The eight-year love-hate relationship between Auburn's fan base and head coach Gus Malzahn is now over, making room for a new name on the Tigers' annual hot seat in Bryan Harsin. Auburn stumbled its way through a 10-game SEC-only schedule last season, finishing 6-5 with a 35-19 loss to Northwestern in the Citrus Bowl. With a very challenging schedule ahead, can Harsin and staff turn the ship around in Year 1 and contend for an SEC West title after a successful run at Boise State?
As well-prepared a team as Harsin may deliver on Saturdays this fall, Auburn's 2021 schedule is leaps and bounds ahead of what he was facing the last seven seasons at Boise State. There are no easy outs within the division and the non-conference schedule is layered with explosive showdowns against Big Ten and Sun Belt contenders. After the first two games, Harsin will truly begin to earn his $5.25 million per year salary, finding out how brutal life is on The Plains.
Bye: Week 8
Week 1 – Sept. 4 vs. Akron (Auburn, Ala.)
Squaring off against a Zips squad coming off a 1-5 season in 2020 will not ruffle the feathers of the Tigers, but it may give false bravado for the upcoming schedule. In all five defeats, Akron was walked out of the stadium. The 31-3 victory against Bowling Green softens the 24.2 points per game average deficit on the scoreboard.
Week 2 – Sept. 11 vs. Alabama State (Auburn, Ala.)
Auburn can get a head start on preparing for this game against the FCS Hornets by watching the Southwestern Athletic Conference squad play its 2020 season this spring. Alabama State holds a 3-2 (3-1 SWAC) record with one victory (Alcorn State) coming by way of forfeit. Head coach Donald Hill-Eley got a feather-in-the-cap win on March 20 taking down then-No. 24 Jackson State 35-28. Even though this is a tune-up game, Auburn has to be firing on all cylinders at the end of this non-conference outing.
Week 3 – Sept. 18 at Penn State (University Park, Pa.)
Play time for the Tigers abruptly ends in Week 3 with a road contest against Penn State. Although the Nittany Lions are coming off a 4-5 season, there's no doubt that head coach James Franklin will have his squad ready for this marquee matchup that will draw national attention. As big early-season games go, how well the new coaching staff and holdover players have gelled could determine how the War Eagles carry on for the remainder of the season. An embarrassing loss could upend everything while a heartbreaking defeat or a big win could propel this team to a great season. An added twist for the diehards, former Vanderbilt head coaches square off with Derek Mason as Auburn's new defensive coordinator taking on his predecessor in Franklin.
Week 4 – Sept. 25 vs. Georgia State (Auburn, Ala.)
At Boise State, colliding against Georgia State would have been an opportunity to showcase that the Broncos can play anyone anywhere. At Auburn, Harsin can't just win, he has to make a statement. The Panthers are still a young FBS program, but they are a fast-rising one out of the Sun Belt. Head coach Shawn Elliot has his teams ready to play. During the Panthers' 6-4 campaign in 2020, three of the four losses were by an average of four points. Traditionally, talent to talent, Auburn blows Georgia State out of the water. But coming off what could be a tough game against Penn State, this experienced Panthers squad could roll into Jordan-Hare Stadium ready to make some noise.
Week 5 – Oct. 2 at LSU (Baton Rouge, La.)
Harsin's first conference game as an SEC head coach could only have been made more difficult if it was scheduled against Alabama in Bryant-Denny at night. As is, LSU will more than likely be a preseason top-10 team, with a full stadium ready to recapture some 2019 glory. The Tigers dropped an ugly 48-11 game at Jordan-Hare in 2020, making this one a revenge situation for Ed Orgeron and company.
Week 6 – Oct. 9 vs. Georgia (Auburn, Ala.)
Only in the SEC would a new head coach have to go back-to-back against top-tier teams to begin his conference schedule, but such is life playing "big boy football." The Bulldogs put together an 8-2 campaign last season with lopsided losses to Alabama and Florida but trounced Auburn 27-6 in Athens. Another week, another opportunity for Harsin to show the fan base that it's money well spent when it comes to the new head Tiger.
Week 7 – Oct. 16 at Arkansas (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Auburn's win-loss record in 2020 was 6-5, but Arkansas fans would argue it should have been 5-6. By their (and others') recollection, when Tigers quarterback Bo Nix went to spike the ball late in the fourth quarter with the Razorbacks ahead 28-27 it was actually a fumble, which the defense recovered. Unfortunately, a blown call gave Auburn another play and a 39-yard field goal by Anders Carlson handed the home team a 30-28 victory. That heartbreaking outcome aside, Arkansas is a program on the climb under second-year head coach Sam Pittman with a lot of starters back. If the Hogs get solid quarterback play in 2021 this will be another battle royale.
Week 9 – Oct. 30 vs. Ole Miss (Auburn, Ala.)
Auburn snuck out of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium last season with a 35-28 win. The Ole Miss offense under second-year head coach Lane Kiffin should be among the best in the nation yet again. If the Rebels show any sort of improvement on defense, the Tigers will be in for another four-quarter game. Should Auburn get some momentum back under its belts, looking past the Rebels to its next opponent would be a mistake.
Week 10 – Nov. 6 at Texas A&M (College Station, Texas)
Of all the teams in the SEC West, Texas A&M might be the biggest wild card. The Aggies' defense will be good, but their offense is full of question marks that will not be answered until the 2021 season gets going. Head coach Jimbo Fisher turned in the program's best season since joining the conference in 2012 a year ago (9-1, 8-1 SEC). The pressure will now be on him to deliver similar results year after year without dramatic drops in the win column. If Auburn is coming together as a team, this could be a big momentum push with a couple of winnable games left.
Week 11 – Nov. 13 vs. Mississippi State (Auburn, Ala.)
Mason and the Tigers' defense will have its work cut out for them this week. Mike Leach's coaching stripes will not change, but will he have all the pieces in place to execute his Air Raid offense to the tune of more than 400 passing yards a game with 35-plus points on the board? Of the Bulldogs' three wins in 2020, one was against Mason's Vanderbilt squad (24-17), so this is another opportunity for Mason to get a little payback.
Week 12 – Nov. 20 at South Carolina (Columbia, S.C.)
Depending on the kind of year Auburn has put together, this could be a trap game. The Tigers head to Columbia against a first-time head coach in Shane Beamer. The son of former Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer, Shane doesn't have a high bar to pass in 2021 after the Gamecocks won just two games under Will Muschamp last fall. Given his most recent three-year stint at Oklahoma, South Carolina fans are expecting an explosive offense. Can Beamer produce in Year 1 with the talent left on the roster? Another personal game for the Auburn coaching staff; this one is for offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who served in the same role for the Gamecocks last season before filling in as interim head coach over the last three games (0-3).
Week 13 – Nov. 27 vs. Alabama (Auburn, Ala.)
This is where Harsin will win favor with the fans or find his way into the proverbial doghouse. Malzahn posted a 3-5 record against Nick Saban and won two SEC West titles. However, Malzahn's average margin of defeat in those five losses to the Crimson Tide was 21 points, which contributed to the increased bitterness expressed by the fan base. A very good season on The Plains can be minimalized if it doesn't include a victory against Alabama, or worse the Tigers suffer a humiliating loss in the Iron Bowl. The Tide are the defending national champs and will be good again. How good remains to be seen but either way, it's not a fun way for Harsin to end his maiden SEC voyage.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.
(Top photo courtesy of @AuburnFootball)