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2021 SEC Football Season Preview: Auburn Tigers

The Gus Bus is now riding through Orlando. With a new coach at the helm on the Plains, what should we expect from Auburn in 2021?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 26 Auburn at LSU Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2020 at a Glance

Record: 6-5
SRS: 9.61
SOS: 9.52

2021 Schedule

(All times are Eastern)

9/4: Akron (7 p.m., ESPN+/SEC Network+)
9/11: Alabama State (Noon, SEC Network)
9/18: at Penn State Nittany Lions (8 p.m., ABC)
9/25: Georgia State
10/2: at LSU
10/9: Georgia Bulldogs
10/16: at Arkansas
10/30: Ole Miss Rebels
11/6: at Texas A&M
11/13: Mississippi State
11/20: South Carolina Gamecocks
11/27: Alabama Crimson Tide

Overview

The Gus Malzahn era ended last year for the Auburn Tigers. Under Gus, Auburn was often very chaotic and unpredictable. When they were good? They were pretty damn good! When they were mediocre? Well... you know the rest. Nevertheless, a 6-5 finish in the shortened 2020 season ultimately led to the two sides parting ways.

With Malzahn at UCF, the Tigers now begin anew. They’ve hired away from the SEC roots, as they hauled Bryan Harsin in from the Boise State Broncos. Harsin enjoyed some success out on the blue turf, and the hope of course is that the success he achieved there translates into the rough and tough SEC. It’ll be an uphill battle in the West Division, as just about every squad in the division looks ready to be feisty if nothing else.

While there are some questions at quarterback, the offense will be led by Tank Bigsby. Bigsby, a fierce running back, broke out last year and figures to be the lead dog on O. Meanwhile, a very experienced defense is probably the biggest headline attraction for this team. Owen Pappoe and Zakoby McClain are both outstanding players who’ll lead their LB corp this year. Smoke Monday and Roger McCreary each return after strong seasons a year ago as they accounted for five of the team’s nine interceptions.

Biggest Questions

Thanks to College and Magnolia for answering our questions!

1. It seems like everyone’s either starting with a new HC or in Year 2. In your case, Bryan Harsin is starting anew here. Amidst everything going on right now, what are the expectations for Auburn this year??

College and Mag:

At Auburn, much of what can be accomplished depends on the schedule, and right now Harsin has taken a job against two of the top five programs in the country in Alabama and Georgia. He does inherit a team with a ton of upperclassmen and top 15 talent, but the thought of trying to install a new system and compete right away is tough to comprehend. I’ve seen predictions from anywhere between 6-6 and 10-2, but somewhere right in the middle is more likely. Auburn’s schedule is heavy on the names, but with Penn State and LSU trying to rebound from awful 2020 seasons it might be a little easier to navigate that previously thought. Don’t be surprised if Auburn starts out 5-0 and breaks the streak in Baton Rouge. I personally predicted a 9-3 year, but 8-4 and third in the west is probably the safest bet.

2. Tank Bigsby is getting so much attention this offseason. What should we foresee out of him this year?

College and Mag:

If Bryan Harsin and Mike Bobo like to do what Gus Malzahn did and ride a tailback once he’s been designated as “the guy” then Tank could have a truly special year. Barring injuries, of course, he should get a nice easy entry into the season against Akron and Alabama State, and the play calling could net him some gaudy numbers in those games if they want. He gets a national spotlight game in prime time Week 3 in Happy Valley, and should have momentum heading into the meat of the schedule. I’d say the ceiling is the Doak Walker Award, but 1st Team All-SEC is a fairly likely expectation for him this season.

3. On a very experienced defense, who are the top players to watch for?

College and Mag:

I was actually shocked looking through the depth chart and seeing the names on this defense and knowing how solid it can be. Auburn may have the top linebacker duo in the country in Owen Pappoe and Zakoby McClain (who led the nation in tackles last season), and the e secondary will likely produce another first round talent at corner in Roger McCreary. What’s interesting, though, is that the new faces on the defensive line have all won over the staff in fall camp. Tony Fair is a monster nose tackle transfer from UAB at 330 pounds, and Marcus Harris came in from Kansas. Those two locked in the starting spots in the middle of the line, and should eat up space for the linebackers to feast. Watch out for how versatile Auburn can get this year as well. They’ll be comfortable running a basic 4-3 or 3-4, but they’ve got enough experienced defensive backs to play nickel constantly, or even throw out the old 3-1-7 that Kevin Steele cooked up for Joe Burrow in 2019.

Projection

Christopher Novak: Auburn has an experienced offensive line, a sophomore back in Tank Bigsby who’s a hoss. They have talent at receiver with Shedrick Jackson and transfer Demetris Robertson from Georgia. They return a lot of pieces from a high-tier defense last year, including two studs in McClain and Pappoe. And yet...I can’t seem to look past Bo Nix at QB. I hate to say it, but I don’t know that I foresee much improvement from him this year and I think he might be what holds this team back from really going places. I think a 5-7 is the worst-case scenario for this Auburn team. 9 or 10 wins is probably the best-case... which is why I’m going to say 7-5. I’ve been wrong before, but we’ll see how it plays out.

College and Mag: I mentioned it above, but I’m personally on record for a 9-3 year with losses to Georgia, Ole Miss, and Alabama. I think that Auburn gets Penn State and LSU to start the season at 5-0, but Georgia is too much even at home. The big surprise win will come when the Tigers beat Texas A&M in College Station (where they’ve never lost to the Aggies), and even though they get Bama in Nick Saban’s personal house of horror, the Tide are likely still too much (even though I would’ve said the same thing at this same time before Gus Malzahn’s first season as well).