BIRMINGHAM — For the first time since 2019, Auburn football might have a legitimate quarterback competition this offseason after stability at the position was upended by Bo Nix's transfer to Oregon.
The Tigers started LSU transfer T.J. Finley the last three games of 2021, in the midst of a five-game losing streak. As new quarterbacks coach Austin Davis arrives, Auburn will undoubtedly have the option to pursue a new QB in a transfer portal bursting with talent.
Finley's 19-for-37 outing in a 17-13 Birmingham Bowl loss Tuesday was his final in-game audition to keep the 2022 starting job. Months of development and practice loom now for the sophomore to prove himself.
"He's a young player that didn't have a chance to play a ton this season, and now he's into the starting role with a chance to go out there and really learn as he develops himself," Auburn coach Bryan Harsin said. "So this offseason's going to be big. There's a lot to learn from, and we're going to move on to this offseason and start preparing him for what we'll do moving forward."
Infer from that what you want — Harsin left the "moving forward" open-ended — but if the Birmingham Bowl represented Finley resting his case, the mediocre final stat line was not entirely indicative of his potential. It was, however, suggestive of how far he has to go if he wants to be the 2022 starter.
He threw for 227 yards, ending his first Auburn season with a 54.7% completion rate, 6.46 yards per attempt, six touchdown passes and one interception.
At his best, Finley showed to his coaches Tuesday that he has the arm and the touch to make challenging throws into tight windows. That should stick with Harsin and Davis this offseason. After a shaky start, Finley fired an out-route dime to Kobe Hudson on the wide side of the field in tight coverage. It was an inch away from being batted, deflected or intercepted.
Finley also dropped two impeccable fade throws to Hudson in either corner of the end zone. On the first, Hudson happened to come down with half a foot out of bounds. It'll be forgotten in the highlights, but not on coaches' film. The second time, the ball fell softly into Hudson's hands for a touchdown. That throw, too, came from the far side of the field.
"The encouraging things were the throws he made," said Harsin, a former quarterback. "I thought the decision-making wasn't bad. He was going to the right guy. We were making the right decision. We were throwing to the right guy. Now we've got to execute a little bit better on the throws."
Finley's deep ball in particular proved to be an inconsistency, if not a full-fledged weakness. Twice in the bowl game, he had open receivers downfield for would-be touchdowns but overthrew Hudson and Tar'Varish Dawson. The latter would have given Auburn a 20-10, fourth-quarter lead. Finley and the Tigers struggled to finish drives, reaching Houston territory seven times but only scoring one touchdown.
The game ended with Auburn earning a second-and-2 only to throw three straight incompletions while star running back Tank Bigsby stood idle.
Harsin defended some of Finley's errant throws, which also included two or three that slipped out of his hands the wrong way for duds. Ja'Varrius Johnson miraculously caught one anyway for 20 yards.
"We've just got to give our guys a chance," Harsin said. "Sometimes the wind's a little bit of a factor, and there's obviously the pressure. It's not like you drop back and set your feet every throw. You're sliding. You're moving. There's always these little factors. You have to adjust. There's always little tiny tweaks at that position that you're just maneuvering through in a particular play."
Finley is the first Auburn quarterback brought in by Harsin, who has shown trust and patience in his development all season. Harsin made the decision to replace Nix with Finley when disaster loomed against Georgia State, and Finley saved the day. He showed he has a winning gene, but he hasn't been able to lead Auburn to a win in any of his starts.
There are also factors such as Auburn's weak receiving corps and offensive line. A lack of protection wasn't an excuse in Birmingham, though; Houston was only credited with three quarterback hurries. Hudson is emerging as the go-to receiver of the future, but he wasn't quite there yet as a sophomore.
Finley's season-ending performance can be summarized as detrimentally inconsistent, but punctuated by beautiful throws that not every quarterback can make. He has the tools, but that inconsistency also could also increase Auburn's recruiting urgency. As Harsin said, Finley was only a sophomore. His cannon can be refined, especially if Davis is the quarterback whisperer Russell Wilson says he is. Don't overlook Finley as the offseason progresses. He has room to develop, and he'll battle for the starting job next year, whether his competition is backup Dematrius Davis or a transfer.
"T.J. prepared well. He cares," Harsin said. "He knows what he's doing out there."
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Does TJ Finley have a case to be Auburn football starting QB in 2022?