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What to watch: Auburn vs. South Carolina

Life comes at you fast. The 2021 Auburn football team has learned that truth if they were not aware already.

Just a few short weeks ago, the Tigers were coming off back-to-back wins against ranked SEC opponents with control of their own destiny.

The last two games have left Auburn beaten up, likely a bit shell-shocked and, most importantly, winless.

Auburn must recover from its tough loss at Texas A&M and its historic collapse at home versus Mississippi State in time to travel to South Carolina today for a matchup with the Gamecocks.

To bounce back from last week’s performance would be difficult under normal circumstances, but it will be even more challenging today because the Tigers will be without a handful of key players due to injury, including quarterback Bo Nix.

The South Carolina Gamecocks enter the contest with a 5-5 record and hopes of securing one more victory to become bowl eligible. This is a dangerous place to be for the visiting Auburn Tigers.

Take a look at three things that will play key roles in tonight’s game between Auburn and South Carolina.

TJ Finley

The only place to start is with Auburn’s quarterback. TJ Finley will get his first start as an Auburn Tiger tonight as he fills in for the injured Bo Nix.

Finley provided one of the most memorable moments of the Tigers’ season earlier this year when he led Auburn on a game-winning drive in the final minutes against Georgia State.

Since then, Finley has gotten few opportunities to show what he can do as the signal-caller for the Tigers. In his limited action recently, Finley has been inconsistent.

Tonight, he steps into a tough situation. Auburn is coming off two consecutive losses, a string of injuries, and heads into a stadium that is underrated as far as SEC home-field advantages are concerned.

Finley’s teammates seem to have confidence in him, and they will need to step up tonight to make his job more manageable.

The biggest gift that Auburn could give Finley would be a strong rushing attack. However, the Tigers have struggled to run the ball with any consistency in SEC play this season.

It is likely that Auburn will need Finley to be able to complete passes down the field and avoid turnovers to manufacture yards and points. If Finley can do that, Auburn should be able to win this contest.

Can Auburn’s defense bounce back?

Last week against Mississippi State, the Auburn defense gave up over 300 yards and 33 points in the second half alone.

This week’s opponent is not as explosive as the Bulldogs, but the Tigers’ defense must play with a much greater sense of urgency than the final two quarters against Mississippi State.

Auburn’s defense had been one of the better units in the SEC this year by most metrics prior to last week, and they will need to be productive tonight to lessen the burden of their new starting quarterback.

South Carolina’s offense has struggled over the season as a whole but seems to have found some things that work for them as they are averaging 34 points per game in November.

The Tiger’s defense should be able to limit the number of big plays from the Gamecocks’ offense. If Auburn can force negative plays like sacks and a turnover or two, then the visitors should be well-positioned for a victory.

Kicking game

Auburn sustained another critical injury last week that may be overlooked by some. Senior kicker Anders Carlson tore his ACL late in the game against Mississippi State on an attempted onside kick.

Carlson has been the Tigers’ kicker for four years and is one of Auburn’s all-time leading scorers.

His combination of talent and experience gave Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin a great deal of confidence in Carlson’s ability make difficult kicks.

With Carlson out, Harsin has not definitively stated how the kicking responsibilities will be handled. Auburn will turn to sophomore Ben Patton, redshirt freshman Evan McGuire, or some combination of the two for tonight’s game.

Special teams play is always important, but the lack of any real experience for Auburn in the kicking game tonight could play a huge role in the outcome of this matchup.

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

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