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10.24.23 Football Articles


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Auburn starting center said to be ‘doubtful’ for Saturday’s game vs. Mississippi State

Published: Oct. 23, 2023, 11:31 a.m.

2–3 minutes

BERKELEY, CA - SEPTEMBER 09 - Auburn Offensive Lineman Avery Jones (#66) during the game between the Auburn Tigers and the California Golden Bears at California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, CA on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. Photo by Austin Perryman/Auburn TigersAustin Perryman/Auburn Tigers

When asked to address the health of Auburn’s offensive line on Wednesday, head coach Hugh Freeze described it as “not great.”

Unfortunately for the Tigers, it sounds like “not great” has turned to “not great at all” after Freeze said Monday that starting center Avery Jones could miss Saturday’s game against Mississippi State.

“I think he’s probably... I guess the words I would say for this week is ‘doubtful’,” Freeze said of Jones’ availability against the Bulldogs.

Jones suffered an injury early in Saturday’s game against Ole Miss and missed the entire second half, which Freeze said had an impact in Auburn’s 28-21 loss.

“That hurt us,” Freeze said. “We missed him in the second half, for sure.”

Jones arrived to Auburn in the offseason as a graduate transfer from East Carolina, where he served as the Pirates’ starting center in 2021 and 2022.

In Jones’ absence, it was freshman Conner Lew who got the nod at center for the rest of the game.

“Conner played really well,” Freeze said Monday. “Conner is going to be one heck of a football player.”

Lew was rated a 4-star prospect out of high school, while both ESPN and Rivals rated Lew a top 10 interior offensive lineman recruit.

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Auburn offense still searching for balance

Jason Caldwell

6–7 minutes

Auburn's offense continues to struggle throwing the football.

AUBURN, Alabama—Through seven games of the 2023 season and the first for Hugh Freeze on the Plains, the Auburn Tigers are 30th in the country in rushing offense at 186 yards per game, but when you look at the numbers throwing the football it has been a far different story. You’ve got to go all the way to 124th nationally to find the Tigers in passing offense, just 151 yards per game. In seven games, Auburn has attempted just 165 passes as a team. Only Utah, Minnesota, Liberty, Nebraska, Army, Navy and Air Force have attempted fewer.

“I told the staff yesterday, we’ve got to be more balanced,” Freeze said. “I firmly believe you play to your strengths and I do think we have proven we can be somewhat successful running the football, but I do think you have to play balanced football.

“We’ve got to find the things our players can do, receivers, quarterbacks, protections, and be more aggressive in calling those. I expect to see that change some, but I’m not sitting here saying to you that you won’t see more runs than passes. I think we’ve got to play to our strengths.”

Right now that’s running the football because of the lack of production at wide receiver for this Auburn offense. Jay Fair leads the Tigers with just 22 receptions for 241 yards and two touchdowns and no other receiver has more than eight catches for this team in seven games. Unless that changes, it means leaning more on the running game. The good news is that junior Jarquez Hunter is coming off his best game of the season.

“I think this offense can be a lot better and you just wish that we would've arrived at hopefully what we start seeing more of at the end of the season sooner and Jarquez is a part of that, of course,” Freeze said. “I think he was a lot more patient in letting the holes develop for him and he ran really hard and very physical and it was great to see it. He's such a great kid, comes to work every day and about it the right way. You don't have to worry about him on any lists, he comes to work so it's always good to see him experience that success. We've got other kids like that too.”

With Mississippi State, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and New Mexico State up the next four weeks, there’s an opportunity for this Auburn team to make some improvements. It won’t be easy with a disruptive Mississippi State defense coming to Jordan-Hare Stadium this weekend. Freeze said that despite the struggles they’ve had, he believes better things are coming.

“I'm always an optimist,” Freeze said. “I thought we were gonna be pretty good last week, and I'm gonna believe that this week also. I'm gonna do everything within my power, as soon as I get through with this meeting, to get started on that and see how much better we can get this week. It's obvious we can get better. We should be able to get better. That will be the goal. My focus will be on that this week.”

