1) The Bryan Harsin era is officially underway, was the general vibe of the fan base regarding Harsin when he was hired and how has that vibe changed so far?
So many Auburn people like to think of themselves as insiders, or having that special connection to someone in the know, and I think 99.9% of the fanbase was surprised when Bryan Harsin was announced a couple of days before Christmas last year. We’d been expecting either Mario Cristobal, Billy Napier, or even someone like Brent Venables. There was definitely a contingent that thought our old defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was getting the job. When Harsin was announced, it was surely unexpected.
At first glance, we were mostly pleased that he seemed to be a football guy first and foremost. Like, nothing but football. To be honest, it’s how Nick Saban operates, aside from the occasional insurance commercial. It’s a blueprint that clearly works. Harsin fits the mold, and he was very successful in keeping Boise State atop the MWC during his time on the blue turf. Over the spring and summer, however, we got a few little disappointments in the way recruiting was going or the attitudes toward getting the team fully vaccinated (like most other major SEC schools), and so he was on the defensive a good bit.
Those items aside, when Auburn kicked off against Akron (yes, we know, it was just Akron), they looked like a completely different team than the one we saw in 2020. It was an efficient, murderous effort to dispatch the Zips, and Harsin was the reason for that. When we all thought about how a Gus Malzahn team would look in that same debut game, we thought about sloppy starts, poor offensive play-calling, and a game that would be frustratingly close for far too long against one of the worst teams in the country. Last weekend we had a slow start (the dreaded 11 am CST kickoff on the Plains), but once Harsin got a chance to light a fire under the kids, they had one of the most dominant quarters in about three decades. He’s clearly a good motivator, and I think he’ll have the team ready for Saturday night.
2) If Auburn is going to win, Bo Nix will need to play at a high level. So far in his career, he’s struggled on the road and while he’s used to the atmospheres of Death Valley and The Swamp, going into ruckus environments like Beaver Stadiums is never easy. Do you believe Nix is ready to take that big step forward in such a road environment?
I do think he’s ready, and it’s for the reason I alluded to in the previous answer — the difference between Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin. Bo Nix’s issues on the road were also Gus Malzahn’s issues on the road. Not so much a Bo problem as an inherited problem from the former head coach. Gus was an astonishingly poor coach when he didn’t have the sacred magic of Jordan-Hare Stadium behind him, and that reflected on the entire team.
By most metrics this season, Bo has been one of the more accurate and highly-rated passers in the SEC. Before you say it, we know it was only Akron and Alabama State, but those were games where he would’ve had a 50% completion rate for 125 yards and 1 touchdown or something like that. Under Harsin and Mike Bobo, he’s become more confident and I think he sees this more as his team. He was definitely skittish with our offensive line last year, and looked to scramble almost immediately nearly every snap. He’s standing in the pocket now, going through his options and progressions (we have an offense with progressions now!) and throwing with more confidence. It could be that he’s a year older, but I think he’s turned the page a bit. It certainly doesn’t hurt having Tank Bigsby to lean on in both the running and passing game.
3) The big key for Penn State defensively will be limiting the damage Tank Bigsby does throughout the fame, they likely won’t be able to silence completely but if they are going to, how does the Penn State defense need to attack this Auburn offense’s run game?
You’ll just have to stick 9 in the box and dare Bo Nix to beat you. If you’re doing that, Auburn may try to go more with the passing game (I guess, we still likely haven’t scratched the Harsin/Bobo playbook), but that’s a strategy that can still involve Tank. He might be the best back in the country at somehow shedding tackles and getting extra yardage, so no matter how many guys Penn State has stacked at the line of scrimmage, he’ll probably get his touches and he’ll probably get his yards. The guy you may want to watch out for though comes when Tank takes a breather, and that’s freshman tailback Jarquez Hunter. He’s been electric through the first two games after missing a good portion of fall camp due to COVID, and he’ll be the team’s No. 2 back Saturday night.
4) Penn State fans who are general college football fans will know Nix and Tank’s names but who are some other names on this Auburn offense that could be the difference on Saturday?
I just mentioned above, Jarquez Hunter is the guy that most Auburn fans have been really excited about through two games. He’s a true freshman who broke all of Marcus Dupree’s old high school records, and he’s averaged over 15 yards per carry in his first two games, going over 100 yards each time and setting the record last week for longest run from scrimmage in school history. He’s fast, packs a pop, and won’t be an easy out when he spells Tank.
On offense, aside from Hunter, the receivers are all relatively new from last year. The old man is Shedrick Jackson (Bo’s nephew), who’s become our leader on the boundary, and he’s joined by Ja’Varrius Johnson (the speedster, quick slot guy), and Demetris Robertson (former 5-star recruit who spent time at Cal and Georgia). Robertson broke out with 3 touchdowns last week, and seems to have become a favorite target of Bo in the passing game. Auburn also finally utilized the tight end a bit after Gus refused to do so for years. John Samuel Shenker is the guy who’ll probably be a good pressure release valve for Nix and will likely catch like 6 passes for 48 yards.
5) Likewise, what are the expectations for this Auburn defense in 2021? What are their strengths and what is their biggest weakness?
This Auburn defense is similar to Penn State in that the expectations are high. It’ll likely be a top ten overall unit when the dust settles on 2021, and with good reason. The Tigers boast probably the best linebacker combo in the SEC in Owen Pappoe and Zakoby McClain (the nation’s leading tackler in 2020). They get to roam behind a defensive line full of new faces, but solid productivity. Auburn gotten transfers from UAB (Tony Fair) and Kansas (Marcus Harris) to go along with starters from last season (Colby Wooden, Derick Hall, and T.D. Moultry) to put together a vicious pass rush under Derek Mason’s design. Through two games they lead the nation in rushing yards per game (again, Akron and Alabama State, but we’d be concerned if they hadn’t dominated those two teams).
In the pass defense, Auburn’s secondary is full of veterans as well. Roger McCreary at cornerback will probably get the assignment on Dotson for most of the game, and he’ll likely end up as a first or second round draft pick in April. Smoke Monday at safety has been around since my dad was in school at Auburn, but he’s more of a boom or bust type of player. Could give up the long touchdown pass, could get the 100-yard pick six. I’d say that the pass defense is the biggest weakness only because it’s not full of absolute stars, and they haven’t been tested this year that much. With some helpful pass rush up front, though, things may look better for them.
6) Finally, no matter how this game goes, it’s going to be a fun one. That being said, when the final whistle blows on Saturday night, who do you believe will be victorious and why?
Well I can’t answer these questions and not pick Auburn to win, we’ll get that out of the way first. What I think happens is that the emotion in the stadium (first huge home game after the pandemic year) guides Penn State for the first ten minutes or so, and the Nittany Lions probably take an early lead. I think Auburn’s defense is good enough to limit the damage and keep it within a 7-0, 10-3 type of game early on, and limit what Penn State can do on offense after that. The Nittany Lions will have to rely on big plays to move down the field, and they won’t come as much once everyone settles in. The running attack just won’t be there against this front seven. Auburn will also likely lean on their own running game more and more as the game progresses, and by the second half will start to get more and more yardage alternating Tank and Hunter.
Unlike Wisconsin, Auburn won’t get into the redzone and come away empty handed multiple times. Harsin will understand the importance of getting some points, and I think Auburn has the edge at kicker with Anders Carlson. If we’ve got a gimme 30 yard field goal, we’ll take it and get on the scoreboard. I think the Tigers keep the full bore of emotion at arm’s length, take a flesh wound or two early, but take the lead right after halftime before adding a touchdown late to ice it.