If you look back at December 2020, it’s hard to believe that we’ve gotten this far. We went through 1,000+ comment threads each day in the week and change between Gus Malzahn’s firing and the hiring of Bryan Harsin just prior to Christmas. We live tweeted an Oregon Board of Trustees meeting wherein they discussed extending Mario Cristobal’s employment with the Ducks. The emotions of the Auburn Fambleh rose and fell with each successive leak saying that Brent Venables, Billy Napier, or Kevin Steele was set to be the new coach.
Quite honestly, Allen Greene came out of the dark with a sucker punch when he hired Bryan Harsin, because all of the conventional intelligence was wrong. His name flat out didn’t pop up before he was en route to the Plains, but he was a welcome and exciting choice. However, let’s not mince words here... Harsin’s not exactly the warm and fuzzy familiar sweater that we had for the last several seasons. While Gus might not have been designer wear, he was comfortable, and would get the job done, even if he didn’t get you compliments on the street. Harsin was west coast fashion that hadn’t yet been seen in Auburn, and the powers that be didn’t really know what to do with him.
True, he’s a no-nonsense, straightforward guy, who probably only has one speed and one focus (football, all the time), but he did things a little differently than Gus did, and it had some of us looking around like “who does this guy think he is?” Couple a new face with the unknowns of dealing with college football in the new COVID/NIL landscape, and it’s a spicy mixture that could land you in hot water Sunday morning after your first cup of coffee.
Whatever the bumps in the road, Harsin has managed to get us to the day of kickoff with little incident (not to say there wasn’t quite a bit of Auburn Being Auburn, but in the end it seems like window dressing). Yes, there’s a potential issue if the team’s low vaccination rate comes back to bite them during a real game week (sorry, Zips), but maybe we can start 2021 with a little hope and pray that most of the team has already gotten it/had the shot.
So that brings us to today. It’s a different feeling, since last year we hopped right into SEC play, and the two seasons before that we began at neutral sites with top-ten PAC-12 opponents. In fact, all but one of Gus’ years on the Plains saw the Tigers open with either a non-con Power Five team or someone from the SEC. 2017 is the lone exception with Georgia Southern. It’s been relatively unheard of for Auburn to have two weeks to enjoy dessert first, and the Tigers can really get into the groove by the time they head north to Happy Valley.
Let’s be honest, this game isn’t about Akron, especially becuase the Zips were one of the worst teams in the FBS last year, and haven’t shown any signs of getting better. Their best weapon, tailback Teon Dollard, won’t play. They may have COVID problems to the point of not even being able to practice recently. They won’t miss out on the payout, though, and will find a way to put 22 guys on the field tonight, no matter how badly they get beaten.
Meanwhile, Auburn actually has reason to be optimistic. The defense boasts a ton of familiar names (good ones, too, not guys that stayed too long because the NFL didn’t want them), and the new additions have immediately grabbed starting roles (I see you, Tony Fair and Marcus Harris up front). The transfer market was good to the Tigers.
On offense, the line returns nothing but experience, even if they haven’t produced all that much in the past, and they get to block for one of the top tailbacks in the land in Tank Bigsby. With some unproven talent on the outside, we just need Bo Nix or T.J. Finley (both of whom will get plenty of snaps over the next two weeks) to get comfortable and work into this new offense.
Let’s be real, this is Auburn in the sandbox tonight. Name the score, play with all of your toys, create worlds. Just do it safely and get ready for the first road trip of the season.
SERIES HISTORY: At first I thought, hmm, I don’t think these two teams have ever played, and then I realized why. It’s because Akron was the unfortunate grease spot for the 1988 Auburn team after they lost at LSU in the Earthquake Game. The Tigers fell in Baton Rouge and then proceeded to blank the next three opponents, starting with a 42-0 win over Akron on October 15th of that year.
