Catch up on previous 2021 opponent previews!
Here’s your annual reminder that Auburn is crazy. Crazy-pants crazy.
There are two different Auburns, though, and it’s important to get them straight: there’s the Auburn University athletic program which, for the most part, is run like a typical SEC athletic department is run. And then there’s the Auburn booster corps. And that’s where the crazy part comes in.
Obscenely loaded and unabashedly hands-on, the booster side of Auburn is hardly simpatico with the university athletics side in the best of times, let alone when - heaven forbid! - the team isn’t recruiting/playing/winning to the degree the affluent grumps believe they should . Part of that is driven by the amount of access the high-roller donors have, the other part is the insanity driven by the fact that their arch nemesis and in-state rival is lead by the greatest college football coach of the modern era. It’s enough to make folks do some drastic things in an effort to kill a college football god and Auburn’s approach has been to throw a ton of money at players and coaches - mostly in secret, although a few notable cases have popped up - and hope that it’s enough to defeat Saban every other year.
Here is a graphical representation of Auburn’s SP+ performance since 2005:
Tommy Tuberville had a tremendous 9-year run on The Plains before making the bizarre decision to hire Tony Franklin and his new-fangled warp-speed spread offense with Tuberville’s stiff pro-style players. Predictably, the offense cratered, Franklin was fired six games in, and after managing only 5 wins Tuberville was fired at the conclusion of ‘07. Iowa State’s Gene Chizik took over, fell to unparalleled lows before reaching incredible highs with Cam Newton, then crumbled again as Cam left, revealing a Chizik team that was actually pretty bad the all along. Gus Malzahn reinvigorated the Tigers with his powerful spread-rushing attack (hello, Tre Mason!) and kept the Tigers at elite levels of quality but insisted on losing boneheaded games and mismanaging close games late. Despite a decisively winning record the Auburn boosters pooled together the tens of millions of dollars it cost to buy out Malzahn at the end of the COVID-shortened 2020 season and install their favorite boy, then-Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. Auburn Athletic Director Allen Greene - in an incredibly risky maneuver - refused to tab the donors’ hand-picked selection and went with Bryan Harsin from Boise State. It wasn’t his first choice or second choice but it was Greene’s choice, which very well could have ended in calls for his resignation...but he survived.
Here’s what Bryan Harsin and Auburn did last year:
By Halloween of ‘21 Auburn looked to be a legitimate SEC West threat thanks to Harsin’s disciplined offense and former Vanderbilt head man Derek Mason’s suffocating defenses. But even with a vaccination hullabaloo mostly being ignored, Harsin’s prickly nature, disinterest in catering to booster’s golf tournament invitations, and ignoring local media’s charity drives and PR-offerings lead to yet more rumbling of the donors deposing yet another coach. After losing five straight to close the season Harsin jetted for Mexico, figuring if no one could reach him then no one could fire him...and he was right. His absence from campus bought time for Greene to settle the natives just enough to keep Harsin on for at least one more season. But despite going 6-7 in a single season as the Auburn head man, Harsin’s job is far from secure and he should very much view this season as a “must be great” situation.
And that’s going to be a tough ask with this roster! From the ‘21 roster Auburn loses its starting quarterback, backup quarterback, leading receiver, starting guard, five (!) defensive linemen, and starting safety. In fact, three of Auburn’s five highest-rated signees from the 2021 recruiting class have already transferred. And the Tigers didn’t replace that production with any portal additions of notes. Yikes!
Bryan Harsin - 2nd Year - 6-7 (3-5)
Coach Harsin has been a football coach for 22 years and only five of those years have been at schools not named Boise State. Hell, the Auburn job is the only job that he’s had east of the Mississippi River! But regardless of regional operations, Harsin made his name as a branch of the Chris Petersen tree, crafting smart, disciplined offenses that relied on pre-snap shifts and motions, punishing ground attacks, and a passing game that was both opportunistic and YAC-reliant. Sound like anyone you know? It should! Eli Drinkwitz spent 2013 as Harsin’s OC at Arkansas State and then followed him to Boise when Harsin was offered the head coach position there. Drinkwitz isn’t as meticulous as Harsin or as reliant on formation/personnel subterfuge but they share the same offensive bones and are at least decently familiar with how the other likes to operate.
Eric Kiesau - Offensive Coordinator: Kiesau is a veteran West coast offensive guy, having coached receivers or coordinated offenses at Utah State, Cal, Colorado, Washington, Fresno State, and Boise State. Like Harsin, Kiesau is a student of the Petersen system and was an easy promotion once Mike Bobo - Auburn’s much-maligned offensive coordinator last year - was fired after the Alabama loss. An easy argument could be made that the Tiger offense will actually be better with Kiesau running Harsin’s scheme this year.
Jeff Schmedding - Defensive Coordinator: Another West coast lifer, Schmedding spent 15 seasons at Eastern Washington, with the last four as defensive coordinator. He turned that into a linebacker coaching gig with Boise State in Harsin’s last years with the Broncos in 2019 and 2020. He then followed his boss east as a linebackers coach before getting promoted once Derek Mason took the first ticket out of there for Oklahoma State. He doesn’t have any FBS coordinating experience but inherits a talented defensive roster that should be great regardless of the guy calling the plays.
