The Auburn Tigers have officially entered a new era following the disaster of the 2-year Bryan Harsin era. Hugh Freeze has had his work cut out for him this offseason, and his return to the SEC will certainly not be a cakewalk in getting things back on track on The Plains. Here are five questions facing the Tigers entering the year:
1. How much does Payton Thorne elevate Auburn’s offense?
For the 20+ players Hugh Freeze brought in this offseason from the transfer portal, the narrative for the longest time was “when will Auburn bring in a QB and who will it be?” Freeze and his staff ended up narrowing in on Michigan State’s 2-year starter Payton Thorne, and made it official in early May.
Thorne was much better in 2021 than in 2022, but so was the Spartans team as a whole. He has proven himself to be an efficient and capable QB who can be a threat with his legs as well. Thorne, in my opinion, took Auburn from a 5 or 6 win ceiling to at least 7 or 8. If Thorne can return to his 2021 form, the Tigers biggest issue from last season is solved.
2. How much will the offensive line improve?
If quarterback play wasn’t the biggest issue for Auburn over the last two years, then it was offensive line play. Hugh Freeze went to work in the transfer portal, bringing in potential starters both at tackle and along the interior. The tackle spots should both be taken by transfer pieces, with former Tulsa OT Dillon Wade and former Western Kentucky OT Gunner Britton slotting in.
Auburn’s rebuilt offensive line should be an improvement, but the question becomes how much of an improvement. Great offensive line play would go a long way towards making the transition to the SEC easier for Payton Thorne.
3. How strong is the secondary?
This group is without a doubt the deepest on the team, with a lot of returning talent from last season that should lead the way again. Nehemiah Pritchett and D.J. James should man the corner spots, with Zion Puckett, Keionte Scott, and Jaylin Simpson rounding out the secondary. Auburn will need the group to continue to be strong if they are going to contend this year.
4. Who is catching the ball?
Wide receiver is another group that Hugh Freeze recruited heavily through the portal. Two immediate contributors should be Shane Hooks of Jackson State and Jyaire Shorter of North Texas. One wild card is Caleb Burton, who was a highly touted recruit out of high school before committing to Ohio State where injuries kept him off the field during his freshman year. The best returning receiver is probably Koy Moore, who had 20 catches for over 300 yards last season. The room is full of potential, but that potential thus far is unproven.
5. What is the realistic ceiling in year one of the Freeze era?
This, of course, is the million dollar question. There is more excitement around the fanbase than there has been in some time, proven by the fact that all 63,000+ season ticket packages are sold out. Auburn’s schedule starts very easy, with UMASS, California, and Samford, but after this it’s a road matchup at Texas A&M to start the SEC schedule.
This is a game Auburn must win, because after this they will face Georgia and then a road matchup at LSU. If the transfers contribute immediately, Payton Thorne does his job, and Auburn wins the games they are supposed to win plus one or two they aren’t, then there is no reason to think this team can’t win eight games. No matter what, the Tigers will be one of the more fascinating teams to monitor this fall.