By Wil Crews
The 2021-22 Auburn Tigers’ season has gone from good to bad to ugly in a matter of weeks.
A 6-5 record, coming off a loss to a South Carolina team which was led by an FCS quarterback, the orange and blue on The Plains have only one thing left to play for — spoiling the season of bitter rival Alabama.
The Tide and the Tigers meet up this weekend on two completely different waves. Alabama has ripped off five straight wins (albeit some were closer than predicted) since losing to Texas A&M on Oct. 9, while Auburn has lost three straight.
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young is making up for all of the Tide’s defensive deficiencies, inching closer to the Heisman trophy with back-to-back five touchdown performances. The fate of Auburn’s season is more precipitously placed; backup quarterback T.J. Finley has been forced into action with Bo Nix sidelined for the year with an ankle injury.
In terms of offensive numbers, Auburn only outranks Alabama in rushing yards per game (The Tigers rank No. 6 in the SEC with 177 per game and the Tide rank No. 8 with roughly 157 per game.). Everything else, on paper, favors Alabama.
Defensively, the Tide have more sacks, interceptions (Auburn ranks second to last in the SEC) and fumble recoveries than the Tigers.
Special teams are also clearly in the favor of Alabama with Auburn kicker Anders Carlson out for the year and the Tigers’ persistent punt and kick return issues this season.
In summary, things are stacked heavily against the Tigers on Saturday.
But there have been battles won with worse odds. Especially in the Iron Bowl.
In 1949, the Tigers came into the contest (not even dubbed the Iron Bowl yet) 1-4-3, the Tide were 5-3-1. Auburn defeated Alabama 14-13 in one of the biggest upsets in in state history. In 1972, Auburn was facing 10-0, No. 2-ranked Alabama. The Crimson Tide led 16-0 in the fourth, and despite gaining just 80 total yards from scrimmage, the Tigers won the infamous “Punt Bama Punt” game with two blocked punts by Bill Newton — both returned for touchdown. Jason Campbell led the 10.5-point underdog Tigers to a 17-7 win in 2002. And who can forget the Kick Six?
Can Auburn manage Saturday to replicate the past magic that has occurred inside of Jordan-Hare?
Regardless of the answer, the Tigers need to at least post a solid performance to boost morale going into bowl season and the offseason from there.
As of now, serious questions loom about the quality and caliber of the Tigers’ coordinators — both offense and defense. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo must be in a love-hate relationship with easy offense, because he’s shown tendencies all season to go away from the run game after Tank Bigsby gets going.
Just last week, Bigsby went for a season-high 164 yards; however, the sophomore only had three carries in the fourth quarter as the Tigers inexplicably entrusted the end of the game to the inexperienced Finley.
Defensively, coordinator Derek Mason’s group has regressed severely as the SEC schedule has progressed. What looked like a quality bend-don’t-break unit has turned into a discombobulated, tackle-averse circus.
All of that said, blame still has to fall on head coach Bryan Harsin. Yes, he’s playing with guys who are not his recruits. Yes, it takes time to implement a new system. Harsin’s resume and the unfortunate injuries are two big factors that can keep him in the graces of the Auburn faithful for now. But for a team built on discipline — something Harsin has preached since day one on The Plains — the Tigers have looked anything but buttoned-up as they have blown leads and collapsed in the second half of their recent games.
A dud performance against the Crimson Tide, however, could plummet Harsin’s first-season approval rating.
Toe meets rubber for the Tigers (6-4) and Tide (10-1) on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. The Tigers may not be rolling, but Jordan-Hare will be rocking. Look, for Harsin and company to try and establish the run, dominate time of possession and pray the ball bounces their way. A little bit of that Jordan-Hare magic may be Auburn’s best hope.