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Doug Segrest: Harsin’s Auburn debut goes smoothly with nary a Zip

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Auburn vs Akron

Aug 31, 2021; Auburn, AL, USA; Bryan Harsin Water dump between Auburn and Akron at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

Just moments after Tank Bigsby waved good-bye, speeding past the Akron defense on a date with the end zone, came the clearest sign that there’s something anew on The Plains.

Anders Carlson missed the extra point.

Seriously. That’s not a misprint.

Before a loud house at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn ushered in the Bryan Harsin Era with a taste of MACtion. The overmatched Akron Zips of the aforementioned Mid-American Conference played the role of sacrificial lamb in a 60-10 rout that was over about the time Bigsby scored his first-quarter touchdown.

Expectations for Auburn this year are untypically low. The Tigers opened the season absent from the AP Top 25 for the first time in five years. Perhaps that’s due to the change at the top. More likely, a killer schedule played a big role in the preseason voting.

The guess here is that Harsin’s Tigers will be just fine. In time.

But while Auburn has some incredible debut seasons for coaches the last 28 years, gradual success is much better for long-term security.

Just sayin’.

From the onset, all eyes were on quarterback Bo Nix, who even the TV commentators referred to as Jekyll and Hyde for his mercurial performances under Gus Malzahn.

What we saw from the first snap was a Nix initially comfortable in Mike Bobo’s offense. He stayed in the pocket and unleashed lightning bolts. He completed his first 11 passes with little duress. Make that zero duress.

And that’s concern No. 2. Auburn’s offensive line was a mess the past two seasons. Clean pockets were the exception. This year’s unit should be better and deeper. But good units take time to gel and must prove themselves against elite defenses. That will come later.

Even if Nix takes a step forward behind an improved front, these Tigers need playmakers. One is known: Bigsby, who needed just one drive to remind the world why he was the SEC’s premier freshman a year ago.

But just as quickly there were signs of other potential. Backup running back Shawn Shivers took a Nix pass 19 yards for an early score, lowering the boom on an unsuspecting Zip at the end. Freshman Jarquez Hunter zipped 37 yards past the Zips on his first collegiate carry.

Sophomore receiver Kobe Hudson ran a crisp post pattern, splitting the secondary, to pull in a 28-yard Nix touchdown pass. Oh, and we got to see an early second half appearance from former LSU quarterback T.J. Finley.

All signs pointing up.

On defense, there was little doubt Auburn would dominate Akron. Still, there’s change. Former Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is trying to recapture the defensive coordinator Mojo at Stanford that brought him employment in the SEC. He’s intent on doing it with a 3-4 look.

Much of the defense he inherited includes known factors. Yet very early on Marcus Harris was making an impact. He’s a Kansas transfer. Yes, they still play football in Lawrence, and he led the Jayhawks in tackles for loss a year ago. Elite defensive linemen are rare at this level, and word is Auburn’s found one.

Fans packing Jordan-Hare wanted to see a team that looked well coached (check) and had explosive potential (ditto). From the start, all signs were go.

Harsin and Auburn have another week to fine tune things before heading to Happy Valley and a date with Penn State. That’s when the season gets real.

Those are the games that determine whether or not the new guy wins over the fan base early. Patience at Auburn, however, is never a given.

Doug Segrest, a former SEC beat reporter, is a freelance columnist.