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#PMARSHONAU: Thorne might be a better QB than you think

Auburn's Payton Thorne pushes on through good times and bad

AUBURN, Alabama – Could it be that transfer quarterback Payton Thorne has been unfairly belittled and even vilified? Could it be that he hasn’t been as bad as the growing narrative says he has?

No one would say that Thorne hasn’t had his times of trouble. His first game against a Power-5 opponent got off to a bad start on an awkward fumble that led to a Cal field goal. Still, seven weeks later, there is more talk of that fumble than of the drive he led to the winning touchdown and the winning pass he threw to Rivaldo Fairweather.

Thorne has made some really good throws, and he has made some bad ones. He’s had some passes dropped, and he has missed some open receivers. He has turned out to be much more of a runner than most probably expected and is second on the team in rushing yards. He has had to deal with pressure. Most defenses have been blitzing frequently. He has taken some sacks when he should have scrambled or thrown the ball away. He has turned some scrambles into big gainers.

Thorne should not and cannot be held responsible for Auburn’s quarterback rotation, which sometimes seems chaotic. That is on coaches. He also can’t be held responsible for not getting more opportunities to go uptempo in the passing game. When he has had those opportunities, he has led long touchdown drives – three of them in the past two games.

Thorne, like any quarterback, would prefer to have the position all to himself, but he has had to share time with Robby Ashford. He hasn’t shown a hint of displeasure. He is liked and respected by his teammates, who elected him a team captain.

For the season, Thorne has completed 80-of-130 passes, 61.4 percent, for 845 yards and five touchdowns with five interceptions. He has rushed for 259 yards despite having 95 yards in losses, mostly on sacks. Are those gaudy numbers? No. Are they terrible? No. Do they indicate a quarterback who is shaky or nervous on the field? They do not.

With last Saturday’s 28-21 to Ole Miss, Auburn finished a stretch of a road game at Texas A&M and games against three top-15 teams. Will Freeze and Montgomery return to their roots and go uptempo on offense? If they do, it stands to reason Thorne’s numbers will get better.

“(Thorne and Ashford) are doing two different things, truthfully, in the packages,” Freeze said Monday. “Whether that’s smart or not, I don’t know. We’ve got to figure that out. We obviously think it is or have thought it is.”

If Auburn is to rebound from four consecutive losses and provide some happy memories in Freeze’s first season, it stands to reason that Thorne will play a significant role. What will it be? That is a question, for now, without an answer.

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Breaking Down Auburn Recruiting Target Jamonta Waller

Brian Smith

~2 minutes

Flipping Jamonta Waller would be huge for the Auburn Tigers!

The Auburn Tigers are loading up on defensive line recruits. That’s why Hugh Freeze and his coaching staff continue to go after edge rusher Jamonta Waller.

The 6-foot-1 and 240-pound edge defender’s film does not lie. Playing for Picayune (Miss.) Memorial, Waller routinely defeats left tackles with sheer quickness. That’s just the beginning of what he can do on the gridiron, however.

MORE: Complete 2024 Auburn Recruiting Class

His natural flexibility allows Waller to get underneath the offensive tackle’s attempted block en route to the quarterback. Waller’s strength, as well, aids him in knocking offensive linemen back despite being smaller than many of his counterparts. He does not give up either.

Waller’s effort level is tremendous. Even when he’s not able to quickly disengage from a block, Waller’s hands and feet keep working in unison to eventually get off the block. That’s when his athleticism shines yet again.

Using his intelligence, Waller takes good routes to the ball carrier or quarterback; he does not waste steps. Waller’s impressive all-around attributes are something that need to be discussed further as well. Here’s a more in-depth breakdown of this potential Auburn signee:

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Hugh Freeze opens up about game-day management: ‘Monty is the play caller currently’

Andrew Peters | 13 hours ago

~3 minutes

Hugh Freeze and Auburn have struggled on the offensive side of the ball this season, and much of those struggles have been due to play calling.

