turnovers lost, with 16 in total. Many of those have come from the inexperienced QB Robby Ashford; his decision making is another issue that most likely won’t be solved in 2022. However, combine that stat with an Auburn defense that has struggled to force takeaways, and the result is a team that ranks dead last in turnover margin (-11) in the FBS.
Furthermore, the offensive line remains an issue for Auburn. It may look like the unit had a solid day with the Tigers racking up 301 total rushing yards, but most of that came from two moments of individual brilliance as junior running back Tank Bigsby broke free for big runs. In reality, take away the big runs from Bigsby and scrambles from Ashford, and the O-line gave up another three sacks while failing to help rushers gain more than two yards on 56% of the attempts.
There were some positive outcomes from Saturday’s game. First, no one deserved a good game more than Bigsby and he finally had his breakout, finishing with 180 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Secondly, the Tigers seemingly broke their second-half scoring woes with 17 points in the second half against Ole Miss, although the offense was only opened up due to the Tigers’ initial 17-0 deficit in the first quarter. Lastly, it’s safe to say the quarterback rotation is over. Although Ashford has been a turnover machine this year, the redshirt freshman has provided a clear spark to the Auburn offense. After season-opening starter T.J. Finley entered the game and was promptly sacked and fumbled the ball, he sat the bench for the remainder of the contest. Ashford should get 100% of the reps going forward.
So, with all this negativity, is it even possible for Auburn to turn it around in 2022? Well, that depends on your definition of turning it around. And there is no one way to achieve it. The coaching staff should focus on getting healthy, developing depth, continuing to build the chemistry of the offensive line and instilling confidence in Ashford during the remainder of this bye week. The fans of the orange-and-blue may just want to close their eyes… and only open them once it’s 2023.