No head coach returns to a more awkward, unsettled situation than Bryan Harsin entering his second season at Auburn. After a disappointing 6–7 first season that included a five-game losing streak to end the year, Harsin witnessed his name very publicly dragged through the mud amid an investigation into his treatment of fellow coaches and players.
Harsin survived the investigation, but the scars remain. The program has experienced significant upheaval under Harsin, with the second-year head coach already on his third offensive coordinator and second defensive coordinator. Also gone is Auburn legacy and three-year starting quarterback Bo Nix, who transferred to Oregon. After everything that went down in the offseason, it is clear that Harsin needs to show improvement in 2022 if he wants to survive more than a couple seasons on the Plains.
Previewing Auburn's Offense for 2022
Harsin's long-term future could hinge on which quarterback he picks as the starter this season. With Nix gone, there are plenty of options to choose from, but each comes with a set of pluses and minuses. The presumed favorite is Texas A&M transfer Zach Calzada, who was the only quarterback to defeat Alabama in the 2021 regular season but was limited during spring practice. Calzada feels like a high-floor, low-ceiling option for the Tigers unless he takes a big leap from how he played in College Station. Former LSU Tiger T.J. Finley started three games last season after Nix went down with an ankle injury — all losses — and finished the season with a 54.7 percent completion rate. The wild card is Oregon transfer Robby Ashford, who looked the best during Auburn's A-Day spring game but will likely slot in at No. 3 on the depth chart.
With uncertainty at quarterback, Auburn is going to have to rely on its running game to power the offense. The good news is that star running back Tank Bigsby has a strong argument as the best SEC running back and has returned for another season. Bigsby finished the 2021 season with 1,102 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns and should exceed those numbers in 2022, assuming Harsin opts for more of a ground-and-pound approach. He'll have a veteran offensive line blocking in front of him with multiple linemen returning for sixth seasons. The veteran group will need to be better in pass protection this year after struggling to protect Nix in 2021.
Outside of quarterback, the big question is where Auburn will get its productivity at the receiver position. Gone are Kobe Hudson (44 catches for 580 yards, four TDs) and Demetris Robertson (37 catches for 489 yards, four TDs), leaving the victor of the QB battle with few established targets. Shedrick Jackson is back for a sixth year, which helps, but the Tigers will need players like Ja'Varrius Johnson and Ze'Vian Capers to take big steps in 2022. John Samuel Shenker, who set Auburn records for tight end receptions in 2021, is a reliable target who should be well utilized again regardless of quarterback.
Previewing Auburn's Defense for 2022
Former Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason left after only one season as Auburn's defensive coordinator, opting to make a lateral move to accept the same position at Oklahoma State (and taking a big pay cut). Rather than find an outsider to run the defense, Harsin has turned to Jeff Schmedding, who was previously his defensive coordinator at Boise State and spent the 2021 season as Auburn's linebackers coach.
Schmedding takes over a group that loses quite a few of its most established players from the 2021 season. There is returning talent from the strength of last season's team, but there are question marks up and down the depth chart. Can anyone truly replace cornerback Roger McCreary? What about the heart and soul of the defense — linebackers Zakoby McClain and Chandler Wooten?
On paper, Auburn's offense doesn't have the firepower to get into shootouts and win, putting pressure on the defense to keep the Tigers in games. If Auburn's defense can meet that challenge, it will start with success upfront via linemen Derick Hall, Colby Wooden and Eku Leota. Hall had nine sacks in 2021 on his way to second-team All-SEC honors, and he looks primed to better that number this season. Owen Pappoe, the former five-star recruit, should be Auburn's best linebacker if he can stay healthy.
Auburn will miss McCreary and safety Smoke Monday in the secondary, but it still might be the strength of the unit. Nehemiah Pritchett, Donovan Kaufman, Jaylin Simpson and Zion Puckett are all talented and more than capable of making a big impact in the secondary. Oregon transfer cornerback D.J. James is going to push hard for a starting spot, too.
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2022
Previewing Auburn's Specialists for 2022
Auburn returns one of the nation's best kickers in Anders Carlson, who was 14-of-21 on field goals before suffering a torn ACL against Mississippi State. Returning starting punter Oscar Chapman was terrific last season, finishing with a 44.1 yards per punt average. Pritchett and Kaufman provide solid options in the return game.
Unfortunately for Harsin's job security, this feels like another six-win team. Auburn has a tough non-conference test against Penn State in Week 3 and has to travel to both Georgia and Alabama this season. Harsin badly needs one of his quarterback options to exceed expectations, but the optimism is dampened in Auburn.