The Tigers had several chances to get a win over Ole Miss on Saturday, but blown play calls led to 3 and outs and even a few turnovers.

On Monday, Freeze spoke about game-day management, who is responsible for calling plays and what Auburn needs to do better moving forward. He said that offensive coordinator Phillip Montgomery is the primary play caller, but he contributes as well.

“Monty is calling the plays. I obviously have input,” Freeze said in his press conference. “I’m never one to sit here and place blame on coaches, it’s a combination, it’s all of us that I listen to the plan and evaluate it. But it’s harder for me than I thought with the verbiage and stuff to be really involved with every area. I paid a lot of attention to tight red zone. We’ve been pretty good in the red zone at times, but we’re not getting there enough to find out if our plans are really good or not. It’s a combination, I’ll jump in from time to time as do the o-line coaches and others. But Monty is the play caller currently.”

Auburn’s game-day management will need to improve moving forward if the Tigers want a shot at becoming bowl eligible. This week, Auburn has a game that should be a win as it takes on Mississippi State. After that, the Tigers will face Vanderbilt and Arkansas.

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Exit Survey Parting thoughts on Auburns loss to Ole Miss

Nathan King

9–11 minutes

Dive in for our plays of the game, helmet stickers, areas of concern and exiting analysis on the loss at Jordan-Hare Stadium

Auburn's defense gave it an opportunity to notch the first win of the Hugh Freeze era in style, but the offense's ineptitude continued to cost the Tigers this season. Ole Miss pulled away late, 28-21, as Freeze's team is still without an SEC victory this year.

Two of our football reporters — Jason Caldwell and Nathan King — took another look at Auburn's loss to the with some superlatives and final thoughts from the game in the Auburn Undercover Exit Survey.

Dive in for our plays of the game, helmet stickers, areas of concern and exiting analysis on the loss at Jordan-Hare Stadium — and what our observations could mean for the Tigers moving forward into what could potentially be consecutive SEC matchups in which they're favored.


Jason: "It has to be the touchdown run by Jarquez Hunter on third and six. Catching Ole Miss with a light box after flexing both Luke Deal and Rivaldo Fairweather out, Auburn’s offensive line gave Hunter a seam and he made one man miss. That was all it took for the touchdown run and a rare big play for the Tigers on offense."

Nathan: "With fresh legs early, Hunter bolted to the second level of the defense and took one of Auburn's most explosive plays of the season to the house to keep the crowd juice and knot the score at 7-7 early. Success was tough to come by for Auburn's running game otherwise, though, as Hunter averaged just 2.7 yards per carry on his other 14 rushes in the game, and six of those runs went for 2 or fewer yards. It is interesting that Hunter played such a massive snap count, considering Brian Battie and Jeremiah Cobb played just 12 combined snaps, while Hunter was out there for 51 plays."


Jason: "The Donovan Kaufman interception was one of the biggest plays of the night for the Tigers. Making a very athletic play for the pick, he turned defense into offense with his return to set up Auburn with a short field that eventually led to a touchdown."

Nathan: "Kaufman's interception showed great awareness on a play he had been beaten on, and his 41-yard return display the athleticism we've come to know from the former Vanderbilt transfer. With the way the offense played most of the game, a short field on a turnover was going to be a necessity for this team to stay in the game, and Hunter's second touchdown shortly after the takeaway tied things back up at 14-14."


Jason: "After a slow start to his season, Hunter had his best game of the year against Ole Miss with 91 yards rushing. He was also a big part of the passing game with three catches for 54 yards. That’s the type of production Auburn has been looking for out of the junior."

Nathan: "Hunter is essentially the only available choice here. He had his most rushing yards of the season and registered his first multi-touchdown game since last year's season opener against Mercer. Hunter also snagged three passes out of the backfield, including the 47-yarder on Auburn's final touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter. Of course, the Tigers would have been much better off if any other player had stepped up offensively and made consistent plays."


