What Auburn Can Still Accomplish in 2021?
By HARRISON TARR
FOR THE OBSERVER
Saying that the wind has been taken out of Auburn’s sails might be the understatement to trump all understatements.
Just two weeks ago, Bryan Harsin’s squad was surrounded by hype. Winning the Iron Bowl felt like a feasible dream, Bo Nix seemed to have developed a consistent level of play and the Tigers’ SEC Championship hopes were still very much alive.
For the second time in as many weeks, Auburn football fans walked away from their team’s clash on the gridiron in disappointment and disbelief; this go-round — however — the narrative was drastically different from that of the week 10 loss in College Station. This week, quarterback Nix suffered a broken ankle, kicker Anders Carlson tore his ACL and the Tigers blew a 25-point lead against the Bulldogs of Mississippi state.
Now — more than ever — the Auburn program and its faithful need a silver lining. Although the 2021 campaign has left much to be desired, there are still a number of tangible goals that the group can achieve to walk away from this year with heads held high.
1. DEVELOPING DEPTH IN THE QUARTERBACK ROOM
With Nix out for the remainder of the season, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will be tasked with scheming for backup quarterback — and LSU transfer — TJ Finley. While no coach wishes to be faced with the challenge of developing depth in the midst of conference play, Bobo has no other option. Auburn fans have been curious as to Finley’s skillset to this point in the season and the time to invest in the possible future of the program is now. Getting Finley complete-game experience in the Auburn scheme will only bolster the coaching staff’s confidence in his abilities should anything else happen to Nix going forward.
2. COACHING IMPROVEMENT
There have been only a handful of games this year where the Tigers have seemed well-coached on both sides of the ball. The scheme against Texas A&M proved to be a work of defensive mastery and the performance at Arkansas was seemingly offensive perfection. With all pressure removed in regards to a conference championship, Harsin’s staff now has the opportunity to focus solely on improving internally. Three more complete games from all sides of the ball will serve as a building block for the future of the program.
3. EARNING A RESPECTABLE BOWL BID
Since the introduction of the College Football Playoff format, emphasis on bowl games has seemingly gone to the way-side. For the Tigers, earning a decent bowl bid with the opportunity to play a quality opponent might just be the exact remedy for the restoration of hope surrounding the program. For Harsin specifically, bowl season presents an opportunity to differentiate himself from his predecessor, Gus Malzahn. During Malzahn’s seven seasons on the Plains, the Tigers were a forgettable 2-5 in bowl games, leaving Harsin with the opportunity to change the stigma surrounding Auburn in postseason play.
Regardless of where the Tigers stand in terms of wins and losses at the end of 2021, the emphasis on recruiting must continue to be of utmost importance. As of Monday, 24/7 Sports Lists Auburn at No. 33 in the 2022 recruiting class, leaving much to be desired. Should the Tigers be able to keep locker room morale high and provide an appealing atmosphere and culture for prospective recruits, the future of the Harsin era could shape up to be even brighter than anticipated.
5. PLAYING SPOILER TO ALABAMA
Regardless of how any given season is going, Auburn fans will always care more about beating one opponent than any other: the Alabama Crimson Tide. Alabama is poised to make another run to the college football playoff, setting the Tigers up to play spoiler on the season for their biggest rival. If Harsin can find a way to lead his banged-up squad to victory over their in-state foe, he will effectively endear himself to his fan base and rebuild the hope that this group so desperately wishes to have.