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Why Auburn’s Hugh Freeze believes New Mexico State is a team that ‘could sting us’

Published: Nov. 16, 2023, 10:47 a.m.
5–6 minutes

It’s standard for a coach to say he and his team are only focused on the game in front of them – even when a lesser opponent followed by a not-so-lesser opponent is next on the schedule.

It’s coach speak.

Alabama’s Nick Saban said it of hosting Chattanooga this week. Auburn’s Hugh Freeze also said it of welcoming New Mexico State to Jordan-Hare Stadium this Saturday.

And while they both probably meant what they said, Freeze really, really means it.

“We won’t talk about the other team that you mentioned,” Freeze said when asked about playing Alabama in two weeks. “We’ll talk about the one we have right in front of us that could sting us. And I’ve experienced that before.”

It was Nov. 26, 2022 when Freeze’s Liberty football team hosted the New Mexico State Aggies at Liberty’s Williams Stadium. At the time, head coach Jerry Kill had New Mexico State sitting at 4-6 in his first year. Meanwhile, Freeze and the Flames boasted an 8-3 record heading into their regular season finale – a game that doubled as Freeze’s last at Liberty.

And whether it was the distraction that came with the speculation that Freeze was well on his way to The Plains to take the helm of Auburn’s football program or something else, the Flames went on to be extinguished that day as the Aggies secured a 49-14 win.

For that reason, Freeze isn’t just talking out the side of his neck when he says the Aggies have he and the Tigers’ full attention this week, despite the Iron Bowl looming large.

“We have more work to do and it starts this week with our return to Jordan-Hare and playing what I think’s one of the better Group of Five teams,” Freeze said of hosting New Mexico State during his Monday morning press conference. “They’ve gotten better and better and better as the year has progressed. I know Jerry Kill really well. He is one heck of a ball coach and he’ll have his guys ready.”

The Aggies will bring an 8-3 record and six-game win streak with them when they march into Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.

They also come with quarterback Diego Pavia – maybe.

Kill said Tuesday that while Pavia practiced some, the Aggies’ starting quarterback is “day-to-day.” While Pavia’s injury wasn’t specified, local reporters speculate a hamstring injury after Pavia grabbed at his hamstring after a run play in the second quarter against Western Kentucky last week.

And if anyone knows the importance of Pavia’s availability, it’s Freeze.

During last year’s New Mexico State-Liberty game, Pavia produced video game-like numbers.

Against the Flames in 2022, Pavia passed for 214 yards on a 16-for-21 passing performance, which featured three touchdowns.

On the ground, Pavia was just as effective as he notched a 125-yard rushing performance, which featured another trio of touchdowns.

In short, Pavia was responsible for six scores during last year’s win at Liberty.

“Very talented quarterback. Extremely, extremely tough and mobile,” Freeze said of Pavia on Monday. “He’s a handful for sure. And they’re using him in a lot of ways, in a lot of motions and shifts and formations and they’ve got a really good plan and he can make a lot of things happen with his feet.”

Diego Pavia

New Mexico State quarterback Diego Pavia throws a pass during the first quarter of the team's NCAA college football game against Missouri on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)AP

This season, Pavia has passed for more than 2,200 yards, 19 touchdowns and six interceptions. On the ground, the junior quarterback stands as New Mexico State’s leading rusher just less than 300 yards as he’s rushed for 822 yards and five touchdowns.

“He’s shifty. He wants to make plays,” Auburn Jack linebacker Jalen McLeod said of Pavia. “He’s got almost 1,000 yards rushing and he’s got like what, 2,000 yards passing? He’s having a great year. Our biggest thing is definitely contain him.”

Fortunately, Auburn’s defense is just getting over a game that featured a mobile quarterback in Arkansas’ KJ Jefferson.

The Tigers sacked Jefferson five times in last week’s 48-10 win over the Razorbacks, putting Jefferson in “the boneyard.”

However, McLeod heeds that Jefferson and Pavia, while both athletic, hurt teams with their legs in different ways.

“It helps a lot but they’re completely different,” McLeod said Monday. “KJ wants to run you over, (Pavia) wants to make sure he jukes you and gets 10 more, 20 more yards… It’s one in the same, but different at the same time.”

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"Not too many people have done that": Auburn CB Kayin Lee talks about playing as a true freshman

Daniel Locke
2–3 minutes

The freshman cornerback has made an instant impact in Auburn's defensive secondary.

Kayin Lee has wasted no time making an impact since arriving on the Plains.