Jason: "It might not show up in the numbers, but Keionte Scott made a huge impact for the Auburn defense in his first game back. His ability to cover and play in space is a big deal for this defense and will allow Kaufman to get back to more pressure situations like we saw early in the season."

Nathan: "An honorable mention goes to Marcus Harris, who had another strong performance with two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. But you've got to go with Scott, who returned from his high-ankle sprain to not only play a whopping 71 plays, but also be one of Auburn's best defenders in the game. He was targeted three times in coverage and didn't allow a single reception, and also registered a pass breakup. Scott's athleticism and experience makes a massive difference in Auburn's secondary, and it showed Saturday night."


Jason: "Punter Oscar Chapman had another strong night, averaging 49.1 yards on seven punts. Two went for touchbacks, but both landed in the field of play and had a chance to be downed inside the 10. He continues to be a weapon for this team."

Nathan: "There's no one else here but Chapman, who consistently put Auburn's defense in good field position on a night he was asked to punt seven times. Ole Miss never started at better than its own 33-yard line after one of Chapman's punts."


Jason: "Facing one of the best offenses in the country, the Auburn defense did enough for the Tigers to get a win if the offense had helped just a little. Even though Ole Miss had 425 yards, Auburn got stop after stop in the middle of the game to give the offense a chance to do some damage."

Nathan: "Auburn held one of the SEC's top offenses scoreless for 29:26 of game time in a performance that felt much like the Cal game — only this time, the dam did finally break after the Tigers came up with stops on eight consecutive possessions. Most in the program felt the defense's performance at LSU, giving up 48 points, was more a mulligan, and Saturday was a solid step in proving that with a bounce-back performance. This is still by no means a perfect unit, but it is one that's getting healthier by the week and has given fans reason to be confident in it to help Auburn come up with a few wins down the stretch against much weaker offenses than it's been used to facing this season."


Jason: "It continues to be the offense and it was more of the plan on Saturday. Auburn waited way too long to begin to use the tempo against the Rebels and throw the football. Having just six pass attempts in over 50 minutes of football just won’t get it done. Auburn has to find a way to throw the football in some form or fashion."

Nathan: "Saturday proved there is somewhere else to go but up. Auburn continued to reel offensively, with just five first downs entering the fourth quarter. The final couple drives salvaged some of the numbers from being truly horrid, but the truth was that Auburn had no consistent passing game at all, little protection or run-blocking on the offensive line — Auburn's running backs had just 14 yards before contact in the game — and no receiving threats. As Freeze said postgame, there are no clear answers right now for a unit that seems to have systematic faults in running its baseline schemes."


Jason: "It’s the continued lack of production from Auburn’s wide receivers. The group combined for just three catches for 28 yards in the loss to Ole Miss. Almost impossible to win a football game with that type of production outside."

Nathan: "This is more of a zoomed-out observation that from a single game, but I thought the quarterback situation would have been settled by this point in the season. I understand Payton Thorne didn't arrive until the fall, but there really shouldn't be a reason for there to be so little rhythm or execution in the passing game with both QBs. The continued cycling at the position being met with little-to-no success is becoming a bit of a maddening process to endure."

Did this outcome affect your thoughts on this Auburn team?

Jason: "No. It’s the same thing I have said the last few weeks. I thought the Tigers had a chance to win the last four games if everything went perfect. It almost did against Georgia and there were times against both Texas A&M and Ole Miss, but Auburn couldn’t make the plays. Now you’ve got an opportunity to make some noise, but first you have to make some plays."