LAST SEASON: Auburn finished the weird 2020 year at 6-5, including a whipping from Northwestern in the Citrus Bowl to finish the season. Highlights most definitely included the largest win over LSU in series history, and perhaps the last-second win against Ole Miss, but the season was fraught with controversy (“fumbles” against Arkansas and Ole Miss/Gus Malzahn’s future), and wasn’t as enjoyable as one might imagine.
Meanwhile, Akron basically put itself out of its own misery. Even in the MAC in a shortened season the Zips managed just a 1-5 record that culminated in a 56-7 thrashing at the hands of Buffalo. In that game the Bulls ran for 428 yards on 50 carries, so we should see the Tigers do much of the same.
KEYS FOR AUBURN:
- Don’t get anyone hurt. This is pretty basic. We’re going to win this game, there’s very little doubt in anyone’s mind that this stays competitive for more than a few minutes. Ideally, we’d like to get Tank like 6-8 carries where he pops off a couple of long touchdowns, but then he’s done for the day and we can get Shivers and the other backups some work. We’d love to see Nix for a half, and then let Finley/Davis take over the second half. Get ‘em in and get ‘em out. No reason for anyone to do too much in this game or against Alabama State.
- Run the dang ball. I mentioned it above, but Akron’s last game saw Buffalo run for 428 yards and 6 touchdowns on 50 carries. 8.6 yards per carry. Do that again, don’t show anything for Penn State, LSU, and Georgia, and get out with a simple win. However...
- Satisfy the fanbase. Auburn fans around the land have clamored for something more interesting than what we’ve gotten for a couple of years now. Gus Malzahn just wasn’t the hot young thing we needed at this point in our lives. In fact, he wasn’t even really doing the job at satisfaction at all. Things were super vanilla, and not in a familiar comforting way. Everyone knew what was coming, and the mystery was gone. Now, we’ve got an offense that we haven’t seen before. We have a quarterback guru as head coach. There are fresh faces all over the field. Let them eat a little bit. While we don’t want to throw out the kitchen sink against Akron, it can’t hurt to put something on film for down the road. Let the full stadium see the stars shine for a little bit before vacating at halftime to go watch Georgia lose. Also, don’t just go in and expect to be plain vanilla and roll this team up. Play like it’ll be tough. What you don’t want to see is a situation where Auburn hasn’t scored three drives in, or Akron somehow gets an early touchdown on the board, or where it’s competitive a quarter in. Just dismantle them, do it in a fun way, and let the people eat.
- At what point do we see our first scathing tweet about Bo Nix not stepping up in the pocket? Does Akron provide enough pressure defensively to even threaten him, or is he able to have one of those Mississippi State 2019 type of games where he’s just playing catch with his guys? And is the quarterback job really settled? Or will T.J. Finley have enough of a say to make things interesting by the time Auburn goes to Penn State?
- How early will you hear “RUN THE DANG BALL, BOBO!” from the stands or from your own mouth? It’s been a criticism of the former Georgia and South Carolina coordinator, as he was wont to toss it around while guys like Knowshon Moreno, Keith Marshall, Todd Gurley, Sony Michel, and Nick Chubb blocked. Let’s see if he can get Tank Bigsby into the Heisman conversation. The combo of Harsin and Bobo may produce a hitherto unseen concoction of play-calling, and Auburn fans now have to watch a man they ridiculed for years at other SEC schools working on their own sideline.
- Will we get a true sense of how good this team can be on both sides of the ball? Offensively, I can’t see the Tigers pulling out all of the stops, but they’ll surely have a little fun and get the fans excited. Of course, the analysts among you will be checking not just the numbers but the things that failed us last season — Bo Nix’s feet and accuracy, the offensive line getting a push, etc. — to see if they improved from 2020. Defensively, we’ll be looking to see if the new pieces fit into the old ones like a perfectly minted crown, or if it’ll still feel a little weird when you bite down. I have a feeling, based on what we’ve learned from scrimmages and on the strength of the returning talent, that this unit can be very stingy. No more Third and Auburns hopefully, but I think Derek Mason can produce a starting eleven that holds Akron to very few points.