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Opinion: As Bryan Harsin's first season at Auburn winds down, both sides wish they could take a mulligan

·4 min read
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  • Bryan Harsin
    American football player and coach
  • Gus Malzahn
    Gus Malzahn
    American football player and coach

Auburn fans had been so eager for so long to get rid of Gus Malzahn, that it was almost an afterthought what would come next for their program.

Never mind coming within a hair of winning a national title in 2013. Never mind beating Alabama three times in eight years. Never mind five top-25 finishes. It was urgent after a COVID-19 season to pay Malzahn a $21.45 million buyout to go away because … well? We’re sure Auburn had their reasons, even if they were nonsensical.

But when a school makes such a dramatic coaching move, firing the coach is only half the battle. The next step is finding someone who can do the job better.

And in that regard, Auburn has failed as badly as any school could fail.

It never made sense on any level why Auburn hired Bryan Harsin last year. His seven-year run at Boise State was good, but not amazing. He’d never been in the SEC. He’d spent just two years as an assistant at a Power Five program. And dropping him into an environment like Auburn, which favors the extreme end of the SEC crazy spectrum, was riskier than a plate of undercooked turkey.

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And as Harsin’s first season comes to an end, let’s just say both sides wish they could take a mulligan.

Not only is Harsin a weird cultural fit whose first recruiting class currently ranks a not-very-Auburn-like 11th in the SEC per Rivals.com, he’s 6-6 with three straight blown double-digit leads.

None of them stung more than Saturday’s 24-22 overtime loss to Alabama, a game that Auburn had in the bag until a series of mistakes at the end of regulation and some coaching decisions that will live in Iron Bowl infamy.

Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin reacts to a call during Saturday's game against Alabama.
Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin reacts to a call during Saturday's game against Alabama.

To be fair, Auburn’s 10-0 lead into the fourth quarter was as much about Alabama ineptitude as Auburn brilliance. But Harsin’s team had every opportunity down the stretch to win that game and give a totally different feel to an underwhelming season.

Instead, Auburn kept trying to throw the ball when it was clear quarterback TJ Finley was hobbling around on an injury and handed Alabama an extra 40 seconds when Tank Bigsby mindlessly ran out of bounds with 1:47 to go. Needing a first down to end the game, Auburn went shotgun on third-and-1, was pushed backwards, then had to punt the ball back to Alabama with enough time for Bryce Young to manufacture a 97-yard touchdown drive to send the game to overtime.

But Harsin’s biggest coaching sin came in the first overtime when he elected to kick an extra point after a touchdown to extend the game rather than ending it one way or the other with a two-point conversion.

This was an absurd call by Harsin on multiple levels. First off, Auburn had nothing to lose as a big underdog and a 6-5 team. Second, you’re playing Alabama with an injured quarterback and a defense running on fumes. You’re more likely to win by making three yards on one play than surviving more overtimes. Third, with college football's new rules, two-point conversions are likely to decide the game anyway if you go beyond one overtime.

Instead of taking that chance when he could have, Auburn never had another play to win the game and lost on a two-point conversion in the fourth overtime.

So Auburn ends Harsin’s first season at 6-6, and Auburn isn’t the kind of place that tolerates 6-6 for very long. Auburn would rejoice if he could land a job on the West Coast, but that seems unlikely despite the vigor with which Harsin’s camp has pursued those opportunities. Paying Harsin’s $17.8 million buyout, after what they had to pony up for Malzahn, is unlikely even for Auburn.

So it sure seems like they’re stuck with each other, even though 2021 has gone about as poorly as possible after Auburn blew a 28-3 lead against Mississippi State and a 14-0 lead last week against South Carolina.

Auburn fans may have been tired of Malzahn, but his baseline level of competence both on the field and in recruiting was so far above this, it would be insulting to compare the two.

That gives Auburn the top spot in the final Misery Index of 2021, a weekly measurement of knee-jerk reactions based on what each fan base just watched.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Auburn mistakes, moves in Alabama loss will live in Iron Bowl infamy