The Auburn Tigers now know how the Atlanta Falcons feel. Bryan Harsin’s team was headed toward a quality win over Mississippi State.
By Matt Zemek
The Tigers were about to be 7-3 heading into their final two games. A 10-3 record with a bowl win as part of the package was possible. That would have been borderline unthinkable at the start of the season. Harsin had his team overachieving. He certainly got a lot more out of Bo Nix than anyone could have realistically imagined. Everything was going great…
… and then the house fell down.
Auburn gave up 40 straight points. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason had his worst game of the year. The offense stalled and couldn’t get going. A brutal 43-34 loss ruined a month of considerable progress and abruptly halted the momentum of this season. Bo Nix got injured, which puts T.J. Finley in the saddle. Auburn’s chances of beating Alabama in the Iron Bowl are hard to assess at this point, but if the Tigers want to go into that season-defining game with a full supply of confidence, they need to go into Columbia and hammer South Carolina. The Mississippi State game needs to be put in the rearview mirror.
1 – Test T.J. Finley
The easy temptation in this situation is to make life easier for T.J. Finley as he replaces Bo Nix. Don’t give him an overly complicated or layered game plan. Allow him to be a game manager and put the burden on teammates to help their quarterback. It’s understandable and makes perfect sense. Yet, if Finley is going to beat Alabama, he can’t be given the soft treatment here against South Carolina. Harsin and Mike Bobo need to see what he is capable of and allow him to make mistakes. Being aggressive, not cautious, is the needed approach against South Carolina, because that way the Auburn staff will have a lot more film to look at. It can help Finley learn what he will need to do against Nick Saban’s defense one week later. Not taking chances is warranted to a degree; obviously Auburn doesn’t want to give an inferior South Carolina team an opening in this game. Yet, the larger fundamental point is that Harsin has to push Finley’s limits. He needs to create a “stress test” in which he gets a good look at what Finley can and can’t do. That will shape the Alabama offensive game plan in helpful ways. Gathering information can only be done by putting Finley in a full range of situations and asking him to make a full assortment of throws.
2 – Secondary is primary
Alabama’s receivers will test Auburn’s secondary more than South Carolina’s receivers ever could, but after what happened against Mississippi State, Auburn’s back line of defense should take nothing for granted. The Tigers need to start over and rededicate themselves to excellence. If they can’t win one-on-one matchups against South Carolina’s receivers, heaven help the Plainsmen against big, bad Bama and its fleet of flankers.
3 – Don’t be Florida
The Florida Gators didn’t seem very invested in playing South Carolina, and the Gamecocks ambushed them 40-17. Don’t be like Dan Mullen’s team. Don’t look ahead to Alabama, either. Focus on this game, and put the MSU debacle in the rearview mirror. If Auburn is disinterested in this game, South Carolina will happily take advantage. It showed against Florida what happens when an opponent doesn’t play with 100-percent energy or focus.