Aubserver Mailbag 90: The Hot Hand
This week: Robby Ashford and T.J. Finley (again), previewing SJSU, older quarterbacks, Koy Moore, Landen King, Owen Pappoe, the SEC basketball schedule and CM Punk
QB Robby Ashford (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
You know the old saying by now: The most popular player on a college football roster is the backup quarterback.
Most of the time, he represents untapped potential. He represents something shiny and new. He is the one that could turn a team’s fortunes around if the coaching staff would just pull the trigger.
Robby Ashford entered his first season at Auburn as the backup quarterback, and it only took a couple of plays for him to become an even more popular person on the Plains. With the longest run and the longest pass of the game against Mercer, fans are already clamoring for No. 9 to become No. 1.
And that quarterback situation, of course, takes the headline focus for this week’s mailbag. You asked about Robby Ashford and T.J. Finley — but there’s a bunch more in here, too. We tackle the San Jose State matchup, some advanced statistics, several new faces and role players, balancing your fandom with other teams, the SEC basketball schedule and so much more.
This Mailbag weighs in at nearly 5,000 words, which is one of the biggest ones of the year so far. Thank you for your questions and your continued support of The Auburn Observer. Let’s go.
What is wrong with a 2QB system and playing with the hot hand? At the end of the day, isn’t that what people would want the coach to do?
On the contrary, what did T.J. Finley show in the opening game to be considered starter worthy? Wouldn’t it get worse against better opponents?
How deflating to the game atmosphere were the interceptions and is that wrong for us to (over)react that way?
Does Bryan Harsin still have trust in TJ Finley, and will he start him Saturday against San Jose St?
Let’s try to tackle all of these quarterback questions at once, shall we?
There’s always going to be pushback to a multi-quarterback system. There aren’t a ton of examples of it succeeding. And I saw some Auburn fans this week compare it to what happened with the quarterback position in 2016, so there’s some institutional fear really sticking out here.
But I personally like how Bryan Harsin looks at the quarterback position — one he coached to a good amount of success during his time at Boise State. If he feels like multiple players can contribute and the team is better off with a combination instead of just one quarterback getting all of the snaps, he’s going to go with that.
It’s what he did in 2017 with Brett Rypien and Montell Cozart, and he won a Mountain West title. He did some of it in 2019 for another title-winning Boise team, as he pointed out this week. To him, it’s no different than linebackers or wide receivers or any other position on the roster. (And I would argue that in 2016, Auburn was just trying to find someone to be the top quarterback instead of a planned back-and-forth like this one here.)
From the time it looked like T.J. Finley was going to pull away with the starting job, the momentum was still going toward Robby Ashford playing a role. He was still getting first-team reps, and it was obvious that the staff hadn’t gotten a full look at him yet — because he hadn’t played a down of college football yet, and because his running ability can’t truly be tested in preseason camp.
We’ll see what that combination looks like against an FBS team this weekend, but it’s still worth pointing out that the flow of the offense or the feel of it didn’t really change when Auburn swapped between the two quarterbacks. As I wrote in the film room this week, the four full drives when Auburn didn’t score against Mercer all came when just one quarterback was on the field.
So, I personally don't think there’s anything wrong with playing multiple quarterbacks. The gap between Finley and Ashford doesn’t seem to be large, and Ashford will continue to grow in this offense. The staff will get even more data on the quarterbacks this weekend, although Harsin has said not to expect a 50-50 split between snaps. Finley is still QB1.
Outside of those two interceptions against Mercer, I thought Finley played a pretty good game. He made some great throws, operated the offense cleanly and didn’t make too many mistakes. But the two biggest mistakes he made — a forced throw and a bad throw — were deflating interceptions. One of them directly led to Mercer’s first points. The other one ended a promising drive into scoring range. Take both of those out, and Auburn most likely covers with ease and people feel a lot better about Finley.
It’s important not to overreact to two bad plays — or to Ashford’s great showing against an FCS team — but they are definitely meaningful. Harsin himself has pointed out the interceptions pretty much every single time he’s talked about the quarterbacks since the game went final last Saturday night.
Those are plays that will really, really hurt against better competition. So that has to be cleaned up this week, or else this quarterback situation will get more interesting. (The same would go for Ashford if he has ball security issues.)
So, in summary: Don’t rule out the effectiveness of a multi-quarterback system, because Harsin has made it work before. Don’t overreact to the negatives of Finley’s play, and don’t think Ashford’s one game outweighs an entire offseason of evaluation. Finley is still the starting quarterback. The quarterback usage moving forward will most likely be game plan-centric. Ashford will have to outplay Finley in multiple games before he becomes the guy, and it’s still very early for him in this offense.
Another week, another over/under. Over/under 6 games in which Ashford is the starter this season.
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