AUBURN — The 2021 Auburn football regular season was a quintessential demonstration of how fickle life in the SEC and in this sport can be.
The Tigers (6-6, 3-5 SEC) were involved in six games in which one team's double-digit lead flipped to a deficit. There were exhilarating wins that don't look so great in hindsight and hard-to-believe losses. There was an Iron Bowl that Auburn fans will swear about for decades.
The result was a balance in the force: equal wins and losses. That's not what first-year coach Bryan Harsin envisioned.
"I know losses happen, but the expectations are to win," he said. "That’s every time you step on the field. That doesn’t happen, but you’re not satisfied with losing a game. The bottom line is the record. There’s a lot of things. I didn’t have that, necessarily, record in my head when we started the season."
Believe it or not, Auburn was a few plays away from a 9-3 record and a trip to Atlanta this week for the SEC championship game. It was also a few plays away from 4-8, and who knows what ramifications that would have caused for a first-year staff. Let's explore the ceiling and floor.
VS. Mississippi State
On a day when Ole Miss beat Texas A&M, Auburn could have reclaimed control of its destiny in the SEC West. Instead, it lost a 28-3 lead to Mississippi State. It all started on a desperate fourth-and-4 for the Bulldogs late in the first half. Quarterback Will Rogers completed a 12-yard dart to Austin Williams, leading to the first of Rogers' six touchdowns. It was 28-10 at halftime thanks to that conversion — and an 8-yard sack of Bo Nix that led to Auburn's 55-yard missed field goal. Could've been 31-3 at halftime.
Then after the lead had slimmed to 28-17, Auburn made a third-and-2 stop, but Jaylin Simpson's pass interference bailed out the Bulldogs. It turned into a 98-yard touchdown drive. From there, Nix broke his ankle, the replay officials made a pair of controversial calls on targeting reviews and Auburn spiraled to a 43-34 loss. You could choose any three plays that might have changed the course of this game, but the fourth down, the sack and the pass interference were self-inflicted wounds (rather than bad calls or injuries) that definitively caused point swings.
VS. South Carolina
The first was Auburn's predictable and perhaps somewhat hazardous blitz on fourth-and-3 with a 14-0 lead in the second quarter. Easy 28-yard touchdown. Game on. Then came Auburn's fourth-and-1, play-action shot downfield from its own 35-yard line. Reminder: Backup quarterback T.J. Finley was making his first Auburn start, and running back Tank Bigsby was in the middle of a 164-yard game. The incompletion gave South Carolina a short field and a game-tying touchdown.
Lastly, in the third quarter, Auburn missed a 25-yard field goal that would have cut the deficit to 21-20. It zapped the Tigers' momentum after converting a fourth-and-16. Again, a controversial call loomed large in the end — did the punt brush Simpson's leg? — but those three moments within Auburn's control caused at least a 10-point swing. Instead, it was a 21-17 loss.
It was reductive even to condense Auburn's Iron Bowl loss to six plays that could have flipped the result. Choose any three you want. The third-down sack that injured Finley and cost Auburn three points (why throw?), the fourth-quarter interception up 10-0 (why throw?) and Alabama's fourth-and-7 are especially brutal. Lay off Bigsby, though. This was the coaches' loss.
That makes nine self-inflicted moments that could have flipped the season from mediocrity to Iron Bowl glory and an SEC West crown. Nonconference is less relevant, but we aren't even getting into Auburn's fourth-and-goal at Penn State.
It's important to consider how much worse the season could have turned out, too.
VS. Georgia State and LSU
The 34-24 Georgia State escape is pretty simple: If Finley doesn't elude a sack and throw for a game-winning touchdown on fourth-and-goal with 45 seconds left, Auburn suffers its most embarrassing loss in years. But the Tigers also don't win without Caylin Newton's blocked punt, recovered by fellow reserve Barton Lester for a touchdown to close a 24-12 gap.
Then Auburn went to LSU and rallied from down 13-0. A triumphant 24-19 win at the time, this turned out to be the battle for last place in the SEC West. In the last five minutes of the first half, Nix made two stunning fourth-down escapes, throwing a 24-yard touchdown on the first and completing the other to set up an eventual field goal. (The second conversion is overshadowed, but it's equally amazing: Nix had to run 22 yards behind the line of scrimmage before turning around.)
The Tigers trailed 19-10 entering the fourth quarter; without those two moments, they might not have even been on the scoreboard.
Those four plays against Georgia State and LSU saved Auburn from last place and Harsin from the hot seat.
Fans can view the season either way. A missed opportunity to reach a high ceiling, or a narrow escape from a low floor?
Such is college football.
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Auburn football 2021 season recap, key moments: Vs. Alabama, LSU