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  • Writer's pictureKevin Scarbinsky

New Auburn coach, same LSU voodoo?

Bryan Harsin is busy. He has his hands full at the moment, what with rearranging the deck chairs in the offensive staff room, deciding which quarterback will walk through the shadows of the Valley of Death first and explaining "11 personnel" to his players.

To the rest of college football, that phrase means lining up one running back and one tight end. At an Auburn program under new management, it means reinforcing the need to have 11 people on the field for every snap. Special teams included.

Harsin can't be expected to quote chapter and verse of the ugly history that weighs heavily on his program as it travels to LSU, but no doubt he's aware that Tommy Tuberville's in-your-face 1999 Cigar Game has blown up in Auburn's kisser every odd-numbered year since.

Auburn has won in every other SEC town - including Tuscaloosa and Athens - more recently than in Baton Rouge. UAB and Troy have won in Tiger Stadium more recently than Auburn has. Auburn has won in Tuscaloosa five times since it last won in Baton Rouge.

Makes less sense than a fade to the boundary with the game on the line. The Death Valley autopsy reveals:

Gus Malzahn's best Auburn team fell behind by three touchdowns there and lost by two touchdowns in 2013. Malzahn's second-best Auburn team jumped ahead 20-0 there and still lost 27-23 in 2017. The best Auburn teams coached by Tuberville (2004) and Gene Chizik (2010) didn't have to go there. Lucky them.

Strangely enough, Auburn has proven that you can lose in Baton Rouge and still make it to the SEC Championship Game (see 2013 and 2017) and even the National Championship Game (see 2013). The Tigers also have shown that they can challenge a national championship LSU team in its house like no one else as they did on their last visit in 2019.

But Harsin wasn't hired to continue tired, old narratives. Sure, that near-death experience against Georgia State had traces of the great Jacksonville State escape of 2015, but look on the bright side. Nick Saban lost to Louisiana-Monroe during his first season at Alabama, and he's turned out OK.

Tuberville may have trumped Harsin's Sunday dismissal of wideouts coach Cornelius Williams with a midseason dispatch of offensive coordinator Tony Franklin back in 2008, but Tubs was trying to save his job. Harsin is trying to prove he can do this job as well as it can and should be done.

Besides, both of those in-season pink slips pale next to Saban showing play-caller Lane Kiffin the door before a national championship game. If shockingly inept early performances and sudden personnel moves were good enough for the GOAT …

Harsin has had four games to smooth out the wrinkles before starting SEC play. It's a work in progress that has been anything but smooth. Nice of the conference office to let him make his SEC debut the next two weeks against the two programs that have bedeviled Auburn like no others of late, including the crimson machine.

Fun fact (unless you're an Auburn fan): Since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, Auburn doesn't have a good record against Alabama, LSU or Georgia. But the Tigers have a better record against the Crimson Tide (5-9) than against the Bengal Tigers (4-10) or the Bulldogs (3-12). They have just one win each against Ed Orgeron's LSU and Kirby Smart's Georgia.

For Auburn, assignments don't get much tougher than visiting LSU and then welcoming Georgia, but Harsin is on a roll in the toughness department. He pulled legacy quarterback Bo Nix for subpar performance Saturday, then showed one position coach who's the boss Sunday. Quite a weekend.

The quarterback change worked for one afternoon. Barely. Was it temporary or permanent or the first swing of a revolving door? The coaching change needs time to shake itself out, but now that Harsin has elevated his last Boise State offensive coordinator from analyst to wide receivers coach, can anyone on the staff feel secure? Will it improve their contributions to the bottom line if they can't?

Post-Joe Burrow LSU is eminently beatable, even in Tiger Stadium, but far better Auburn teams than this one have lost there since 1999. How this Auburn team performs Saturday night after the sun finds its home in the western sky and how these Tigers react to their quarterback(s) and their new position coach will tell a story.

Is this the same Auburn with a new head coach, only an occasional threat to its chief rivals? Or is this the infancy of something different, tougher, better? There's no better place to start finding some answers than Death Valley.

Gus Malzahn before his final game at LSU as the Auburn coach, Oct. 26, 2019. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)


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