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What to watch: Auburn vs. Akron

The eventful offseason that saw Gus Malzahn fired, Bryan Harsin hired, personnel turnover like musical chairs due to the transfer portal and COVID-19 controversies galore has finally come to an end. The season is upon us, and the Bryan Harsin era of Auburn football begins tonight when the Tigers take on the Akron Zips in Jordan-Hare stadium.

Auburn should largely outclass its opening opponent, but take a look at a few things of interest for the Tigers’ first matchup of the 2021 season.

Multiple quarterbacks?

Auburn returns the most experienced SEC quarterback in junior Bo Nix. Nix has started all 24 games of his Auburn career and will make his 25th consecutive start tonight against Akron. However, this will be the first showing for Nix with head coach Bryan Harsin and new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo calling the shots.

The new Auburn staff clearly prioritized finding other quarterbacks this offseason by bringing in former LSU quarterback TJ Finley. Finley is a big athlete, with a strong arm and by all accounts had a productive fall camp. Was TJ Finley brought to Auburn simply to provide depth, or does he have a legitimate chance to be the Tigers’ starting quarterback this year?

Whether or not Finley gets an opportunity to play with the first team against Akron if the game is competitive may provide some clarity to that question.

Disruptive defensive line

There may not be another position group on the Tiger football team that has seen more turnover since last season than the defensive line. Auburn saw five players along the defensive front with eligibility leave the program and make way for seven new faces to come in from high school, college transfer or positional moves.

It remains to be seen if the 2021 version of the Auburn defensive line will be stronger than last year, but it will need to be in order for the Tigers’ defense to compete against the best teams on its schedule. According to the depth chart that Auburn released earlier this week, transfers Marcus Harris and Tony Fair are starters at defensive tackle. Both of these players were productive last season for their old teams, albeit at a lower level of competition.

If Auburn’s defensive front bullies an overmatched Akron offensive line, that will not prove that they are ready to line up against the SEC’s best. However, if the Tigers are not capable of creating havoc against the Zips up front, that may not bode well for things to come.

Who is the target?

Auburn lost its three most productive receivers from last season to early entry of the NFL Draft or graduation. Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove combined for 145 total receptions and 10 touchdown catches in 2020. Those individuals combined for the vast majority of production in a passing attack that struggled compared to the best teams in the SEC.

The Tigers must hope that a revitalized passing game can be brought about by new concepts from the coaching staff, improvement from Bo Nix and the emergence of players without much previous production. Can returning players like Shedrick Jackson or Ja’varrius Johnson become key playmakers? Will Georgia transfer Demetris Robertson provide big plays in the passing game?

Auburn needs new receivers to step in and be difference-makers for the offense. Seeing who makes plays tonight against Akron may give some hints about who those guys will be.

Zack Shaw is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News and former walk-on for the Auburn Tigers.