Auburn football develops identity under Bryan Harsin – and it's ugly | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer

AUBURN, Ala. – Bryan Harsin delivered a directive to Auburn’s recruits.

“Watch,” the second-year Tigers coach said in July of his recruiting message.

Oh, but it’s so unbearable to watch.

Sixteen games into Harsin’s tenure, Auburn’s identity under Harsin can best be described as: Try to win ugly. More often, the Tigers lose ugly.

Add Saturday’s 41-12 loss to No. 23 Penn State at Jordan-Hare Stadium to the list.

Watch as Auburn’s offensive line leaks like a sieve. Watch as Harsin forgets about his best player, Tank Bigsby. Watch as turnovers halt possessions. Watch a defense inferior to last season's talented unit inherited from Gus Malzahn.

Or, don’t. Auburn is not a pretty sight.

That might help explain why Auburn’s 2023 recruiting class ranks last among SEC teams, three months away from the early signing period.

Auburn (2-1) has lost six of its past seven games against FBS opponents. In Harsin's first season, the Tigers posted their first losing record since 2012. And to think, last year’s team would thump the one we saw Saturday.

Auburn organized a kangaroo court to investigate Harsin last winter. Rather than conducting the inquiry on the downlow, it spilled into the public eye and became a drawn-out saga.

Harsin’s tenure survived what he later described as an “uncomfortable” and “unfounded” investigation.

Investigation aside, nothing on the field – or on the recruiting trail – points to momentum in this program.

A Penn State (3-0) team that had its hands full with Purdue two weeks ago laid a whupping on Auburn. And tougher opponents await inside the SEC. The teeth of Auburn’s schedule won’t arrive until October.

The Tigers looked ready at the onset. Owen Pappoe planted a punishing hit on Sean Clifford that stopped the Penn State quarterback short of a first down and probably cleaned his sinuses.

A play later, AU held firm on fourth down.

A bathed-in-orange crowd was buzzing.

To spring an upset, though, touchdowns are helpful, and Auburn turned the short field into a field goal – the first of two drives that penetrated the 10-yard line and produced just three points.

AUBURN'S BEST MOMENTSee Owen Pappoe's punishing hit on Sean Clifford

ON THE HOT SEAT:Bryan Harsin addresses job security after Auburn football's loss to Penn State

REPORT CARD:Auburn football and Bryan Harsin flunk the test against Penn State

Harsin said he had an epiphany at halftime last week with his team struggling against San Jose State: Get the ball to Bigsby.

That proved short-lived.

Bigsby touched the ball 11 times. He had one touch in the second quarter – a 37-yard reception in the closing seconds before halftime. Bigsby stood on the sideline for three consecutive plays during one red-zone opportunity.

Harsin carried the label of offensive guru when he arrived at Auburn, but it doesn’t take a guru to know that putting the ball in the hands of your best player is wise, especially with an offense this limited.

Quarterback is Harsin’s position of expertise, but his best quarterback, T.J. Finley, couldn’t win quarterback competitions against Max Johnson or Bo Nix earlier in his career. Penn State treated Finley like a piñata, as AU’s offensive line appeared allergic to blocking. Finley exited in the third quarter after fumbling while getting sacked.

While innovative offenses spring up elsewhere in the SEC, Harsin’s pro-style system is deliberate and unimaginative.

Harsin vowed to build a program on discipline, toughness and conviction. That might have worked at Boise State, but to win at this level, you need talented dudes. Auburn doesn’t have nearly enough of them, and there’s no sunrise of talent on the horizon.

Anyway, discipline and toughness hardly describe a program with an offensive line this weak and a minus-eight turnover ratio through three games. And Penn State’s offense had no more trouble with Auburn than it did with Ohio of the Mid-American Conference last week.

Penn State’s freshman star running back Nicholas Singleton would be a shoo-in for the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York if he could play against Auburn each week.

Saturday offered a proving ground for Auburn and its embattled coach. And we received more proof that, under Harsin, Auburn is tough to watch.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at 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. Also, check out his podcast, SEC Football Unfiltered, or access exclusive columns via the SEC Unfiltered newsletter