BY HARRISON TARR
FOR THE OBSERVER
Prior to Saturday’s contest, morale within the Auburn fan base was high. The hometown Tigers played what many considered to be above their skill level in Happy Valley, junior quarterback Bo Nix seemed to have shaken off his struggles of playing on the road and Bryan Harsin looked as if his team was going to be able to compete with any opponent on its schedule.
Then the Tigers played host to the Georgia State Panthers on homecoming weekend at Jordan-Hare stadium and Harsin’s squad did not look even remotely similar to the orange and blue of weeks one through three.
Auburn’s highly regarded run defense appeared helpless in the absence of linebackers Owen Pappoe and Zackoby McClain, the receiving core struggled to come down with catchable passes, Nix was benched in the second half for LSU transfer T.J. Finley and Auburn struggled to fend off a 1-2 Panther team.
In response to the team’s on-field struggles, Harsin made the decision to cut ties with wide receivers coach Cornelius Williams and — despite listing Nix as QB1 on the depth chart — has yet to publicly name a starter for Saturday night’s showdown in Death Valley.
From the outside looking in, Auburn seemingly has more questions than it has answers about what the remainder of this season looks like; traveling to Baton Rouge this weekend should give fans of the program insight as to what direction the Tigers are headed in 2021.
After a lack-luster display against what most described as a “cupcake” opponent, fans have every right to be critical of their team, especially ahead of the Tigers venture to a place where they have not won since 1999: Baton Rouge.
Here is what the Auburn faithful should ask of Harsin and company this week:
1. WHO IS QB1?
This is the million-dollar question which Harsin seemingly does not want to answer. Nix has been ‘the guy’ at quarterback since his arrival on the plains in 2019 and — considering how highly regarded since high school — has yet to become an x-factor for the Tiger offense. His struggles in the completion category are a cause for concern and most fans accredited week four’s victory to backup Finley. In order to be successful going forward, one might think that consistency and a clear vision as to who should start under center is critical.
2. WHAT DOES PLAYCALLING LOOK LIKE GOING FORWARD?
Auburn’s loss to Penn State fell largely upon the poor management of timeouts and questionable decision to attempt a goalline fade on fourth down. Not to mention, Mike Bobo seems to abandon the run game in situations where handing the ball off to Tank Bigsby or Jarquez Hunter feels like a good idea. Is Harsin complacent with the current offensive approach or does Auburn revert to its commitment to running the ball?
3. HOW MUCH OF THE WIDE RECEIVER STRUGGLES ARE RELATED TO COACHING?
Dropped passes and miscommunication on routes have been a blatant issue for the receiving core thus far in 2021. Harsin’s decision to let go of Williams as his wide receivers coach leads one to believe that this is an issue in game preparation from a coaching perspective; there is also a possibility that this group is inexperienced or just too inconsistent to compete at this point in time. Which problem is it that Auburn truly needs to resolve?
4. IS IT TOO SOON TO WORRY ABOUT DEREK MASON’S DEFENSE?
When the decision to hire Mason as defensive coordinator, the Auburn fan base knew the transition to a new scheme likely required patience and — after essentially shutting down Akron and Alabama State — early results were promising. Weeks three and four quickly tore down the previous source of confidence, effectively making the Tiger defense reason for concern. Mason’s squad struggled to provide any resemblance of pressure on Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford and gave up 267 rushing yards to Georgia State. Not to mention, the secondary’s struggle to stay with receivers leaves much to be desired.
5. WHAT IS HARSIN’S REALISTIC VISION FOR YEAR ONE?
Currently sitting at 3-1 and staring down his first SEC opponent, it’s unclear as to where Auburn’s first-year head coach envisions his team come December. Theoretically, the western division is still wide-open, but the road for the Tigers is seriously lacking in give-me games. At this point in time, merely making — and winning — a bowl game seems to be a fair ambition. Five of Auburn’s final eight opponents are ranked teams, the program has a history of playing below expectations in Baton Rouge and beating either Alabama or Georgia feels all but impossible in 2021. With the “win every game” mentality aside, what should Tiger fans truly expect?