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Five Burning Questions for Auburn Football

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NCAA Football: Auburn at Texas A&M Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball is over, and we’re done licking our wounds from that fateful night in Greenville when the season came to a close. Gymnastics is still booming, equestrian is riding hard, and the diamond sports boast ranked squads as we near the midpoint of the regular season.

However, this Saturday is Auburn’s spring football affair, the ole A-Day Game, and it’s time to get reacquainted with our original flame.

Kickoff comes at high noon God’s Time (CST), and there are actually quite a few things that we’re expecting to learn about. Or... more accurately, create additional questions as we enter the long true offseason. Let’s jump right in to what we’ll be watching this weekend.

WHAT IN THE WORLD DO WE MAKE OF THE QUARTERBACK SITUATION?

Auburn entered last season pretty much knowing that Bo Nix was going to be the starter for the next two years, minimum. Only a Joe Burrow-esque season could’ve sent him packing to the NFL early, but we never dreamed that we’d see him in another uniform.

He’s doing some real weird stuff, bolting to the school whose heart he broke on Labor Day Weekend 2019 as a true freshman. Hey, “if you beat ‘em, go play for them” is definitely not how the saying goes, but Bo is making it his own. After his injury last fall, we saw the T.J. Finley experiment, and while it wasn’t the worst thing in the world, there was a ton of room for improvement. Auburn’s offense found success in small pockets, but largely failed in holding leads (double-digit advantages in the last three regular season games). Finley’s leadership pushed the Tigers to account for just 159 total yards (including two overtime scoring drives) in the Iron Bowl, and Auburn went 0-5 down the stretch.

Now, the quarterback room looks entirely different. Finley is still there, but here’s where it gets wild:

  • Dematrius Davis entered the transfer portal a couple weeks ago. After signing on to play for Gus Malzahn, this past season probably had some pretty bold writing on the wall for him, and so did the influx of new quarterback talent.
  • Enter freshman Holden Geriner. He’s a Harsin type of signal-caller, and he’s got the physical tools to be able to compete, but it takes a special type of true freshman to really make waves in the SEC.
  • Say hello to two transfers in Zach Calzada and Robby Ashford. Calzada comes from Texas A&M, where he started 10 games including a win over then #1 Alabama. Ashford is a former Hoover High School product, who went to play for Oregon but was originally a target of Gus Malzahn coming out of high school.

So, who gets the starting nod? Right now the guy who played the best at the highest level of SEC football is Calzada. We saw what Finley could do, and I think despite his efforts, we may have seen his ceiling over the past two seasons. Ashford and Geriner are the wild cards, with Ashford being more of a dual threat than the other quarterbacks on the roster. I’m fully expecting this to bleed into fall camp, and there’s going to be a ton of dissection on the limited looks each quarterback gets on Saturday.

WHO ON THIS OFFENSE WILL MAKE THE PLAYS?

Thankfully, most of our rushing production returns, with Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter set to come back for this season. Tank ran for 1,099 yards and 10 scores last year, which is great considering the help he had around him. Hunter added another 593 yards and 3 touchdowns, but a large chunk of that work came early on in the season. What really worries me is the wide receiver group.

Demetris Robertson and Kobe Hudson are gone, taking 8 of Auburn’s 17 receiving touchdowns with them. Shedrick Jackson and Ja’Varrius Johnson return, bringing 59 catches and nearly 800 yards with them, but neither one of them has shown that they can be a true number one threat. Elsewhere on the roster, the tight end room is stacked, especially with RECORD BREAKER John Samuel Shenker and his 33 grabs from a year ago. Luke Deal, Tyler Fromm, and Landen King also will be back on the squad, with King taking some looks at wide receiver this spring.

Still, aside from Tank, there’s nobody that you really trust giving the keys to in this offense. Auburn is going to have to find a way to piece production together, and I quite honestly have no idea who’s going to show out. Plus, spring game explosion is no indicator of future success. Plenty of guys have done well on A-Day and have never been heard from again.

