San Jose State Football: First Look At The Auburn Tigers
The Spartans head to SEC country in non-conference play with an eye toward another upset against a familiar head coach.
Have things settled down for the Tigers?
San Jose State Football: First Look at 2022 Non-Conference Opponents
After hosting Portland State to open the 2022 season, San Jose State will hit the road to face the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Week 2.
If you haven’t been paying attention, Auburn has had a very strange off-season. The head coach very nearly got fired, which may or may not have had an effect on the recruiting trail but which definitely has not affected expectations in the least. Tigers fans expect to win, so they’ll be under pressure not to leave any doubt against the visiting Spartans.
Location: Auburn, Alabama
Series History: Auburn leads the all-time series, 2-0.
2021 Record: 6-7 (3-5 SEC)
Head Coach: Bryan Harsin (second year at Auburn; 6-7 with Tigers, 82-31 overall). After leaving Boise State for the Plains, Harsin got a memorable lesson in just how different the expectations can be in the SEC. The Tigers finished 2021 with a 1-4 record in games decided by eight or fewer points, including an epic collapse against rival Alabama and a frustrating Birmingham Bowl loss to Houston, and then were front and center on the national stage in February when a university investigation looked for a minute like it would cost him his job after one season.
It’s hard to say whether Harsin is free and clear given that the expectation for a major rebound is ever present, though he’s certainly seemed emboldened by the reality that he’s still on his feet.
Tank Bigsby, RB
The former SEC freshman of the year has an argument as the best running back in the conference after following up that 2020 campaign with an even better one. Bigsby finished fourth in the SEC with 1,099 rushing yards and scored ten touchdowns, adding 184 yards on 21 receptions through the passing game. San Jose State has plenty of capable tacklers up front, but he’ll still be tough to bring down.
— Auburn DieHards (@DiehardsAuburn) July 20, 2022
TJ Finley, QB
After starting five games at LSU in 2020, Finley transferred within the conference to Auburn and appeared in nine games for the Tigers last fall, starting the last three. While he had six touchdowns against just one interception in 128 pass attempts, Finley also completed only 54.7% of his throws for an average of 6.5 yards per attempt.
However, his shot at maintaining the QB1 role may be hampered by a recent arrest for evading police.
Derick Hall, EDGE
Hall is already being discussed as a potential first-round pick in next spring’s NFL Draft and, honestly, it’s not hard to see why. At 6-foot-3 and 256 pounds, the Gulfport, Mississippi native broke out big time as one of the conference’s top edge rushers, racking up a team-high nine sacks (including three against rival Alabama) and 12.5 tackles for loss altogether.
#CFB returns in 29 days
DE Derick Hall – Auburn pic.twitter.com/0Jn7gsPztn
— NCAAF Nation (@NCAAFNation247) July 29, 2022
Colby Wooden, DL
Hall might be a future superstar, but Wooden is very effective in his own right as a pass-rushing bookend. In 2021, he picked up 61 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and five sacks, meaning that the Spartans will have more than one talent to deal with in keeping its passing game on track.
John Samuel Shenker, TE
The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Shenker rewrote the Auburn record book with a strong 2021 season, setting new program bests with 33 catches for 413 yards as a tight end. Given Harsin’s historical tendency to include the position within his offensive game plans, he should continue to be a reliable target between the numbers.
On its face, Auburn finishing 69th overall with an average of 5.81 yards per play might seem like the offense played nicely last year, but that figure was actually 11th among SEC teams. That isn’t so nice; finishing 76th with 2.09 points per drive and 63rd with 47.9% of available yards earned per drive points to more evidence of an attack that was more middling than anything else. Offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau, who worked with Harsin for several years at Boise State and coached at Fresno State before that in 2016, will be under a ton of pressure to deliver.
If Finley or Texas A&M transfer Zach Calzada (2,185 passing yards, 56.1% completion rate, 17 TDs, six INTs) can seize the starting quarterback job and thrive, that would be a boon to an offense that doesn’t have a hunge number of established answers. On the ground, Jarquez Hunter‘s freshman season (89 carries, 593 yards, three touchdowns) was a big success, meaning he and Bigsby could form one of the country’s top rushing tandems.
The passing game’s improvement will depend just as much on contributions from new receivers as it does on the quarterback situation. Shedrick Jackson leads the returning veterans with 40 catches for 527 yards, but youngsters like Landon King and Miami transfer Dazalin Worsham, and how they develop, could be key to this team reaching its ceiling.
If the offense got sluggish, the defense did what it could to pick up the slack. They finished 60th overall in available yards per play allowed, but they landed in the top 40 by points per drive allowed and yards per play allowed and never had much trouble getting into the backfield with a 21.3% stuff rate that ranked 12th nationally.
The good news for Tigers fans, then, is that many of last year’s stars are back despite a new defensive coordinator in Jeff Schmedding, who also coached with Harsin at Boise State. Hall, Wooden, and defensive tackle Marcus Harris (27 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks) will lead the charge up front, which could be important since the linebacker unit outside of senior Owen Pappoe, who was limited by injury to five games in 2021, doesn’t have a lot of on-field experience to replace Zakoby McClain and Chandler Wooten.
That’s mostly true of a secondary that returns both Nehemiah Pritchett and Zion Puckett but may not have anyone of Roger McCrerary’s caliber this time around. Sophomores like Donovan Kaufman and Marquise Gilbert are likely to get their chance to sink or swim, but the former could cost Harsin his job if it doesn’t work out.
It’s tempting to think that the Spartans could pull an upset like they did in their last trip to the south, but the Tigers are a much better team overall, despite last year’s disappointing returns, than the Arkansas Razorbacks of a few years ago. Superior athleticism and a strong ground game should prove the difference in the end.
Auburn 37, San Jose State 20