How Auburn Upsets Nation’s Best Defense
FOR THE OBSERVER
Auburn fans spent the night of Oct. 2 rolling the oaks at Toomer’s Corner, sharing hugs and rejoicing over the Tigers breaking the curse of Death Valley. What was there not to be excited about? In Bryan Harsin’s first year at the helm of the Auburn football program, the orange and blue left Baton Rouge victorious for the first time since before quarterback Bo Nix was born.
With a significant victory now on the record, it is now easier to forget about the nail-biter that was the Georgia State game and have confidence that Harsin has the program headed in the right direction.
That being said, the remainder of the 2021 campaign still poses a significant challenge to an Auburn team who has yet to find any form of consistency in any discipline within the game. Five of Auburn’s final seven opponents are currently ranked in the AP Top 25. A pair of them are ranked in the top two.
The Tigers’ battle to prove their worth begins on Saturday when they play host to the No. 2 University of Georgia Bulldogs, a team that Auburn has not beaten since the regular season in 2017 and has lost to on four consecutive occasions since.
Auburn enters this year’s installment of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry as 14.5 point underdogs. UGA has the statistically best defense in the country. Tiger fans have questions regarding what they should expect in this game and beyond.
1. HOW DO YOU GAME PLAN FOR A DEFENSE WHO HAS SHUT EVERYONE DOWN THUS FAR?
If there were ever a perfect opportunity for Mike Bobo to prove his worth as offensive coordinator, Saturday’s contest is it. To this point, the Dawgs have shut their opponents down, holding teams to an average of just 178.6 yards allowed per contest, 3.34 yards per play and only allowing two touchdowns across five games. If Auburn wants to play its opponent even remotely close, creative — and aggressive — play calling will be imperative. Abandoning the run game is not an option and efficient clock management will be crucial.
2. HOW SHORT IS BO NIX’S LEASH?
Just as creative play calling will be imperative, so will be giving Nix the opportunity to play his game. The third-year quarterback has undoubtedly regained his role as starter following an impressive display in Baton Rouge in week five; that considered, the length of his leash is still unknown. There is no doubt that there must be balance in allowing Nix to use his remarkable athleticism while maintaining a commitment to checking down his receivers. The question is “what does that look like?”
3. HOW DOES THE AUBURN DEFENSE LIMIT UGA FROM RUNNING UP THE SCORE?
The simple answer here is to keep the Georgia offense off the field as much as possible by chewing clock and maintaining long, steady drives. The reality? With a stifling Dawg defense, that’s probably not going to be an option. Derek Mason’s scheme has been hit-or-miss thus far in 2021. The unit has shown up in late-game situations such as Penn State and LSU; that’s not going to cut it against UGA. It is imperative to Auburn’s success that the Tiger defense keeps itself healthy, minimizes penalties and cleans up what has been a confusingly inconsistent secondary.
4. WHY SHOULD FANS HAVE ANY FAITH IN THE AUBURN RECEIVING CORE?
Most people couldn’t blame you if you don’t have faith in this group. Dropping passes is a sure-fire way to kill momentum and put an end to drives. In 2021, Auburn’s receivers have often done just that (Bo Nix ranks fifth in the nation in terms of number of dropped passes by his receivers.). While there have been glimpses of greatness and displays of athleticism to this point, the real test of this group will come this week when the players get a taste of the red and black’s stingy secondary. Making routine catches is a must; the bigger concern lies within the squad’s ability to come down with any pass that might not be thrown on a dime.
5. HOW MUCH DOES THIS GAME MEAN FOR BRYAN HARSIN?
If Auburn had lost in Baton Rouge on Saturday, taking care of business against UGA might be a significantly bigger deal than it is now. Sure, a coach should approach every game as if it were the most important game of the season. Every game matters in the moment. Beating UGA is extremely important to the Auburn fan base and should be the goal of any member of the Tiger football program; that said, this one doesn’t mean as much as it might in 2022. As previously mentioned, this team has next-to-no expectations in 2021. After qualifying for a bowl game, any win is a bonus. Beating your rivals never hurts a head coach but — in his first year — a loss won’t prove harmful for Harsin.