CAN THIS DEFENSE REPLICATE THE END OF YEAR SUCCESS?

For all of the flak that Auburn got on the five-game losing streak after Halloween, the defense was really only at fault in one major instance. After the Tigers got ahead 28-3 against Mississippi State, the defense just got shredded and Auburn lost 43-34. Other than that, they were able to keep things within striking distance at Texas A&M, South Carolina, and especially Alabama. Holding Bryce Young and the Tide to 10 points in regulation, including 3 in the first 59+ minutes, is an absolute accomplishment.

Now, Derek Mason is gone, Jeff Schmedding is defensive coordinator, and there are a couple of new faces on the staff in DL coach Jimmy Brumbaugh, LB coach Christian Robinson, and ST/Edge coach Roc Bellantoni. Harsin brought in an Auburn alum, a guy with recruiting chops in Robinson, and a dude with years and years of experience in Bellantoni.

Most importantly, there are some incredibly key pieces back on defense. Owen Pappoe returns this season after missing time due to injury late in 2021, and Derick Hall is back to hold court on the defensive line. Colby Wooden, Marcus Harris, Marquis Burks, and Zykeivous Walker all come back up front as well. Not to mention, the next great cornerback in Auburn’s recent DB boon will man one side as Jaylin Simpson has a year of seasoning around him.

The concerns come with depth in certain areas, as Auburn’s linebackers probably can’t stand another injury to Pappoe, and definitely need to find another guy to build around him. Up front the group sounds great, and will likely be a strength of the team, but in the back end the Tigers will be thin at safety, and can’t stand to lose either one of Simpson or Nehemiah Pritchett at corner.

WHAT KIND OF RESULTS CAN WE EXPECT IN THE SEC WEST?

As the SEC is wont to do, they don’t really fall off much, and that’s hilariously fun for an Auburn team that’ll be trying to find itself in a hurry in 2022.

The season begins with two easy wins in Mercer and San Jose State, but then Penn State comes to town. Sean Clifford is back, but Jahan Dotson is gone. Maybe we’ll defend the tight ends this time, though. After that it’s right into conference play with Missouri and LSU back-to-back at Jordan-Hare. One set of Tigers is on the way up under Eli Drinkwitz, and the other has a good amount of trouble under Brian Kelly. LSU is a mystery in 2022, and the looming NCAA sanctions can’t help morale around there.

Auburn’s first road game is in October as they head to Georgia, who will be defending a title for the first time in 41 years, and then it’s off to Oxford before the open week.

Home against Arkansas, away at Mississippi State, and home against Texas A&M all precede the final non-con game of the year as Western Kentucky visits before Thanksgiving. Then it’s the Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa.

There aren’t really many teams on the docket that you can say are getting definitively worse this year. Ole Miss loses Matt Corral, but they’ll still be feisty. I have no idea what to make of LSU, but Georgia, A&M, and Alabama are all going to be monsters now, and I think Arkansas and Missouri are on the rise. Going 4-4 in SEC play will be difficult, especially with the unknowns at many spots right now.

HOW DOES THE BRYAN HARSIN OFFSEASON SAGA AFFECT THE TEAM?

This is one question that I don’t believe will affect the team as much as the fans and the coverage around it. We’re going to have to hear every single week about how Bryan Harsin almost got fired (did he?) and how his job status is in doubt (yeah, probably). We’re not sure exactly what happened earlier this year, but there’s definitely turmoil on the Plains in some form or fashion.

Whether or not that creeps into the locker room, and whether or not Harsin and the staff can keep the players focused on football remains to be seen. Anyone outwardly speaking with the public will be getting questions about this, and who knows how it’ll affect the team. If a bad loss occurs, or there’s some minor kerfuffle, do the players start to think that the may have yet another head coach shortly after the conclusion of the season? We’d like to say that the administration isn’t going to spend that type of money, but it clearly doesn’t matter to them.