Nathan: "In the offseason, I thought the Ole Miss game was one where Auburn could be in a nice position to snag a strong win at home, and perhaps that it would be what pushed the Tigers from six to seven wins. But considering the trajectory of this offense, I reverted to a 6-6 prediction for this team a couple weeks ago, so this outcome in particular did not alter that. This is still a team that will be favored in each of its next two games — possibly three, if Arkansas really falls off a cliff here. It shouldn't be overlooked that Auburn's strength of schedule to this point is No. 3 in the country, but its remaining strength of schedule drops all the way to No. 46. If Freeze and his staff can make at least a couple successful tweaks on offense, this should be a team that goes bowling. But the wins and losses in Year 1 for Freeze were never going to be the most important thing. Facing the task of getting a competent offense on the field, Freeze has been dealt the first real adversity of his Auburn tenure. How he handles it could play at least a small role in the confidence level of the fanbase entering Year 2."

*** Subscribe to Auburn Undercover for the latest news and intel, podcasts, recruiting coverage and more ***

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Hugh Freeze gives updates on DB coach Wesley McGriff’s role with Auburn

Updated: Oct. 23, 2023, 11:46 a.m.|Published: Oct. 23, 2023, 11:44 a.m.

2–3 minutes

AUBURN, AL - August 06, 2023 - Auburn Cornerbacks Coach Wesley McGriff during a Fall camp practice at the Woltosz Football Performance Center in Auburn, AL. Photo by Austin PerrymanAuburn University Athletics

Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze said defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff still has a role within the team while he steps away from an on-field role temporarily due to “personal issues.”

First Freeze was asked Monday for an update on McGriff, and he confirmed the initial reports from last week.

AL.com confirmed a report last week that McGriff was stepping away from the team temporarily.

“He was just in my office working with me and the accountability team making sure the kids are accountable,” Freeze said Monday. “He’s dealing with a personal issue. I think he’ll get through it just fine.”

Freeze was then asked about what McGriff’s role is now, seeing as he is still in the building.

“He’s chief of accountability and in-house recruiting right now,” Freeze said. It’s been remarkable to see him, the conversation he’s having with these kids. He’s got a gift to talk straight to them and they listen to him and accountability and doing things the right way. I’ve been really impressed and he’s helped me immensely.”

The situation appears fluid and the exact personal issue is unknown, nor how long McGriff’s role will remain off the field.

Matt Cohen covers Auburn sports for AL.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @Matt_Cohen_ or email him at mcohen@al.com

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Jason Caldwells Monday morning quarterback column

Jason Caldwell

6–8 minutes

Talking Auburn football, college football and Auburn hoops.

Lack of production

There’s no question that Auburn’s offense has struggled to get going throwing the football. Hugh Freeze has consistently said it’s about more than just one thing. It’s on the coaches, quarterbacks, offensive line, wide receivers and everyone involved to get the job done. So far, it hasn’t happened against anyone with a pulse defensively.

Currently Auburn is 124th nationally in passing offense, averaging just 151 yards per game. What’s wild is that there are four Big 10 teams below the Tigers in the rankings (Rutgers, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa), but when you dig deeper the numbers are on a level we haven’t seen in a long, long time at Auburn. The Tigers are currently averaging just 102.8 yards passing per game against Power 5 opponents with four touchdowns and four interceptions. 

Another part of this that is just crazy for me to think about is that in 5 games against Power 5 opponents, Auburn has attempted just 104 total passes with only 57 completions. That’s an average of just 11 completed passes per game against Power 5 opponents. 

In those 5 games, the Tigers have had just 299 total plays. That’s just under 60 plays per game. It’s hard to put up numbers and points when you can’t sustain drives and hold onto the ball. By comparison, Ole Miss has 353 plays in five games, Georgia has 293 plays in just four games against Power 5 teams. 

This Auburn defense has held up well considering the lack of production from Auburn’s offense, but if this team wants to play in the postseason it has to find a way to make some noise with the ball in its hands. The time needs to be now.

