ORLANDO — The Tigers entered New Year’s Day with nothing to lose and very little to gain.
After all, Auburn parted ways with Gus Malzahn less than three weeks ago, hired Bryan Harsin nine days later and placed the Interim tag on Kevin Steele for the bowl matchup. The 35-19 loss to Northwestern Friday afternoon capped off a season of big disappointment for the program.
The Tigers started out the season as a top-15 team and even climbed as high as No. 7 in the AP rankings. However, after a couple of nail-biting wins and head-scratching losses, Auburn eventually fell out of the rankings to never resurface.
There’s no denying it was a clear sign of underachievement. All of the four and five-star talent on the Tigers’ roster means the players weren’t getting developed to their potential. It was hard for the players to avoid all of the distractions leading up to the contest. Their body language and lack of discipline was evident on the field. The way Northwestern dominated Auburn in the trenches made Steele question his player’s execution.
Regardless of how bad the outcome of the game appeared to be, he downplayed the Tigers not wanting to be there.
“We’re never going to make excuses for who’s out there or who’s not out there, it’s the next man up,” Steele said. “It don’t matter COVID, injury, opt out, we don’t do that.”
For a team out of the SEC West, the Tigers still struggled to run the ball. Not to mention Nix led the team in carries and yards on the ground, but got banged up. Northwestern’s defensive front seven mauled Auburn’s offensive line and Nix never got into a rhythm.
The Tigers’ defense allowed 21 points in the second half, which was the most the Wildcats scored all season. The big boys up front failed to put enough pressure on Peyton Ramsey and he wound up throwing for a season-high, 286 yards and three touchdowns. It frustrated senior edge rusher Big Kat Bryant that Auburn’s defense couldn’t force any turnovers. He thought the unit was deflated before the game even started.
“It was real, real tough once a lot of guys found out that we were going to be without some starters,” Bryant said. “And with us having a young team, leadership definitely played a big role.”
Steele wanted to focus mainly on the defense and admitted he made a couple of costly decisions that put his team in a bind. Although Auburn (6-5) lost, he’s happy a lot of the underclassmen got a chance to play. Some even played more snaps in the Citrus Bowl than they played all season.
“We had some young guys out there that’s going to do some really good things that’s going to help the future of the program,” Steele said.
The 62-year old coach doesn’t know if he’ll remain with the program next season. Steele will ponder that decision over the next couple of days. He still feels the Tigers will get back to being elite again under the direction of Harsin. Bryant also believes the program is headed in the right direction and won’t be down for long.
“I really like Coach Harsin, but I’m not going to lie, the only thing you got to do down here is recruit, that’s just plain simple, he said. “I really think he’s a great guy, great coach and great leader.”
Bryant is still on the fence on whether to return to school another year or take his talents to the NFL. Playing in the most competitive division in College football means Auburn will have to get things rolling quickly. There’s still potential there for the program to have a smooth transition.