The true freshman from Ellenwood, Georgia has seen the field a good amount this season and that will likely only increase over the next few seasons.

"It means a lot to me," Lee said on playing as a true freshman in the SEC. "Not too many people have done that. I heard that Carlton Davis was one of the few to do that so just to have my name up there with him when it's all said and done just means a lot."

Lee addressed how important being present for spring practice was for his development.

"It was pretty cool," Lee said. "It was a lot of hard work, ups and downs, but it was just about building that team chemistry. Just doing my part and just getting better overall as a player."

Auburn has a lot of talent in its defensive backfield including a lot of players who could have a shot at playing in the NFL next season. Lee talked about how beneficial it is to learn from guys like that.

"It's pretty cool being around those type of guys," Lee said. "I can take bits and pieces from them. I'm in the office with them each and every day just trying to get better with them."

Lee will certainly be one of Auburn's biggest impact players over the next few seasons.

The Tigers return home this Saturday for a matchup with the New Mexico State Aggies. Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. CT and the broadcast can be found on SEC Network.

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Auburn Opponent Preview Tigers take on New Mexico State

Jason Caldwell
5–7 minutes

Auburn’s Hugh Freeze knows all too well how dangerous New Mexico State is this time of year. Last season the Liberty Flames were a big favorite at home only to fall to the Aggies just hours before Freeze took the Auburn job. Now he’ll face them in his first season coaching the Tigers. 

Coming off an impressive win over Arkansas for a third consecutive SEC win, Auburn has plenty of momentum going into this weekend, but Freeze said they better be ready for what’s coming to Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday at 3 p.m. New Mexico State (8-3, 6-1) has already clinched a spot in the Conference USA title game and comes in with plenty of confidence.

“We have more work to do and it starts this week with our return to Jordan-Hare and playing what I think is one of the better Group of Five teams,” Freeze said. “They've gotten better and better and better as the year has progressed. I know Jerry Kill really well. He is one heck of a ball coach and he'll have his guys ready. And they've continued to improve as the year has went on. And they're a very talented team and play extremely hard. We're going to need Jordan-Hare to be at its best and we need to keep the momentum going.”

The player that leads the way for New Mexico State on offense is quarterback Diego Pavia. Guiding an offense that averages 28.7 points and 420 yards of total offense per game, Pavia is completing 59.7 percent of his passes for 2,257 yards and 19 touchdowns with six interceptions. He also leads the team with 705 rushing yards and five carries.

“Very talented quarterback,” Freeze said. “Extremely, extremely tough and mobile. He's a handful for sure. And they're using him in a lot of ways, in a lot of motions and shifts and formations and they've got a really good plan and he can make a lot of things happen with his feet.”

That’s a big question this week after Pavia tweaked a hamstring in last week’s game. On Tuesday, coach Jerry Kill said that his quarterback is ‘day-to-day.’ If he’s unable to go it would be a huge blow for the Aggies.

Pavia is just part of a rushing attack for New Mexico State that averages 206 yards per game on the ground. Running backs Star Thomas and Monte Watkins have combined for 1,046 yards and six touchdowns this season with Watkins a big play threat. In 11 games the sophomore has carried the ball just 49 times, but is averaging 10.8 yards per carry.

New Mexico State has six players that have caught at least 11 passes this season with sophomore Jonathan Brady leading the way with 29 catches for 489 yards and three touchdowns. Despite catching just 22 passes for 351 yards, junior Trent Hudson has seven touchdown catches.

Up front, the offensive line leads the way and has been a driving force for a running game that has gone for 170 yards or more in 14 straight games. The Aggies have gone over 200 yards in three of the last four games.

Defensively, New Mexico State comes in ranked 38th nationally in scoring defense, giving up 20.8 points per game against a schedule that hasn’t featured a Power 5 opponent to this point. Allowing just 135.7 rushing yards per game, the Aggies are strong up front. But, they have struggled against the pass at times, giving up 239.5 yards per game through the air. 

Sophomore linebacker Keyshaun Elliott is having a monster season for the Aggies with 77 total tackles, 2.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for a loss. The pressure comes from an active front for New Mexico State with stud linebacker Buddha Peleti leading the team with 4.5 sacks while linemen Sterling Webb, Isaiah Reed, Nikhil Webb Walker and Gabriel Iniguez have combined for 11 sacks. As a team, New Mexico State is tied for 37th nationally with 25 total sacks.

