Huge thanks are in order for Ryan Sterritt (formerly of College & Magnolia) for spilling his heart about the current state of Auburn football. I tried not to rub in last week’s loss to NMSU too much.
1) I’m gonna go ahead and rip off the bandaid and give you a chance to address last week. Auburn got whooped from top to bottom by New Mexico State (not a bad team, for sure). What do you feel like that loss was indicative of? Is it an aberration? And indictment of inconsistency? Or a harbinger of the failure of a program?
Oh boy, where do we start… I guess I should lead with a blanket statement. Auburn cannot lose to New Mexico State, ever. Of FBS programs that have played at least 1000 total football games, the Aggies have the 108th best winning percentage (out of a whopping 109). I don’t care the circumstances, as long as there are 22 Auburn football players in uniform, it shouldn’t happen. Sure, this NMSU team is likely their best ever, and it’s Freeze’s year one of a rebuild, but you simply cannot lose to a team you paid $1.8 million to play.
Do I think this is the death knell already in Freeze’s tenure. No, not really. But this is now an established trend that his football teams lose games when large favorites (3 times as a 21+ favorite). Freeze has leaned on the “talent gap” excuse since the day he was hired as a reason to tamp down fan expectations, but that excuse falls apart quickly when you lose to teams that you *do* have a talent advantage on.
2) Statistically, Auburn is an interesting team. The defense is above average and keeps opposing passing games in check, gets a lot of pressure, but gives up too many explosive runs. The offense is fairly successful on standard downs, but is one of the worst in the country when Payton Thorne is forced to throw. All that culminates in a decent, but middling 6-5 record... However the general narrative around Auburn makes it feel like they’re much worse than that. Do you think Auburn’s record is a fair representation of their talent level, or are they over/under achieving?
It’s been a roller-coaster of a season for this Auburn team, and the quality of play (and coaching) has varied dramatically from week to week. The team that went to Berkley and stole a win over Cal looked completely lost on offense, but solid on defense anchored by a veteran secondary. Then Auburn lost four straight games, with baffling performances in each one. In back to back games, Auburn had a fourth quarter lead over UGA with an offense that looked to begin clicking, and then starred in a snuff film in Baton Rouge at the hands of Jayden Daniels. Auburn looked worse against Texas A&M than they did against Ole Miss, where Auburn had a chance to send the game to overtime against the Rebels with the ball down a touchdown and throwing to the endzone. Then, three straight wins against the likely three worst SEC teams had Auburn fans thinking (again) we had figured out the offense, only to hang 10 points at home to the aforementioned New Mexico State Aggies.
It’s clear that enough talent is there at most position groups to have expected an 8-4 season. Coaching has let this team down and cost them at least two wins already.
3) Piggybacking on what I mentioned in the last question - It feels to me that, if Auburn had even semi-competent play at QB, they’d be a solid, slightly-below-great, team. Would you agree? And is there any hope Thorne can improve for next season?
Thorne is fine. Not great, or even good, but fine. He was competent at Michigan State for two years, producing numbers that passing-starved Auburn fans would’ve been over the moon for if he’d just replicated here. But in the two opener tune-ups, Freeze opted to go with a 2 QB system, costing Thorne important in-game reps (he didn’t go through spring with the team). This led to a sense of the offense just never being on the same page against P5 defenses in Berkley and SEC play.
The bigger issue at play is the poor WR play. Drops, poorly run routes, and the pure inability to win contested balls has meant Thorne has tried to do way too much (including becoming a pretty good runner). While Auburn wouldn’t turn down a stud QB coming in next year (it doesn’t look likely), I think the best case scenario is a Thorne takes the offseason as the presumptive starter, and leads the way in 2024 with the best WR signing class Auburn’s ever brought in.
4) Speaking of QBs, Robbie Ashford was really annoying in last year’s Iron Bowl. Do you think he should be playing more than he is, and will he get some play time against Alabama after having such a nice rushing output last year?
This is a divided opinion among Auburn fans. Clearly from my answer above, I’m not in the anti-Thorne camp. But Ashford shouldn’t see the field anymore. There were moments early in the year I thought you could build an offense around him if you wanted, but that wasn’t the plan, and he can’t do the things needed to succeed in this system now. As for last year’s Iron Bowl, he played out of his mind, and I love him for even giving us a chance in that game. But that is his magnum opus.
5) If we were ranking RBs in the SEC, where would you rank Jarquez Hunter? (Personally, I’d put him 3rd)
I feel for Hunter, because his season got kneecapped by his suspension (I’m not privy to the exact details, but it always felt like a preventative suspension to keep a story out of the news that I’m not sure he was the villain in). He got off to a super slow start the first few games, but exploded after the last few weeks, showing why Auburn fans were so excited to watch him play this year. Going into the year, I had him behind Rocket Sanders and Quinshon Judkins. I think I’d still have him at 3rd, but with Sanders’s tough injury-filled season, he falls off in favor of Cody Schrader at Missouri. Schrader has been the definition of a workhorse this year, so hats off to him and Mizzou.
