Why Auburn football's game vs. Ole Miss will shape tale of Bryan Harsin's Year 1 | Toppmeyer
Two of Auburn's last three losses to the Rebels came during seasons after which AU’s coach did not return.
That’s not to suggest first-year Auburn coach Bryan Harsin should fear for his job if things go south when the 21st-ranked Tigers (5-2, 2-1 SEC) host No. 9 Ole Miss (6-1, 3-1) on Saturday (6 p.m. CT, ESPN). Even Auburn coaches enjoy some job security during their first season.
But losing to Ole Miss would take some of the shine off Harsin’s debut on the Plains.
With a victory, you probably will start to hear Harsin’s name listed as a longshot candidate in the hunt for SEC Coach of the Year. More importantly, a win would keep the Tigers in the race to win the SEC West. Win out, and Auburn will be playing in Atlanta.
With a loss, the dialogue will shift to how Auburn lost its three toughest games to Penn State, Georgia and Ole Miss, with at least one more loss likely to follow against Alabama, plus tricky games before the Iron Bowl against Texas A&M and Mississippi State.
Auburn is 17-4 against Ole Miss during this millennium.
Tommy Tuberville accounted for two of those losses, the first of which put him on the hot seat, the second of which became one of the finishing blows to his tenure.
Auburn’s 2003 season already had veered into the ditch – the Tigers opened the season with back-to-back losses after being ranked No. 6 in the preseason – by the time it hosted Ole Miss on Nov. 8. The heat on Tuberville cranked up following a 24-20 loss to the Rebels.
An Anniston Star headline following that loss screeched: Is Auburn’s Tuberville on the hot seat?
After a loss to Georgia the next week, the Montgomery Advertiser joined in with an article addressing “speculation about how much longer Tuberville can survive on the Plains.”
The Louisville Courier-Journal, Orlando Sentinel and Minneapolis Star Tribune didn’t even question it. Each newspaper bluntly stated that November that Tuberville was on the hot seat.
Auburn closed the season by beating Alabama and then Wisconsin in the Music City Bowl. Tuberville endured, and Auburn went undefeated the following season.
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Auburn didn’t lose to Ole Miss again until a 17-7 defeat on Nov. 1, 2008. Tuberville resigned at the season’s end.
Gene Chizik claimed Auburn’s next loss to Ole Miss, a 41-20 road thrashing on Oct. 13, 2012. That loss marked the midpoint of a five-game Auburn losing streak, by which time few were thinking about how Chizik led the Tigers to a national championship just two seasons previously. Athlon moved Chizik up three spots to No. 3 nationally on its hot-seat rankings after the loss to Ole Miss. Chizik finished the year, but he was fired at the conclusion of Auburn’s first nine-loss season since going 0-10 in 1950.
Gus Malzahn rarely got far from the hot seat throughout his eight-year Auburn tenure. His first hot-seat flirtation occurred during a 7-6 campaign in 2015, which included a 27-19 loss to Ole Miss.
Ole Miss’ victories over Auburn have come during some of its best seasons in the past 20 years. The Rebels won 10 games in 2003 and again in 2015 and posted a nine-season in 2008. They won seven games in 2012.
Nonetheless, Auburn leads the all-time series 34-11, and the general expectation on the Plains is for the Tigers to outrank the Rebels in SEC West pecking order. Ole Miss has won in Auburn just three times in series history.
Harsin’s honeymoon nearly ended earlier this season when Auburn flirted with a loss to Georgia State before rallying late in the fourth quarter for a 34-24 victory.
Close calls against Sun Belt Conference foes are forgiven in a way that embarrassing losses are not, and since then, Auburn steadied the ship with road victories at LSU and Arkansas.
Quarterback Bo Nix is coming off one of the best games of his career, a 292-yard performance to fuel a 38-23 triumph over the Razorbacks. Auburn remains in the conversation for being the SEC’s third-best team behind Georgia and Alabama.
That argument would strengthen with a win Saturday. With a loss, Harsin’s honeymoon would end.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.