1 Chris Bellamy 6-2 200 Sr.

14 Trent Hudson 6-3 190 Jr.

18 Jordin Parker 5-9 170 R-Jr.

6 Jonathan Brady 6-0 190 So.

5 Bryce Childress 5-10 190 R-Jr.

0 PJ Johnson III 5-10 180 R-So.


71 Shiyazh Pete 6-8 325 R-So.

70 Kaden Stanton 6-5 315 Fr.

78 Cedric Claiborne 6-4 300 R-Jr.


51 AJ Vaipulu 6-2 300 So.

55 Shamarr Jackson 6-3 295 Jr.

OR 54 Isaiah Mursalat 6-4 305 R-Sr.

C 56 Canaan Yarro 6-1 300 R-Jr.

50 Cooper Sheehan 6-3 300 R-Fr.

RG 66 Louie Canepa 6-4 310 R-Fr.

51 AJ Vaipulu 6-2 300 So.


78 Cedric Claiborne 6-4 300 R-Jr.

66 Louie Canepa 6-4 310 R-Fr. 

77 Jacob Golden 6-6 310 R-Jr.


85 Thomaz Whitford 6-4 260 R-Sr. 

19 Ron Tiavaasue 6-3 275 R-Sr.

88 Trevor Stephens 6-3 235 So. 

11 Kordell David 6-3 205 R-Jr.

18 Jordin Parker 5-9 170 R-Jr.

17 Donovan Faupel 6-2 195 Fr. 


10 Diego Pavia 6-0 200 Jr.

7 Eli Stowers 6-4 225 R-So.

9 Blaze Berlowitz 6-3 200 Fr.

13 Gavin Frakes 6-4 220 So. 


3 Jamoni Jones 6-2 225 R-Jr.

OR 4 Star Thomas 6-0 225 So.

8 Ahmonte Watkins 5-11 195 R-So.

22 Makihlyn Young 5-10 195 R-Fr.


26 Sterling Webb 6-2 300 So.

OR 10 Gabriel Iniguez 6-2 250 So.


98 Izaiah Reed 6-1 310 Sr.

OR 3 Dion Wilson 6-5 300 Jr.

95 Gabe Jones 6-4 280 Fr.


16 Gabe Peterson 6-2 250 So.

99 Nikhil Webb-Walker 6-6 270 R-Fr.

42 Noah Arinze 6-6 265 R-So.


15 Torren Union 6-2 195 R-Jr.

20 Mekhi Miller 6-1 200 R-Jr. 


44 Keyshaun Elliott 6-3 225 So.

35 Tyler Martinez 6-2 225 So.


14 Sone Aupiu 6-1 225 R-Fr.

1 Devlin Kirklin 6-1 205 R-Sr.


8 Andre Seldon 5-9 190 R-So.

7 Keonte Glinton 5-11 190 R-Jr.


4 BJ Sculark 5-11 185 R-Sr.

0 Reggie Akles 6-1 190 R-So.


13 Myles Rowser 6-1 195 So. 

5 JJ Dervil 6-3 190 Jr. 


24 Jordan Vincent 5-10 190 Jr.

11 Dylan Early 6-0 190 Jr.


40 Buddha Peleti 6-2 250 So.

OR 28 Jaden Robinson 6-4 255 R-Jr.

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PMARSHONAU College football and a bizarre system

Phillip Marshall
8–10 minutes

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Where college football is headed, no one knows

In college football, hiring head coaches is the ultimate roll of the dice. Athletics directors spend big money on search firms to help them out. They vet and vet some more. And finally, they make decisions. They call press conferences to celebrate those decisions and welcome the new leaders to town.

Problem is, if an AD stays around, there is a good chance he’ll return to that podium and announce that there will be a “a change of leadership” in the football program. The coach that was announced with such joy will take his millions in buyout money and move on. And the process will begin again.


In one way, being a big-time head coach carries little security. A coach’s future depends on how a bunch of 18-22-year-olds perform. On the other hand, what could be more secure than knowing if you fail at your job, you will receive so much money to leave that you’ll never have to work another day in your life if you don’t want to?

There is really nothing anybody can do about it. It will be illegal for university presidents to collude to hold salaries down. As long as one program is paying obscene salaries, others will follow. Agents get wealthy. Athletics directors make seven-figure salaries. An assistant Power 5 coach making $300,000 is not considered highly paid. Coordinators and even some position coaches make seven figures. Some teen-age players even become wealthy. How much players are making from NIL money is anybody’s guess. It’s not public record.

What a bizarre system has grown out of a game played college students. Where it is headed, nobody knows.

Just look at recent history.