College football thoughts

I don’t remember a time when I was as up in the air as I am right now about who the top teams in the country are. I think Michigan is one of those teams, even though they haven’t really played anyone of substance to this point. Michigan is strong on both sides of the ball and look to have all the pieces. I still believe Georgia will be there, but I don’t think the Bulldogs are as good as they have been the last couple of years. The same is true of Ohio State. Not sure they have enough offense to knock off Michigan when they meet late in the season. Florida State keeps finding a way and I don’t think anyone in the ACC is going to be able to challenge them. Oklahoma could have lost at home to UCF over the weekend, and maybe should have lost. They’ll have a test against Oklahoma State late in the year. Washington could have, and maybe should have, lost at home to Arizona State. USC lost for the second time (and third straight time to Utah) and still has games at Cal, vs. Washington, at Oregon and vs. UCLA to close out the season. They could easily be 7-5 by the time the dust settles this year. Oregon-Utah this weekend is a battle of 6-1 teams and it feels like an elimination game. The winner could still be alive for a playoff berth while the loser is probably done. Still a whole lot of things to shake out around the country.

Meanwhile in the SEC, this is a year of just a bunch of okay teams, at least in my opinion. Auburn hasn’t had any offense to speak of and is playing with a ton of heart on defense, and the Tigers have had opportunities to beat two Top 12 teams at home. I don’t know what Vegas gives the average home field in terms of its value, but I find it hard to believe that there’s a stadium in the country worth more to its team that Jordan-Hare Stadium. This weekend is a big one to see if that holds true once again when Mississippi State comes to town.

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Lew steps up for Auburn offensive line

True freshman Conner Lew played well off the bench for the Tigers.

AUBURN, Alabama—Already dealing with injuries to starters Kam Stutts, Gunner Britton and Izavion Miller that limited them in practice the last three weeks, the Auburn offensive line was dealt another blow on Saturday night when starting center Avery Jones went out early in the loss to Ole Miss. The good news for Auburn is that true freshman Connor Lew was ready to step up for the Tigers and step up he did.

“He did awesome,” Britton said of the true freshman coming off the bench in an SEC game. “I mean, the fact that he's an 18-year-old kid and he can come in and play at an SEC team in an environment like that -- you don't see that very often. He's going to be someone special for this team for a long time.”

Playing 47 of Auburn’s 58 offensive snaps, Lew more than held his own against the Rebels. His first play of the game was the long touchdown run by Jarquez Hunter and he played a vital role in springing the play with his block. Like every player on the field, Lew didn’t play perfect but he showed he’s ready for the stage, said coach Hugh Freeze.

"I have to watch the film, but he's mature,” the first-year coach said. “And I don't think it's something that he would shy away from. It's good to see him get those reps."

With a whole lot of football still left to play in this season, there’s a chance that Lew could be called on for even more playing time the rest of the way. As Auburn fights to get back on the winning track, Britton said Lew is someone they can count on when his name is called.

“When I came here, he was one of those guys you kind of pick out that he's going to be a guy that can play for this team and help flip the culture around,” Britton said. “And I mean, he's been waiting for his moment, and was always able to play whenever his time is called. Tonight, he got the chance to go play and I thought he did well.”

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starts at 7:00 AM

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Auburn’s baptism-by-fire is over. Can Freeze and the Tigers salvage the season down the stretch?

Published: Oct. 24, 2023, 6:29 a.m.
5–6 minutes

When Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze’s head hit his pillow late Saturday night, it was probably followed by a sigh of relief and him saying something along the lines of, “Thank heavens that’s over with.”

Freeze’s players probably did the same.

The baptism-by-fire that was Auburn’s open to SEC play finally ended Saturday night.

It was a gauntlet-of-a-stretch for the Tigers, whose four-game losing skid continued Saturday night in a 28-21 loss now-12th-ranked Ole Miss.

“Obviously the last three weeks, I think we’ve lost games to the No. 1, 12 and 15th-ranked teams in the country,” Freeze said Monday.

After losing their SEC opener to Texas A&M in College Station, the Tigers were tasked with hosting the top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs, visiting the then-22nd-ranked LSU Tigers and then returning home to play the then-13th-ranked Ole Miss Rebels.

