Auburn football is often disappointing, but it’s never boring. Such was the case after the Tigers’ 2021 season ended, when a mediocre year punctuated by a late lost lead against Alabama in the Iron Bowl and then a loss to Houston in the Birmingham Bowl.
By Matt Zemek
Let’s talk briefly about that Alabama game first. Auburn’s defense showed how much upside it possessed when it held Bryce Young and Company to three points in the game’s first 59 minutes. A defense which could play that well against an annually relevant force in college football should have been able to lift the Tigers to a successful season. Yet, Auburn couldn’t escape the clutches of mediocrity. The Plainsmen came nowhere close to a 10-win season. They had a few brief glimmers of quality and optimism, such as a smacking of a resurgent Arkansas team on the road, a physical beatdown of Ole Miss, and a very rare win in Baton Rouge against Ed Orgeron’s sinking ship at LSU. Yet, those moments were painful because instead of revealing the consistent character of the 2021 Tigers, they showed how fleeting the good times really were. Auburn finished its regular season at 6-6 and then lost to Houston in the Birmingham Bowl to end up at 6-7.
The product on the field was far less than what it could have been. Because of that fact, a first-year head coach’s off-field behavior became a bigger point of focus than it otherwise would have been.
Bryan Harsin would not have been in trouble had he gone 9-3 or 10-2 this past season. Since he went 6-6, whispers behind the scenes from players upset at Harsin’s treatment of them became front-page news. Gossip about Harsin’s personal life also circulated. There were sharks in the water, and because the coach did not do his job on the field, those other dramas engulfed him. Auburn conducted an internal investigation of Harsin, and for a period of time, it seemed that the coach was very close to being terminated after just one season on the job. Yet, Harsin ultimately survived.
He does get a second chance with this program after being hired from Boise State, but this year seems less like a second chance to many pundits and analysts. It feels more like a delaying of the inevitable.
Harsin staying on for the 2022 season seems less like a school wanting to ride with its coach and see what he can do; it feels a lot more like a school simply wanting to avoid bad press and a higher buyout number, waiting a year so it can then pull the trigger. Athletic director Allen Greene has an expiring contract. Given that Greene might not be retained or extended, Harsin is in very big trouble no matter how you look at it. If Greene goes, it’s very hard to see Harsin staying for the 2023 season. Even if Greene stays, there will be enormous pressure on him to fire Harsin and send him packing.
Harsin can avoid all of this by delivering a big season to Auburn this fall, but that’s where we get to the heart of the matter: Does anyone really think Harsin is up to the task?
Recruiting has been substandard in Harsin’s brief time at Auburn. The Tigers didn’t make much of a splash in the transfer portal. Derek Mason underperformed at defensive coordinator, and his replacement, Jeff Schmedding, is not seen as an upgrade. It is really hard to be optimistic about Auburn football this year, leading a lot of Auburn fans to wish that Harsin gets fired and gives way to a better head coach the Tigers can hire in December.
We have seen LSU go from Ed Orgeron to Brian Kelly. A coaching dismissal allowed the Tigers to upgrade their head coaching position. Most Auburn fans probably want the same thing.
Only if Harsin wildly overperforms relative to expectations will any of this change. Again, though, who thinks the former Boise State coach is ready to prove everyone wrong?
It is true that Zach Calzada, an incoming transfer, defeated Nick Saban and Alabama last year with Texas A&M. However, Calzada remained behind Haynes King on the A&M depth chart, which led to his transfer out of the Aggie program. His ceiling does not appear to be that high. Calzada and 2021 Auburn backup T.J. Finley are part of a less-than-dynamic quarterback room at a program which has struggled to cultivate elite home-grown quarterbacks. (Finley, of course, is also a transfer, having come to the Plains from LSU.)
Auburn’s offensive line was nowhere close to an acceptable standard of performance last year. Harsin is looking at an offense which needs upgrades everywhere. On defense, Roger McCreary has to be replaced in the secondary. Incoming recruit Caleb Wooden will provide a boost to Auburn’s back line of defense, but he will need a lot of help, and it’s unclear if Auburn has sufficient depth to withstand the best of what Alabama, A&M, Arkansas, and Ole Miss have to offer.
Harsin doesn’t look like a coach who is getting another year to reload and set the record straight about his coaching chops. He looks like a dead coach walking. This season feels less like a chance for Auburn to grow and evolve and return to being a contender in the SEC West. It feels a lot more like a year in which the administration is punting in order to save dollars it can use to hire its next coach.
Gus Malzahn was a wild ride. At his worst, he was supremely exasperating for Auburn fans to watch. Yet, Gus did beat Nick Saban three times, made a national championship game, won an SEC title, and reached multiple SEC Championship Games. He did stumble and fail several times, but he had his share of successes. His tenure was annoying, but not without glory.
Bryan Harsin did not lead Auburn to any kind of glory in 2021. The question is whether he will lead Auburn anywhere consequential before being handed his walking papers.