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Analysis: Five things to know about Auburn's 2021 football schedule

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Auburn football 2020 teaser

Auburn started spring practice Monday.

He left his alma mater Boise State for Auburn because he wanted "a chance to compete and play at the highest level" of college football.

He'll learn exactly what that means in 2021.

The SEC revealed the schedule the Tigers will face in Harsin's first season as head coach on Wednesday. It features a non-conference showdown with one of the premiere programs in the Big Ten on the road, a trip to a stadium where Auburn hasn't won since 1999 and, of course, the Iron Bowl against the defending national champions.

Here are our top takeaways from Auburn's 2021 slate:

1. Non-conference home-and-homes are back

After scheduling each of its last three Power 5 non-conference games at neutral sites (Washington in Atlanta in 2018, Oregon in Arlington, Texas, in 2019 and North Carolina in Atlanta in 2020), Auburn is going back to playing marquee matchups the way they should be — on campus.

The Tigers' Sept. 18 trip to Penn State starts an eight-year stretch of home-and-home non-conference series that also includes Cal (2023-24), Baylor (2025-26) and UCLA (2027-28).

Auburn and Penn State have met twice before, both in Florida bowl games — the Nittany Lions won the 1995 Outback Bowl and the Tigers the 2002 Capital One Bowl.

2. A whole lot of balance

Auburn opens the season with four straight non-conference games. That's the first time that has happened since 1922, when it opened against Marion, Samford, Spring Hill and Army.

It won't have to play 10 SEC games in a row like it did in 2020, but it will have to play eight straight from October on. And all of those games alternate road and home. That's the first time that has happened since 2003.

The Tigers' only stretch of back-to-back home or road games comes to open the season, when it will host Akron and Georgia State at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Sept. 4 and 11, respectively.

3. A brutal welcome to the SEC

The first two SEC games of Harsin's tenure will be at LSU in Baton Rouge (where Auburn has lost 10 straight games) and at home against Georgia (a team the Tigers haven't beaten since 2017).

It marks the second straight year of the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry being moved off its traditional November date. Normally, the three-week stretch featuring that game and the Iron Bowl decided Tigers' fate in the SEC West race. Now, it could be decided in early October.

4. A trip down narrative street

Normally, a road date with a middling South Carolina program might not garner much attention, especially since it falls on Nov. 20 — one week after a difficult stretch at Texas A&M and at home vs. Mississippi State's Air Raid and one week before the Nov. 27 Iron Bowl.

But this year's matchup provides plenty of storylines.

Auburn's disappointing 30-22 loss at Williams-Brice Stadium early in the 2020 season was likely evidence in the case to fire Gus Malzahn. And after Harsin replaced him, he hired three coaches from Shane Beamer's Gamecocks staff to his own — offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, offensive line coach Will Friend and defensive line coach Tracy Rocker (who has since left the job).

5. Bryan Harsin's first Iron Bowl

It might be the last game of the season, but at Auburn it is never too early to start talking about it. It's part of how success is judged on the Plains, and the bar is high – Malzahn beat Nick Saban more times in the past eight years (three) than any coach in college football, and he's currently unemployed.

Harsin's first crack at the Crimson Tide will come at home, where the Tigers have won the last two meetings in the series. But the only Auburn coaches who defeated Alabama in their first Iron Bowl since the rivalry resumed in 1948 are Earl Brown, Terry Bowden and Malzahn. Ralph "Shug" Jordan, Doug Barfield, Pat Dye, Tommy Tuberville and Gene Chizik all lost their first.

Auburn's complete 2021 football schedule

Sept. 4: vs. Akron (Jordan-Hare Stadium)

Sept. 11: vs. Alabama State (Jordan-Hare Stadium)

Sept. 18: at Penn State (University Park, Pennsylvania)

Sept. 25: vs. Georgia State (Jordan-Hare Stadium)

Oct. 2: at LSU (Baton Rouge)

Oct. 9: vs. Georgia (Jordan-Hare Stadium

Oct. 16: at Arkansas (Fayetteville

Oct. 23: OPEN DATE

Oct. 30: vs. Ole Miss (Jordan-Hare Stadium)

Nov. 6: at Texas A&M (College Station)

Nov. 13: vs. Mississippi State (Jordan-Hare Stadium)

Nov. 20: at South Carolina (Columbia)

Nov. 27: vs. Alabama (Jordan-Hare Stadium)