For as well as Auburn started 2021, the Tigers ended it as poorly. In Bryan Harsin’s first year at the helm, the Tigers began the season at 4-1 and were routinely inside the top 25. After consecutive wins over then-No. 17 Arkansas and No. 10 Ole Miss, the Harsin era was off to a 6-2 start.
But then, the last four games happened. Auburn lost all of them, including a frustrating game against South Carolina and a fiercely contested Iron Bowl that the Tigers led for much of.
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The Tigers have one game left — the Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 28 against No. 20 Houston — and a chance to finish above .500. But even if the Tigers win, they’ll go into next season having lost two key players in the process with quarterback Bo Nix and running back Tank Bigsby entering the tranfer portal.
Nix made his announcement Sunday on Instagram.
“When I came to Auburn I wanted to do two things — play football, and graduate,” Nix said in his statement. “I was fortunate enough to do both. . . . I’ve made so many decisions for Auburn and now it’s time to do what’s best for me and move on to the next chapter.”
The Tigers’ starter for much of the past three seasons, Nix — whose father, Patrick, also played QB for the Tigers — came to Auburn under Harsin’s predecessor, Gus Malzahn, who is now at UCF. He played in 34 games and amassed 39 touchdowns, but he also had 16 interceptions, completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes and averaged less than 215 yards per game.
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He also missed the Tigers’ last two games in the regular season, including the Iron Bowl loss, after surgery to repair a broken ankle.
Bigsby, Nix’s backfield mate the past two seasons, joined Nix in the portal Sunday.
Bigsby rushed for 1,003 yards and 10 touchdowns in 12 games this year as a sophomore, but he also had a key miscue in the Iron Bowl that helped Alabama come back and win the game. In his two seasons at Auburn, Bigsby averaged 5.3 yards per carry and was named SEC Freshman of the Year in 2020. He is one of the highest-profile running backs to enter the portal in 2021.
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If Harsin decides to stay in house to replace them, he has T.J. Finley at quarterback and Jarquez Hunter at running back. Finley was impressive in the Iron Bowl despite being injured, and Hunter was more efficient on the ground than Bigsby, averaging 6.9 yards on 84 carries compared to 4.8 yards on 207 carries for Bigsby.
The majority of the players on the Tigers’ roster are holdovers from Malzahn. The upcoming recruiting class will be Harsin’s first real shot at leaving his mark on the program. The Tigers haven’t finished below .500 since 2012 when they went 3-9 and fired Gene Chizik.
With Wednesday’s early signing day approaching, the Tigers have the 35th-best class in the country, according to 247Sports, behind schools like Arizona, Vanderbilt and West Virginia. They’re 13th out of 14 schools in the SEC, ahead of only Florida, in 247 Sports’ rankings.
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Aside from high school commits, Harsin will, and likely should, actively recruit the transfer portal. There are quarterbacks in there — namely Spencer Rattler and Max Johnson — who would provide upgrades over Nix and Finley. Johnson has experience against Auburn and the SEC from his days at LSU, while Rattler began the 2021 season as a Heisman favorite at Oklahoma.
If Harsin looks to replace Bigsby with just a skill position player in the portal, an obvious target would be FIU wide receiver Tyrese Chambers, who had 45 catches for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns for Butch Davis’ 1-11 Panthers squad. Chambers has made steps up in competition before, going from junior college to FCS at Sacred Heart to Group of 5 at FIU. A move to a Power 5 team would be the final step for the sophomore.
If Harsin wants a one-for-one running back switch, he could look at Zach Evans, who played in just six games for TCU this season but was still the team’s leading rusher with 648 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 7.0 yards per carry.