Game time: 7 p.m. ET; Sept. 4, 2021
Venue: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, AL
Where to watch: ESPN+
Opening Odds at USA Sportsbooks
DraftKings: Auburn -36.5; O/U 55.5
BetMGM: Auburn -36.5; O/U 55
Caesars: Auburn -36.5; O/U 55
2020 season record
Auburn: 6-5 (lost Citrus Bowl to Northwestern)
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Akron - Auburn preview and analysis
The Bryan Harsin regime at Auburn is about to begin.
After a successful six-year stint with Boise State that included conference championships galore, three bowl victories (including the Fiesta Bowl), and continued success even after Chris Petersen, Harsin is now the coach of the Tigers and will get a crack at being an SEC coach.
His first game as Auburn head coach is a home game, and the Tigers will welcome the Akron Zips to Jordan-Hare Stadium in Saturday night’s season opener.
Harsin became the Broncos’ coach in 2014 after Petersen, the one responsible for Boise State’s early success, left for the head coaching job at Washington. The Broncos reached double-digit victories in five of six full seasons. None bigger than winning the Fiesta Bowl in 2014, Harsin’s first season on the job.
Now, Harsin’s task in his Auburn coaching debut tries to bring that same winning culture to Auburn. Of course, the Tigers aren’t any strangers to winning. They’ve made seven straight bowl games and two national championship games in 10 years. But 2020, albeit a shortened season, was a disappointment in the last of Guz Malzahn’s run at Auburn. The Tigers were as high as No. 7 in the AP poll, but finished 6-5 and lost to Northwestern in the Citrus Bowl.
Boise State was one of the top-scoring teams on both sides of the ball while Harsin ran things, but that was in the Mountain West Conference. Whether or not that success can translate to the SEC is the question.
Junior quarterback Bo Nix will be one of 15 starters to return for Auburn this season. Nix, who beat out LSU transfer TJ Finley for the starting quarterback job during camp, passed for 2,415 yards and 12 touchdowns while being sacked 21 times in 2020.
Auburn normally won when Nix played well. In four of their six wins, Nix passed for at least 220 yards. In all but two of their losses, he was held to under 230 passing yards.
Nix comes into this season having lost his top three targets from last season, all to the NFL -- receivers Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove accounted for 11 of Nix’s 12 touchdowns last season. The top receiver returning is tight end John Samuel Shenker, who caught nine total passes for 97 yards. Senior receiver Shedrick Jackson becomes Nix’s veteran target outside, and Demetris Robertson is hoping to revive his college career after transferring from Cal.
Auburn’s ground game is what will ultimately carry this offense; Nix ran for seven touchdowns a year ago and is capable of being a dangerous dual-threat option. Next to him is sophomore running back and last year’s leading rusher Tank Bigsby. The tailback averaged six yards per carry in 2020, rushing for 834 yards and five touchdowns.
Those are salivating numbers for a ground attack that’s about to face a run defense that allowed 248 yards per game. Auburn's offensive line should have a field day, all while creating plenty of time for Nix to throw.
Akron is also a veteran-laden club bringing back 18 starters from a year ago, but only mustered one win in six games during the All-MAC season. Head coach Tom Arth’s Zips didn’t just lose a lot in 2020; they got annihilated. Every loss was by at least two scores, and four of them were by at least 30 points.
The lone win, Dec. 5 against Bowling Green, was a 31-3 victory at home.
Akron looks to be going the veteran route with its quarterback situation this season with quarterback Kato Nelson beating out last year’s starter Zach Gibson. The redshirt freshman Gibson threw for 784 yards and four touchdowns last season.
Last year’s leading rusher, Teon Dollard, is no longer with the team as he faces a felony weapons charge. The number of running backs Akron has on its depth chart? One -- redshirt freshman Anthony Williams Jr.
That sound you hear is excitement coming from the Tigers defense ready to pick apart a MAC team. Auburn starts the year with two warm-up games, per se, with Akron and Alabama State before heading to Penn State for a showdown on Sept. 18. This should be an easy play and a dominant victory for the Tigers. Auburn wins 56-7.
Harsin’s teams have won five in a row when favored by 20 points or more.
Arth is 2-6 as a road underdog; the Zips are 2-16 in their last 18 games.
Auburn is 12-3 in its last 15 as a home favorite.
Players to watch
Akron: Linebacker Bubba Arslanian led the Zip D last season with 72 tackles and three sacks in the Zips’ half of a traditional year.
Auburn: The Tigers’ defense is going to have a field day, led by linebackers Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe. McClain was Auburn’s top tackler with 113 a year ago, and Pappoe had 93 tackles and tied the team lead with four sacks.
Statistical leaders from 2020
Passing: Zach Gibson -- 784 yards, 4 TD, 5 INT
Rushing: Teon Dollard -- 666 yards, 6 TD
Receiving: Nate Stewart -- 217 yards, 1 TD
Defense: Bubba Arslanian -- 72 tackles, 3 sacks
Passing: Bo Nix -- 2,415 yards, 12 TD, 7 INT
Rushing: Tank Bigsby -- 834 yards, 5 TD
Receiving: Seth Williams -- 760 yards, 4 TD
Defense: Zakoby McClain -- 113 tackles, 3 sacks
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