The perpetual hot seat finally proved to be too much for Gus Malzahn.
Auburn decided it would rather pay a whopping $21.5 million buyout than suffer through another four-loss season with Malzahn. Auburn turned to Bryan Harsin to elevate the program's status after he went 69–19 in seven years at Boise State.
Malzahn was at one point considered one of college football's most innovative offensive coaches, but a lack of evolution in recent years and quarterback Bo Nix's stalled development played a role in losing fan support. One of Harsin's biggest priorities in 2021 will be proving he can make Nix better.
Harsin has never coached in the SEC before, and he'll face an early challenge with an October slate against LSU, Georgia, Arkansas and Ole Miss. There is a lot of positivity around the new Harsin era, but if anything has proven true at Auburn, it's that it doesn't take more than one or two mediocre seasons to lose the fan base.
Previewing Auburn's Offense for 2021
A year ago, a lot of the preseason talk centered on whether Malzahn and new offensive coordinator Chad Morris could take Nix's play to the next level. In 2021, the coaches are different but the question remains. Harsin and new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo must find a way to get more out of Nix after two up-and-down seasons for the former five-star prospect.
Nix was better last season than in his freshman year, but he was still a middle-of-the-pack SEC quarterback, at best. The junior is very athletic and a threat on the run, but he struggled in 2020 with throwing accuracy and pocket awareness. If Nix is unable to progress under Harsin, LSU transfer T.J. Finley could push for the starting job. It won't help that Nix loses his three top receiving targets — Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove — from last season. Without any reliable receivers to count on, Nix badly needs some of the young options like Ze'Vian Capers, Elijah Canion and Kobe Hudson to take big jumps in production. Tight ends John Samuel Shenker and Luke Deal could be better utilized in Harsin's offense.
Given Nix's limitations, sophomore running back Tank Bigsby should become a bigger focus on offense. The SEC Freshman of the Year should carry a bigger load in Year Two and is a good bet to crack the 1,000-yard mark this season with his bruising running style. Shaun Shivers gives Auburn a solid change-of-pace back to spell Bigsby.
Both Nix and Bigsby will need Auburn's offensive line to be better this season. It's a veteran group — all the key contributors from 2020 are back — but the O-line never was cohesive in 2020 because of injuries and inconsistency. Center Nick Brahms and right tackle Brodarious Hamm seem like surefire starters at two spots, while there are multiple veteran options at the other three spots. Simply put, new offensive line coach Will Friend must demand more consistent play from his unit if the offense is going to take a step forward in 2021.
Previewing Auburn's Defense for 2021
After years of Kevin Steele's 4-2-5 base defense, new defensive coordinator Derek Mason brings change and should utilize both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses. Fortunately for Mason, Steele left the cupboard very full for a defense that should be the strength of the team again.
There may not be a better linebacker duo in the SEC than Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe, who combined for 206 tackles last season. Having those two patrolling the middle of the field is the strength of the defense. T.D. Moultry should be more productive as an outside linebacker.
In front of McClain and Pappoe is a deep, talented group of defensive linemen. There isn't a known star the way there was when Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson anchored the line, but defensive tackle Tyrone Truesdell is as steady as it gets in the middle. Zykeivous Walker and Truesdell should be impactful together when Mason goes to a four-man front. Colby Wooden (9.5 TFLs), Derick Hall (3.5 sacks), and Northwestern transfer Eku Leota (two sacks) give Auburn plenty of talented pass-rushing options.
Cornerback Roger McCreary and safety Smoke Monday are two of the best defensive backs in the SEC. There isn't anyone really proven outside of Monday at the safety spot, which means there could be some trial by fire early for guys like Chris Thompson Jr. and Jaylin Simpson. McCreary gives the Tigers a proven No. 1 corner. Ladarius Tennison and Nehemiah Pritchett team up with McCreary to make up what should be the SEC's best trio of cornerbacks. West Virginia transfer Dreshun Miller had 31 tackles and nine PBUs last season and should bolster the depth.
Previewing Auburn's Specialists for 2021
Anders Carlson returns as one of the SEC's most accomplished kickers, making 20-of-22 attempts last season for an impressive 90.9 field-goal percentage. Auburn rotated between Aidan Marshall and Oscar Chapman at punter last year, and both could be utilized again this season. Auburn lost its primary punt and kick returners from last season, but there is plenty of talent to choose from to fill those roles.
A tough schedule and a first-year staff make this look like a seven- or eight-win team. A talented defense should keep the Tigers in games, but Nix will again play an oversized role in how successful this team can be. An early non-conference game at Penn State will say a lot about Auburn.
National Ranking: 29
Podcast: Top 25 Breakdown and Predictions