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Iron Bowl Preview: When The Auburn Tigers Have the Ball

No Bo, no problem.

NCAA Football: Auburn at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

In their first year of the post-Gus Malzahn era, the Auburn Tigers’ offense has taken a step forward from their rough 2020, but are little behind most of Malzahn’s offenses in the years prior. They’re averaging 30 points per game, which is just a shade above average across all of college football.

Harsin hired an offensive coordinator that should be a familiar name: Mike Bobo. The veteran OC designed the pro-style offenses for Mark Richt at Georgia for years before Kirby Smart took over. Bobo’s offenses back then generally featured two dynamic running backs and a whole lot of playaction passing.

As times have moved on, Bobo has adapted his concepts to a purely shotgun-based attack, but the Tigers still use a lot of 2-TE sets with a power blocking counter scheme designed to spring running backs free between the tackles for big gains— a very early 2010s philosophy.

Running back Tank Bigsby is the guy who makes the whole think work, as the second year back is one of the best pure rushers in the SEC. He’s compact, explosive, agile, and really tough to bring down. Bigsby is averaging 5.3 yards per carry and has nearly 1000 yards this season with 10 touchdowns. This offense almost totally depends on Bigsby being able to rip off chunk runs, and shutting him down is often the key totally stymieing the Auburn offensive plan.

Behind him, freshman Jarquez Hunter has about 13 of the carries, but has been explosive on his 81 attempts for 574 yards. Hunter has been one of those young surprises, and is a dangerous running back in his own right. Shaun Shivers rounds out the group, and the veteran resumes his role as mostly a receiving back (22 catches for 163 yards).

The passing game is where things get interesting for the Tigers. Bo Nix’s 3rd season has been much of the same as prior years: wildly inconsistent, always operating outside of the play design, and occasionally hitting big plays. But Nix has now broken his ankle and is out for the rest of the season, and LSU transfer T.J. Finley has taken over.

The massive 6’7” QB isn’t much of a scrambler like Nix, and is generally a one-read-and-launch-it kind of guy. He’s inconsistent with the accuracy (only 52% completion), but his adjusted yards per attempt are much higher than they were with Nix, and he’s more likely to play within the scheme and not take negative plays.

At receiver, super senior Demetris Robertson has bounced around a few programs since his highly publicized recruitment as a 5-star athlete many, many moons ago. He’s finally settled into a decent role at Auburn, where his speed is mostly used as a screen pass guy or a deep bomb target.

Kobe Hudson is the team’s most complete receiver, but has been out with an injury. It’s uncertain whether he’ll be available for the Iron Bowl, but most are expecting him to make it. Rounding out the group are Shedrick Jackson and Ja’Varrious Johnson. Bobo runs a lot of intermediate crossing routes for these guys to try and get easy yards after catch across the middle.

The tight ends, John Samuel Shenker and Luke Deal are regular fixtures in the offense. Shenker is a complete TE that is a regular receiving outlet, and both guys are used all across the formation to make key blocks.

The Tigers’ offensive line has four 5th-year seniors leading the way, with All-SEC center Nick Brahms at the head of the group. They’re a strong run blocking line that excel at picking up linebackers down the field, though they are susceptible to some pass rush.

In theory, this is a good matchup for Alabama. Auburn’s strength, interior running, is something that the Alabama defense has handled well all season. And T.J. Finley is a QB that can be easily rattled with a competent pass rush (Will Anderson).

Their penchant for getting chunk runs and some occasional big 3rd down throws will move the chains more often than Alabama fans will be happy with, but I imagine the Tigers will have issues converting that into points.

I'm expecting about 17-21 points for Auburn.

Of course, it's the Iron Bowl, and it's in Jordan-Hare. So who knows. There will probably be some weird special teams things that throw off any estimates.