Former LSU quarterback TJ Finley announced Monday that he will transfer within the SEC West to play for first-year coach Bryan Harsin and the Auburn Tigers. The move should immediately impact the 2021 season for the Tigers, even though the SEC hasn’t officially voted on removing its ban on intra-conference transfers. That is expected to happen soon, which means that Harsin has created a quarterback battle between the sophomore Finley, junior Bo Nix and true freshman dual-threat signal-caller Dematrius Davis.
Nix is a two-year starter who not only has thrown for over 2,400 yards in each of his first two seasons but is the son of former Auburn starting quarterback Patrick Nix. His legacy status probably won’t sway Harsin’s decision, but the final decision will likely cause an interesting reaction in Nix’s camp one way or the other.
Finley, a 6-foot-6, 242-pounder from Ponchatoula, Louisiana, started five games in place of Myles Brennan last year with mixed results. He threw for 941 yards, five touchdowns, five interceptions after being thrust into action as a freshman, but was benched for the final two games of the season following a poor performance vs. Alabama. There’s no shame in struggling vs. Alabama, and two games with more than 250 yards — including one vs. South Carolina in his first-ever college game — is enough to give him a legit shot to unseat Nix.
It’s not like Nix has been the superstar that he was touted to be as the nation’s top-ranked dual-threat quarterback coming out of Pinson Valley (Alabama) High School in 2019. The 6-foot-1, 207-pounder completed under 60% of his passes in both of his seasons under center and has thrown 13 career interceptions.
He has had some success, though. He has 28 career touchdown passes, 701 career rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. Plus, he was a big part of Auburn’s wild 48-45 upset of Alabama at the end of the 2019 regular season.
Ultimately, Davis’ chances of winning the job took the biggest hit with Finley’s transfer. He was going to be fighting an uphill battle anyway, but it’s unlikely that he will beat out a two-year SEC starter and a transfer with five more SEC starts.
So who has the edge?
It’s safe to say that Nix will go into fall camp as the top option for Harsin, especially since he went through spring practice with the new staff. But Finley is certainly qualified to make a run for the starting job — Auburn’s staff even told him as much.
“They have a new system going in, and they feel like I fit their system, and it’s a lot of things that they are telling me that are very promising,” Finley told AL.com earlier this month. “Not saying they’re promising me anything, but it’s promising as far as the future. It’s basically that I can come in and compete for the starting job, and if I were good enough to be the No. 1 guy, I would be the No. 1 guy.”
Finley’s fit will also be a factor in Harsin’s decision. First-year offensive coordinator Mike Bobo runs much more of a traditional system when compared to the one Malzahn ran. Bobo hasn’t produced a quarterback as a head or assistant coach who had more than 200 rushing yards in a season since ex-Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley ran for 322 in 2005. That certainly suggests that Nix’s rushing ability won’t be nearly as big of factor as it was under the old regime.
Gut feeling: the underdog Finley will be Auburn’s starting quarterback for the season-opener vs. Akron on Sept. 4. It might be an unpopular opinion, which is fine. But Nix consistently bailed from the pocket after one read and tried to make plays with his legs — even if he wasn’t under any pressure. That wasn’t a huge deal for Malzahn since the former Auburn coach prefers his quarterbacks to be more than just “willing” runners. That won’t fly with Bobo and Harsin — both of whom want their quarterbacks to go through multiple reads and understand what is a much more passer-friendly playbook.
One thing is certain, though: things just got really compelling on the Plains as Harsin begins his tenure as coach of the Tigers.