And in two of those games, Auburn found itself in a position to win, but couldn’t polish it off.

After losing to Georgia and Ole Miss in one possession ball games, Freeze admits that he and the Tigers feel tempted to look in the rearview mirror.

“Anytime you have a chance to beat a team that’s highly regarded, you certainly… you regret it and you look at everything that man, if we could have done this, if we could have done that,” Freeze said. “But, you know, I think it speaks volumes for how our kids are playing.”

Yes, effort aside, Auburn still went 0-4 to open its conference slate.

But Auburn offensive lineman Gunner Britton said it best after Saturday night’s loss.

“Tough stretch for any team,” Britton said.

In playing Texas A&M, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss to open SEC play, Auburn’s first four conference opponents combine for a 13-4 SEC record.

Auburn’s next four opponents? They combine for a 6-12 record in league play.

But to take that one step further, if you remove the Tigers’ Iron Bowl opponent and ignore Alabama’s record, the remaining three conference opponents on Auburn’s schedule combine for a 1-12 record in SEC play.

All of this is said to emphasize the fact that the second half of Auburn’s conference slate is significantly more favorable than the first half, which is an important piece of perspective considering the Tigers’ recent skid.

Auburn hasn’t played in one conference matchup this season in which it didn’t bear the distinction of the “underdog” by the bookies in Las Vegas.

That changes Saturday as the Tigers welcome the Mississippi State Bulldogs to Jordan-Hare Stadium after Auburn opened as a 4.5-point favorite on Sunday, according to Caesar Sportsbooks.

Following Saturday’s game against Mississippi State (4-3, 1-3 SEC) awaits a visit to Vanderbilt (2-6, 0-4 SEC), followed by a trip to Arkansas (2-6, 0-5 SEC) before the Tigers return home for matchups against New Mexico State (5-3, 3-1 CUSA) and then Alabama (7-1, 5-0 SEC) in the Iron Bowl.

In that first four-game stretch, there appears to be four very winnable ball games for Auburn, which would bring the Tigers back to 7-4 (3-4 SEC) heading into the Iron Bowl – a game where anything is possible – on Nov. 25.

Freeze recognizes it’s been a rough stretch for Auburn fans – not only the through the last four weeks, but for quite some time now.

“I know that they’ve endured disappointing years and certainly are in the growing pains with us right now also,” Freeze said of the Auburn fanbase Monday.

And while Freeze certainly wishes he and the Tigers could’ve curbed some of the disappointment and growing pains by now, it just hasn’t happened that way.

Whether because of play calling, a questionable quarterback rotation, a depleted roster, injuries or a tough stretch of games — it just hasn’t happened.

But all hope isn’t lost on the 2023 season.

“We’ve got a lot of SEC games left. And Obviously every SEC game is hard to win... But the three — Georgia, LSU, and Ole Miss — I think are three top 10 offenses and all ranked,” Freeze said after Saturday night’s loss.

“So that was a pretty tough stretch and it’s disappointing we didn’t get a win out of one or two of those. But the rest of the games I’m excited for this team to fight and battle.”

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Is Robby Ashford's place 'every down'? 'We'll see this week,' Freeze says

Updated: Oct. 24, 2023, 8:25 a.m.|Published: Oct. 23, 2023, 2:39 p.m.

5–7 minutes

Hugh Freeze believes the first play of Auburn’s 28-21 loss to No. 13 Ole Miss Saturday night should’ve gone differently.

Sophomore Robby Ashford was the first quarterback to trot out onto Pat Dye Field Saturday – giving him his first official start of the 2023 season.

The first play call sent into Ashford and the Tigers’ offense was designed for Ashford to shove the football into the belly of one of his running backs.

“Everybody thinks it’s going to be a zone read,” Freeze said Monday. “Well, the first play was a zone slap play where there ain’t no read. You hand that sucker off and the backer fit outside and there’s a crease right up the chute.”

