By Wil Crews
Despite ending their season last week with a 17-13 loss at the hands of the Houston Cougars in the Birmingham Bowl, the Auburn Tigers are building momentum in the early days off 2022.
The Tigers had an up and down 2021. The peak of the season came after back-to-back victories over No. 8 Ole Miss and No. 22 Arkansas in October. Five straight loses followed, compounded with the firing of offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and the departure of three-year starter at quarterback Bo Nix via the transfer portal. All the while, Auburn’s two biggest rivals – Alabama and Georgia — were marching toward the College Football Playoff.
Nix is now at Oregon, Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks coach Austin Davis is the new offensive coordinator and Harsin has bolstered the Tigers with a successful early national signing day period. Oh yeah, and Alabama and Georgia are set to square off in the national championship on Jan. 10.
The disappointment of seeing Auburn’s two biggest rivals square off for a championship and yet another bowl game loss has gone by the wayside (Thanks, Bruce Pearl.), and Harsin heads into his second spring on The Plains with a revamped coaching staff, roster and outlook.
In just the past few days, Auburn has gained assurances that key players such as Derrick Hall (the team’s 2021 sack leader), Colby Wooden (a starter on the defensive line), tight end John Samuel Shenker and Owen Pappoe (a three-year starter at linebacker) will all return in 2022. Shortly before their announcements, star running back Tank Bigsby announced his plans to return to The Plains after rumors of his departure swirled.
The recent dismissal of standout reciever Kobi Hudson will hurt, but Auburn was in a similar situation at the end of last year, hopefully giving Harsin and company more confidence in re-tooling.
The Tigers boast a top-15 nationally ranked 2022 recruiting class (to the surprise of most) and next season begins with five straight home games.
There is plenty to look forward to.
The Tigers’ defensive line’s quality and depth looks menacing; The second year combination of Jarquez Hunter and Bigsby looks potent; The tight end room is loaded; and the systems of Harsin and defensive coordinator Derek Mason should be better-learned in year two, among other things.
The quarterback competition will be one thing to keep a close eye on. T.J. Finley performed up to par in the stead of Nix over the final two regular season games, but delivered a putrid performance against the Cougars in the bowl game. The coaching staff has shown little faith in former 4-star and upcoming sophomore Demetrius Davis, although Harsin confirmed he was getting more reps in preparation for the bowl game. Incoming freshman Holden Giriner is a coveted 4-star himself, and is Harsin’s first hand-picked recruit at quarterback. Still, however, many believe Auburn’s quarterback is not yet on campus. A few marquee names remain in the transfer portal; don’t be surprised if Harsin brings one in to beef up the competition.
Replenishing the talent lost on the backend of the defense will be of paramount importance for the Tigers in 2022. The nation’s top-rated cornerback according to PFF, Roger McCreary, is going pro; The controversial but ever-involved Smoke Monday is following suit and three other rotational players in the secondary will be amiss from the 2022 Tigers. Furthermore, the loss of All-SEC linebacker Zakoby McClain, as well as senior leader Chandler Wooten will be difficult to make up for.
Offensive line is another area of concern for Auburn — just as it was in 2021. With as many as six or seven potential departures (two already confirmed) and only one 3-star recruit signed on for 2022, Harsin and his staff must focus on bringing in talent through the transfer portal or convince a few of the guys to cash in on their COVID-eligible free year. Without improvements up front, this team will have a severely limited ceiling.
But be patient with this team. At the moment, there are a number of moving parts but the Tigers are trending in the right direction. Harsin deserves time. He is attempting to change the identity, culture and perception of Auburn football; With his no-malarkey attitude — and maybe just a little bit of luck — he is on his way.