The Auburn Corner: Realistic Expectations for Year One of Freeze Era

AUBURN, AL - August 12, 2023 - Auburn Offensive Coordinator Philip Montgomery and Head Coach Hugh Freeze talk during a fall camp scrimmage at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, AL. Photo By Austin Perryman

Welcome to a new series on the WNSP website! You’ll be able to find The Auburn Corner right here every Tuesday where we will get into a different topic on the Auburn Tigers, break down the previous game, preview the upcoming game, and everything in between. For the first edition of this column, let’s recap the offseason at Auburn and talk about expectations in year one for Hugh Freeze:

When Auburn hired Freeze last November, it’d be fair to say the reactions were mixed. While nobody really questioned his ability as a coach and certainly not as a recruiter, Freeze’s checkered past and fallout at Ole Miss were undoubtedly going to be brought up. Putting all that aside, however, Freeze has proved in one offseason why he was hired for the job.

To put in perspective what Freeze has done before even coaching a game on The Plains, one must understand the fact that the Tigers had not brought in a 5-star recruit since Owen Pappoe in 2019. As we know, the previous guy (whose name we don’t need to mention) didn’t exactly love to recruit. Not only has Hugh Freeze already brought in two 5-stars with linebacker Demarcus Riddick and wide receiver Perry Thompson, but he flipped them from the two schools he is competing for recruits against the most in Georgia and Alabama.

On top of this, the Tigers appear squarely in the mix for 5-star DL Kamarion Franklin, who will commit this weekend.

No matter what the result is on the field this season, Freeze has Auburn in a place where they are competing for 5-stars again and in a place where Auburn fans are excited about football again. All this being said, what can Auburn really accomplish here in year one under Freeze?

The roster is almost entirely new, with over 40 new players on both sides of the ball. Hugh Freeze went right to work in the transfer portal to reconstruct the offensive line, bringing in players like Dillon Wade (Tulsa) and Gunner Britton (Western Kentucky) who very well could end up taking both starting tackle spots.

Similarly, the wide receiver room will be heavily dependent on the transfer portal. Jyaire Shorter (North Texas) and Shane Hooks (Jackson State) are both expected to play huge rolls in this offense, with the transfer wildcard being Caleb Burton III. Burton III was an extremely highly rated prospect out of high school before committing to Ohio State where injuries and depth kept him off the field during his freshman year. If Freeze can get the most out of Burton III, he could end up being a dangerous weapon for Auburn.

They also bring back guys like Koy Moore and Ja’Varrius Johnson, who were contributors on last year’s team. Someone else who has been drawing praise throughout camp is Jay Fair, who will be worth keeping an eye on as well.

Which all brings us to the biggest question of course, quarterback. I continue to believe Payton Thorne is going to be Auburn’s starting QB. He has shown ability to play the position at the the highest level of college football with a fantastic 2021 for Michigan State (3,240 yards, 27 touchdowns, 10 interceptions). While he regressed in 2022, the team as a whole regressed and Thorne’s play suffered as a result.

Barring a ridiculous development from Robby Ashford as a passer or a late push from Holden Geriner, Thorne was brought in to start. And I think Hugh Freeze already knows that, whether he wants to say it now or not.

When analyzing expectations, it’s important to acknowledge two things. 1.) Auburn has an extremely easy non-conference schedule (UMASS, @Cal, Samford, and New Mexico State). 2.) Auburn is one of only three teams in the country (Kentucky and Tennessee) that has to play both Georgia and Alabama. They also have road games at Texas A&M, Arkansas, and LSU, with A&M being the SEC opener in week four.

Due to the non-conference schedule and the fact that it should be four wins, I don’t think it’s unfair to expect at least 7 wins out of Auburn. This would mean going 3-5 in the SEC with both Mississippi schools at home as well as a game against Vanderbilt. There are at least two games they should win, and I give them at least one they shouldn’t as well. This team is capable of going 8-4, but I don’t think it would be fair to expect it out of Freeze in year one.

That being said, the way the schedule shakes out for the Tigers and with all the momentum the program has, not going over .500 would be a disappointment. I’m betting on Freeze and company to be able to get it done.