Ashford had Jeremiah Cobb coming in motion and Jarquez Hunter also in the backfield. While it’s unclear which running back Freeze is saying should’ve toted the football, both were heading to the right, where each Ole Miss defender was accounted for with a block.

Instead, Ashford faked a handoff to running back Jarquez Hunter and kept the football before trying to hurry around the left edge, only to be stopped three yards behind the line of scrimmage, putting the Tigers into a second-and-long situation early.

“Play one of the game should’ve been, like, maybe a 50-yard run,” Freeze. “Go watch the film.”

For those who don’t care to dig through film themselves, it supports Freeze’s argument:

Had the ball found the hands of one of Auburn’s running backs — as it was intended to — the opportunity was there for one of them to rip off a big run.

“That first play, you go a minus-3 instead of a whatever it would’ve been. It may have not been 50, but it was going to be a good run,” Freeze said. “We were fixing to be second-and-short or first-and-10 again, or touchdown.”

Instead, Auburn was forced to work from behind the sticks and the Tigers’ first drive eventually stalled at its own 48-yard line after traveling 23 yards on seven plays.

While Freeze’s comments were moot come Monday morning with the ink of Auburn’s checkmark in the loss column already dry, it did provide a possible explanation for he and offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery’s returned to the two-quarterback carousel between Ashford and junior Michigan State transfer Payton Thorne.

“The last thing I ever want to do is throw our kids under the bus, because they’re trying hard. And I’m not going to do that, but y’all have been around the game long enough to know that sometimes you might have a really good call and it just didn’t get executed right,” Freeze said, hinting at Ashford not executing the opening play call.

Meanwhile, when Thorne was named Auburn’s starting quarterback midway through fall camp in August, Freeze mentioned the transfer quarterback’s understanding of the offense as a deciding factor.

“The reason Payton is getting the nod, is just the leadership ability and the understanding of the offense,” Freeze said on Aug. 17. “He’s been in some really good battles, and it just seems like he was more efficient in the decision-making to this point.”

However, as Thorne has continued to fall well short of the hype he arrived to The Plains with, the noise clamoring for a change at quarterback – whether via Ashford or redshirt freshman Holden Geriner – has become louder and louder with each passing week.

And Freeze finally gave into the noise Saturday, first tossing the keys of the Auburn offense to Ashford, who was initially asked to pilot a “13-man personnel” package, which featured the use of three tight ends.

It was a package Freeze was more involved in crafting and one he was excited about.

“I was very involved in that 13-personnel package last week. Very much so in it. Really thought we might – could – shorten the game with that,” Freeze said. “Didn’t work quite like anticipated. We had some really good plays out of it at times. But you know, it’s not always the play-caller either.”

Auburn’s play calling hasn’t been – and shouldn’t be – immune to criticism as the Tigers’ offense ranks near the bottom of the barrel in several categories.

On Monday, Freeze was asked if he’s ever coached an offense that has struggled quite like this.

“I think you can go look at my offensive stats everywhere I’ve been, and the answer is no, never,” Freeze admitted.

So the search for an offensive identity continues into Week 8 for Freeze and the Tigers.

And that search starts with the continuing question of who Auburn’s best bet is under center.

“It would be nice to have one (quarterback) for sure,” Freeze said after Saturday night’s loss. “But we’re searching to see what the best avenue is for us to go and win.”

The decision to start Ashford against Ole Miss Saturday pointed to the possibility that the belief in Thorne being the best avenue might be shifting.

That said, Ashford can’t continue to make mistakes like the one he made in the opening play from scrimmage on Saturday.

Despite the mistake, it’s clear Freeze’s leash on Ashford hasn’t run out just yet.

“We’re eager and excited and Robby’s so athletic,” Freeze said of Ashford. “I’m going to teach him from it.

“I’ve said from Day 1 that I think Robby has a place. Is his place every down? We’ll see this week.”

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