Auburn-Penn State Provides Program-Defining Opportunity for Head Coaches James Franklin, Bryan Harsin

The time has come for Auburn to show up on the big stage under head coach Bryan Harsin, with Penn State heading to town on Saturday.

No more ‘almost wins’ or rough performances that make Auburn fans uncomfortable. We’ve seen this team play with a sense of urgency, particularly against Alabama, and it’s time for a repeat performance.

Coming off the close win over San Jose State — a game Auburn trailed at halftime — the Tigers need to prove they can get the job done under Harsin.

This week’s game against Penn State provides that opportunity to make a splash on the national stage against the 22nd-ranked team in the country.

“As far as the game this week, Penn State is 2-0 and very good football team,” Harsin said. “We played them last year and they beat us. They’re scoring 40 points a game. They look good, fast, physical, and are well coached, all those things. Their quarterback, Sean Clifford, is a very good player. He was last year and continues to be. They have a lot of great players on both sides of the ball, and they play well.”

Bryan Harsin
Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin. (Getty Images)

“On special teams, you can see that that’s important to [Penn State],” Harsin added. “They are thinking about the history of this game. They are 2-1 against Auburn. We’re excited to get back, work on some of the things that we need to get better than the last game, focus on this opponent, and then get ourselves ready for Saturday.”

Auburn Has QB Dilemma

The most perplexing question about Auburn has been the quarterback play. It was T.J. Finley who led the Tigers back in the second half against San Jose State. After a first-quarter interception, Finley rebounded with a 12-of-15, 158-yard performance.

“I’ve got y’all,” Finley told his teammates. “No more mistakes. No more nothing like that. We’re gonna win this game.” That shows growth.

TJ Finley
Auburn QB T.J. Finley. (Getty Images)

Finley also rushed for a four-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that gave Auburn the cushion needed to close out the win.

It’s not always pretty for the offense, with Tank Bigsby only rushing for 80 yards and a touchdown, and they will need the offensive line to perform better this weekend.

“I still think that we’re improving, and I think these guys are working hard at it, so we’re making progress,” Harsin added about the offensive line. “We have to make a lot of progress this week when we step on the field and get ready to play against a really good defensive team.”

Penn State Is Ready For Auburn

Now it’s time to turn the page to Penn State, which is coming off a 46-10 win over Ohio. The Nittany Lions also beat Purdue 35-31 in Week 1.

James Franklin
Penn State head coach James Franklin. (Getty Images)

This is a pressure game for James Franklin, looking to avoid another mediocre season.

If you were wondering if Penn State had a quarterback controversy, it’s certainly being portrayed as one in Happy Valley.

Sean Clifford has played well this season, but freshman Drew Allar showed off his skillset against Ohio, giving fans a glimpse into the future. It puts the Penn State head coach in a tricky spot heading down to Auburn.

Sean Clifford
Penn State QB Sean Clifford. (Getty Images)

The question isn’t about who will start; it centers around how much leash Franklin is going to give Clifford. Will we see two quarterbacks this weekend on the ‘Plains’? There’s a decent chance, especially if the veteran Clifford gets into trouble.

Whoever is playing at quarterback, they’ll have some help behind them. Nick Singleton rushed for 179 yards on 10 carries against Ohio. This was the most yards for a Penn State running back since 2018.

Nicholas Singleton
Penn State RB Nicholas Singleton. (Getty Images)

Expectations High For Both Penn State, Auburn

As for expectations, both coaches are needing a nice win to hold in their pocket.

Harsin is looked upon as a sitting duck at Auburn right now. Penn State fans are waiting for Franklin to break through and get them in playoff contention.

Franklin has led his team to 4-5 and 7-6 records over the past two seasons. This hasn’t sat well with the alumni base, which is why a game like Saturday is important for the future in Happy Valley.

Toomer’s Corner will be filled to the brim with fans hovering around College Street before the game, hoping to return with toilet paper during postgame festivities.

If the Tigers can find a way to win this game, maybe it will quiet the naysayers and big-time boosters that meddle in the Auburn program for a bit.

We all know how much they like to talk, so it’s key for Harsin’s team to be prepared for anything Franklin throws at them.

Auburn Tigers fans celebrate at Toomer’s Corner (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Simply put, both fan bases are tired of mediocre expectations. Gone are the days of seven-win seasons that prevent any type of firings, with the money pouring in and boosters gaining further influence.

As college football continues to change, every school is trying to gain the upper edge with the new playoff structure and television contracts.

So, we’ve got two scenarios that will play out on Saturday afternoon.

Either James Franklin will board the team plane home with a rejuvenated fan base waiting or Bryan Harsin will again start to feel his seat getting hotter by the minute.

As Nebraska proved Sunday, money is not a factor anymore. So the head coach better start producing results or things will look much different when expansion finally begins in the SEC and Big Ten.

This could be a bumpy ride Saturday afternoon in Auburn.


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Written by Trey Wallace

Wallace started covering the SEC in 2012, as the conference landscape was beginning to change. Prior to his time in Knoxville, Wallace worked in Nashville for The Read Optional, where he first produced content that garnered national attention. His passion for sports is evident in his work and has led him to break some of college football’s biggest stories. His social media reach and natural podcast proficiency continue to make Wallace one of SEC’s most trusted sources.

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