Gene Chizik won a national championship in his second season at Auburn and was gone after his fourth season. Gus Malzahn won an SEC championship and played for the national championship in his first season. He stayed for eight seasons and never had a losing record, but he also never lost fewer than four games. He was unceremoniously fired in 2020. Ed Orgeron won a national championship at LSU in 2019 and was fired in 2021.

I could go on. But it’s part of the craziness that is college football. No matter what a coach has done in previous jobs, there is no guarantee he will do the same in a new program.

In the SEC, Nick Saban has been a dominant force since 2008, his second season at Alabama. Kirby Smart has won or contended for championships every season since 2017, his second season.  But early success often doesn’t mean extended success.

Josh Heupel went 7-6 in his first season at Tennessee and was all the rage after going 11-2 last season. But he lost a generational quarterback and some great receivers. Suddenly, his offense became easier to stop. This season’s Tennessee team has lost three games and will likely lose a fourth when Georgia visits Saturday.

Brian Kelly continues to be praised. Last season, his first at LSU, he won maybe the weakest West Division since the SEC split into divisions in 1992. But last season’s team gave up half a hundred to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game after losing to Texas A&M, which had lost six straight, in the final game of the regular season and lost four games. He’s lost three games this season because of a weak defense.

The Jimbo Fisher story is well-known. He was given a massive deal because he won a national championship at Florida State. He also oversaw the collapse of the program, but that seemed to go unnoticed. He had 10-1 record in the  COVID year of 2020 and got a massive new deal. Sunday, he was fired. He will receive a record buyout of $76 million.

First-year Mississippi State coach Zach Arnett was fired  after Saturday’s loss at Texas A&M. He’ll get $4 million for his trouble. Arkansas’ Sam Pittman might be the next to go. If he is, he will be paid handsomely to leave.

Eli Drinkwitz is having really good season. He did not have a winning record in any of three previous seasons at Missouri. What will the future hold? Nobody knows. Shane Beamer got great praise for a strong finish to a 7-6 season in 2022. This season? Not so much.

Other than Saban and Smart, no coach in the SEC is safe for the long term. Not one of them. Coaches are paid multimillion-dollar salaries, hundreds of millions are spent on facilities, donors fork over more millions for NIL collectives. With all that comes soaring expectations. One good season can push those expectations even higher. And meeting those expectations becomes harder.

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Auburn’s next big upgrade? The Jordan-Hare Stadium north endzone scoreboard.

Updated: Nov. 16, 2023, 6:58 p.m.|Published: Nov. 16, 2023, 6:53 p.m.
3–4 minutes

Auburn University

Outside Jordan-Hare Stadium on the Auburn University campus on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023. (Ben Flanagan / AL.com)Ben Flanagan

Auburn’s athletic department has made various smaller-scale upgrades to Jordan-Hare Stadium during athletic director John Cohen’s first year. Yet with the announcement of every premium seating addition or concession stand change, fans have frequently commented on the scoreboard in the north endzone at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

On Thursday’s edition of Auburn’s Tiger Talk radio show, Cohen said a change is at last coming.

The exact details of how and when are not yet clear, but Cohen said he plans on putting a video board to replace the antiquated display on that side of the field.

“We’re working behind the scenes to create a plan,” Cohen said. “When does it happen? How long does it take once you start? What is the plan? Is there connective tissue to the university in that plan?”

During the show, Cohen said he brought architects and engineers to last week’s game against Arkansas — which has video boards in both endzones — as Auburn continues to seek inspiration. He also mentioned the stadiums at Notre Dame and Florida State as possible concepts to model after.

It will help, Cohen said, for students to no longer need to turn all the way around when in their seats to see the current and only video board Auburn has.

Included in the concept for the new scoreboard, Cohen mentioned creating additional premium seating in the north endzone as part of a larger renovation project.

“We’re going to design a state-of-the-art video board in the north end that’s going to fit in with several premium areas of the north endzone. Hopefully featuring a top level, a mid level with suites and a club. Then a group level, a field-level facility that allows fans to see the game at field level.”

In an interview with AL.com earlier this fall, Cohen also mentioned the north endzone as among his top priorities in year two of the job.

“I just got out of a meeting where we’re discussing the possibilities in the north end zone. Possibilities of video boards in the north endzone,” Cohen said in September. “The possibility of creating a full-time practice facility for our volleyball team. The possibilities of all these different facilities that we have. How do we tweak this? How do we move this? The baseball facility improvements that were approved before I got here, tweak them and move them to just make them a little bit better. A little bit more cost-effective. A little more economic. A little more functional. I love that. I love the words function, making things functional. And I love the word precision.”

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

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