Roc Bellantoni - Special Teams Coordinator
Carnell Williams - Running Backs
Ike Hilliard - Wide Receivers
Brad Bedell - Tight Ends
Will Friend - Offensive Line
Jimmy Brumbaugh - Defensive Line
Christian Robinson - Linebackers
Zac Etheridge - Secondary
Mike Bobo offenses are known to be predictable, plodding, and wholly unimaginative as they run the ball over, and over, and over again. So it came as a surprise when Bobo’s ‘21 offense moved at a reasonable pace and ran it less frequently on standard downs than the national average. Bobo saw something in quarterback Bo Nix and really wanted to take advantage of it; the problem, of course, was that Nix was unreliable in that capacity and the Tiger passing attack was one of the worst in the conference with a 41% success rate and 108th-ranked explosiveness rate. Auburn could run it decently well and were able to avoid 3rd-downs but fell apart when trying to finish drives, ranking 77th in touchdown rate and 121st in points per scoring opportunity. Nix is now an Oregon Duck so Harsin and Kiesau will get the chance to get back to their Boise offensive roots of safer quarterback play in hopes the blue chip receivers can finally start making plays.
Quarterback - Zach Calzada - Redshirt Junior
The Texas A&M transfer is probably better known as the guy who didn’t win the job out of fall camp and then beat Alabama. Calzada wasn’t terrible but certainly wasn’t great, managing to complete only 56% of his passes with a 17-9 touchdown/interception ratio and a measly 5.8 adjusted net yards per passing attempt. And while he did average nearly six yards per carry, he only carried the ball a Bazelak-ian 18 times over the entire 12-game season. Calzada was brought in to be the starter, yes, but a temporary starter at best until Oregon transfer Robby Ashford or local 3-star Holden Geriner can overtake him.
Running Back - Tank Bigsby - Junior
The boy named Tank had a 1,000-yard effort last year paired with 10 touchdowns at a 4.9 ypc clip. Bigsby’s strength is that he excels at inside runs (5.1 yards per carry) and is still pretty good on the outside, too (4.6 yards per carry). And while he didn’t even average two yards before contact, his real strength came after contact where he averaged a robust three yards after the first hit. He and the speedy Jarquez Hunter weren’t much in the passing game but were an excellent thunder/lightening combo that should be just as strong running behind an offensive line that returns six of its top eight guys.
Wide Receiver - Shedrick Jackson - Senior
Auburn only featured four receivers that were targeted more than 14 times and two of them are gone. Jackson is the top returning receiver on The Plains with 69 targets, 40 catches, and 527 yards. And while tight end safety blanket John Samuel Shenker returns as well, the Tigers will either need Malcolm Johnson and Ze’Vian Capers to step up or hope that blue chip freshmen Omari Kelly and Camden Brown can fill in immediately.
For as boring and uninspiring as the Auburn offense was, the defense was one of the best units in the country and an entertaining force of havoc. They didn’t hold up well against the pass (104th in success rate) or in passing down situations (95th) but were a dominant force against the rush and in standard down situations. They were one of the best defenses in stopping big plays and the 6th-best defense in limiting points per scoring opportunity (6th). How much of that was the talent on hand versus the man coordinating the defense will be decided this year, complicated by the fact that they return 65% of last year’s production, 73rd in the country.
Defensive Line - Colby Wooden - Junior
Auburn’s havoc was powered by the defensive line and Wooden was the perfect representation of that threat: 5 sacks on 34 rushes - an elite 10% pressure rate - paired with 60 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 3 passes broken up, and 8 run stuffs. His edge rushing partner Derick Hall also returns, as does the top interior defensive linemen as well. This will be one of the toughest non-Georgia tests Missouri’s offensive line will face and neutralizing - or at least minimizing - their impact will be key.
Linebacker - Owen Pappoe - Senior
Auburn’s defense made a ton of havoc plays and the Tiger linebackers were left with the normal, routine tackles to make thanks to it. However, there were only two guys who played more than 200 snaps at the linebacker positions and both are gone. Pappoe is a solid tackle machine linebacker but only played five games last year. If he can come back at his 2020 form where he finished with 93 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 2 passes broken up and an interception then there shouldn’t be much of a drop off.
Defensive Back - Nehemiah Pritchett - Senior
As previously mentioned the Tiger secondary was good at not giving up the big play but that was about it. Now they get to acclimate to a new defensive coordinator and deal with the departures of Roger McCreary, Smoke Monday, and Bydarrius Knighten. Pritchett and Jaylin Simpson have plenty of SEC experience at the corner position and Zion Puckett is a decent safety in both run and pass defense. But the fact remains that this defense faced way more passes on both standard downs and passing downs than most other defenses in the country because their line was so terrifying and the secondary was the path of least resistance. If any of last year’s rotational guys or any of the FIVE blue-chip defensive backs can create a play-making aspect this defense will be downright elite.
So what does it all mean?
The Good Guy Tigers beat the Bad Guy Tigers in 1973, 34-17. The next meeting was the loss in the 2013 SEC Championship game followed by the 2017 beat down that lead to the infamous “these ain’t no dark days” Barry Odom rant and subsequent arsonry. So while the history isn’t bountiful Auburn is one of the few programs that hasn’t suffered a Missouri loss since the 2012 expansion.
Auburn is a tough program to pin down. They tend to recruit at elite levels and have all the funding in the world to do well consistently but internal meddling seems to hamper as much as help and, too frequently, it seems the voices of the court lead countless Auburn staffs to chase recruiting stars rather than program fit. And as much as it seems Auburn faceplants the second they are expected to break through and win the West, the Auburn squads that won the conference and played for national titles were total afterthoughts heading into the season.
All the directions point to an Auburn team that doesn’t return enough from a squad that massively underperformed down the stretch to the point of nearly losing their coach. Pair that with two new coordinators and a coach who will absolutely have his head called for after the first loss of the year and you have recipe for a particularly disappointing gumbo.
But that’s when Auburn does its best work. And Missouri is meeting them on the road for each team’s first SEC test. Missouri will have the benefit of coming off of the Abilene Christian game while Auburn will have just played host to a Top 20 Penn State program. Regardless of what happens in the first three games, Drinkwitz stealing a road game against his old boss would be a huge shot in the arm for a young Mizzou squad and a great start to conference play.