Aubserver Mailbag 92: Life Comes at You Fast
This week: "Must-win games," a drastically different QB situation, WR play, turnovers, recruiting concerns, penalties, an insane basketball rule and Paul Heyman
HC Bryan Harsin (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
Who is going to play quarterback this weekend for Auburn?
Or maybe this is a better question: Who is available to play quarterback this weekend for Auburn?
Life comes at you fast, and it seems like the Auburn football program is constantly and completely surrounded by the turbo boost arrows from Mario Kart. Remember when last week’s most talked-about drama was jersey colors? Now, actually important news can’t stop happening.
Bryan Harsin entered Week 3 against Penn State with four available scholarship quarterbacks. He’s set to enter Week 4 against Missouri with just two — and they’re the two least-experienced ones in the room.
This all started Monday afternoon, when Harsin was asked about the health of T.J. Finley and Robby Ashford following the Penn State game. Harsin’s response: “Yeah, they're good. They're good. I think they weren't the only two (injury concerns), on either side of the ball. It's football. Right? Guys get up. But those guys are good. Those guys are good going into this week.”
At the end of his press conference, Harsin was asked about the health of Zach Calzada, who hasn’t played a snap yet for Auburn and missed a significant portion of time this offseason dealing with a shoulder injury. Harsin’s response: “You know something I don’t? Yeah, he's competing like everybody else. Those guys, every single week, those guys get opportunities. We try to play the best players. That's what happens from Sunday through Friday.”
The next day, AL.com, among others, reported that Finley would miss the Missouri game with a shoulder injury. On Wednesday morning, on the SEC coaches teleconference, Harsin said “all of those guys have been at practice — every guy is at practice” when asked about Finley.
Then on Thursday, Auburn Live’s Justin Hokanson reported that Calzada was scheduling a shoulder surgery and would miss the rest of the season, seeking a medical redshirt. That news was later confirmed by several other outlets.
The news leaves transfer Robby Ashford (who has played in just three games off the bench at the college level) and true freshman Holden Geriner (who hasn’t played yet) available for the Missouri game.
Look. Bryan Harsin isn’t the first Auburn football coach to give vague non-answers or decline to be forthcoming about injuries during a game week. He definitely won’t be the last. Coaches don’t like to divulge important information, and they’re not required to do so in college ball. This isn’t the NFL. (Harsin even said as much Thursday night on Tiger Talk.)
However, everything happens in context. And the context for Harsin right now is simple: His Auburn team just suffered its worst home loss in a decade. The Tigers not only missed a golden opportunity to reset the negativity that has surrounded the program since last season’s five-game losing streak — the frustrations quickly cranked up to the highest levels yet. Fans are upset. There aren’t many who are still believers in him and his staff, with a lot of them turning hard this week.
If those same frustrated fans feel like they were lied to or misled, it only does more damage.
Sure, winning cures everything, even ugly blowout losses. But winning looks tougher than it did when Auburn opened as a double-digit favorite over Missouri, now that an offense that only put up 12 points at home last week is now less experienced at quarterback.
The chances of survival are seemingly getting slimmer by the day, even when Auburn’s not actually playing football.
And that’s the context for this week’s mailbag — six days after one of the most damaging losses for Auburn in recent memory and one day before an SEC opener that could go an extremely long way in determining how the other seven conference games go this fall.
Even before the Calzada news broke Thursday, this week’s mailbag call broke a personal record for questions received. There’s no way I could get to most of them, much less all of them. The new record for longest Aubserver Mailbag lasted just one week.
(Also, as a personal note: I’m not going to answer questions in here about head coach replacements unless the job is actually open. That’s always been my preference. And there were a lot of those questions this time.)
Alright, that’s a long-winded introduction. We covered a lot of ground in this week’s mailbag. Thank you for your questions and your support of The Auburn Observer. Let’s go.
You said in a preseason mailbag that “Going 3-2 or worse would make things quite tough.” Are the next two games must-win? Or did the Penn State loss change your opinion on that record?
Well, as Bryan Harsin said this week, every game is a must-win game for him and his team.
But, seriously, yes. Being 3-2 or worse heading into Athens, then Oxford, would put Auburn in serious jeopardy of having a losing record at the off week. Making a bowl game, at that point, would mean the Tigers would have to win two of the following games: vs. Arkansas, at Mississippi State, vs. Texas A&M, at Alabama — assuming that Auburn beats Western Kentucky late in the season, of course.
You cannot go backwards an inch more if you’re Auburn. The team regressed from 2020 to 2021. It regressed by three touchdowns’ worth of points, even with home-field advantage, against Penn State from 2021 to 2022. It’s just one game, but the performance last Saturday has several parallels to things that happened in 2012. That’s really bad news, to put it mildly.
For the current structure of the Auburn football program to have a chance of continuing into the 2023 season, there has to be some proof of concept. The on-field product has regressed, and the off-field recruiting isn’t anywhere close to a position to make up for that right now. What are you going to sell everyone on for the days ahead, considering the roster is expected to lose a good chunk of talent after this season?
If there’s any chance of that changing, it starts Saturday against Missouri. And it continues a week later at home against LSU, a team you’ve beaten each of the last two seasons, including a streak-snapping victory on the road. More signs of regression there, especially against a coach in a Year 1 situation, would only create more pressure.
I'm guessing by week 4 there is a significant amount of "you are who you are" when it comes to football schematics. For example, a team isn't going to go from a ground-and-pound to an air raid in the middle of a season.
However, is there still time for this staff to make enough changes to hide the OL deficiencies within the current "identity?" Playing Ashford and two RBs to force opposing defenses to be more read and react, perhaps? Our best and deepest offensive positions are RB and TE and both groups have been largely absent from the offense.