Jayden Daniels, however, is a better runner than anyone else in the conference.
6) TE Rivaldo Fairweather is easily the best pass-catching threat on Auburns team, but there’s word he’s hurt. Any chance he doesn’t play? And are there any other receiving threats that Alabama should be worrying about?
I haven’t heard any inklings that he wouldn’t play. He addressed it himself after last week’s game, saying his arm is sore, but nothing’s broken, and he was just in a sling to help the swelling go down. But you’re right, the big-bodied FIU transfer is far and away Auburn’s best receiving threat. I had my complaints about his usage earlier in the year (if I see him in the flats one more time…), but he’s made some big time catches the last few games.
Outside of that, wide receiver is Auburn’s worst position group by far. Freeze & Co. went portaling this offseason and brought in a volume haul, but Fairweather is the only one who’s made a consistent impact. Ja’varius Johnson, who I think is on his 15th year in Auburn, has been a threat at times, but he and Thorne have struggled to build a consistent rapport.
7) Defensive back Nehemiah Pritchett was Auburn’s only Preseason All-SEC (third team) selection on their entire defense. Is there anyone who has since stood out enough that you think deserves an All-SEC selection this year? Marcus Harris has impressive numbers for an interior lineman and would probably have my vote. Maybe Eugene Asante at linebacker?
You’ve nailed it with Harris and Asante, who have both been all over the field making plays this year. Asante, who was relegated to scout team by (let me cash in my one f-bomb here) THAT FUCKING POTATO DIPSHIT OF A HEAD COACH LAST YEAR, has become many Auburn fans favorite player this year, with his ability to cause havoc in the offensive backfield, in coverage, and on special teams.
I mentioned the secondary being the backbone of the defense, and while there may not be any first round draft picks there, Jaylin Simpson has become one of the better safeties in the league. He was a corner his first few years in Auburn, but the depth there (and lack of depth at safety) caused him to move over, and he’s excelled there as a ball hawk. Keionte Scott as a slot corner has had an impressive season, possibly deserving of a second or third team nomination.
8) Auburn’s depth chart seems to be made up almost entirely of transfer portal guys and seniors. Are there any freshmen who are showing a lot of promise for the future?
Jeremiah Cobb has seen limited touches this year as the 4th string running back, but he’s looked the part whenever he’s been asked to contribute with 200 yards and three touchdowns on just 35 touches.
Connor Lew stepped into the starting center role after some injuries and shifting of jobs on the OL midseason, and has immediately looked to be the anchor of that position for the next four years. Auburn’s OL has been a revolving door since about 2018, but he’s a throwback to those Chizik and early Gus lines where Reese Dismukes and Ryan Pugh shined.
On defense, Keldric Faulk has flashed signs of being an All-SEC type of player at end. There’s still some growing pains, but the ceiling there for a Thursday draft pick in 3-4 years.
9) If Auburn were to spring the upset over Alabama this weekend, who is the player of the game?
Auburn isn’t competing in a shootout style of game, so this tells me one of two things. Either:
- The secondary makes Milroe’s life hell, and hauls in 2-3 interceptions in plus territory to throw the Bama offense completely off-kilter. Keionte Scott, Auburn’s punt returner and primary nickel, snags a wayward pass and houses one for a touchdown. OR)
-Auburn plays field position due to some Alabama miscues, and despite not being able to hammer home a ton of touchdowns, Alex McPherson (Fort Payne’s own and brother of Bengals kicker Evan McPherson) drills multiple long range field goals to give Auburn a messy 19-17 ish final score.
Either way, I think 24 points is enough to feel safe for Alabama.
10) Finally, if you didn’t get everything off your chest from the first two questions, here’s your chance to talk more about Hugh Freeze and the state of the program. Did this year go about as you expected? Do you think they’ll improve next year? Or is the entire Freeze experiment an utter disaster in your books?
One of our big editorials before the staff left College & Magnolia was a plea not to hire Hugh Freeze. The only selling point was “he can beat Saban”, which he did twice, nearly a decade ago. And we’ve fired a coach since then who beat Saban thrice, so the logic is a little wonky there. He never won the SEC West despite those wins over Alabama, and after a messy scandal in which he was fired for cause, he led a Liberty team with infinitely more resources than their competition to a few good seasons. None of that, to me (and many others), ever qualified him to lead my alma mater, or any other top 15-20 college football program for that matter. Throw into that his past (and no, I don’t care about the handjobs), and I was disgusted before he even got to his press conference. In the past year, he’s put the onus on his detractors to “move on and forgive him”, without ever addressing why so many people take issue with him in the first place. I cannot give him the benefit of the doubt when he has never directly addressed his faults, such as DM-ing and intimidating a sexual assault victim and advocate late into the night who had an open lawsuit against his employer, and anyone who defends Ian McCaw as a friend, good man, and “Christ-like leader”, is a scummy human being in my book.
He is not a criminal to my knowledge, and people who have actively done worse things to people have been (and probably are) in positions of power higher than his across this sport. Auburn football brings me enjoyment (usually), and allows me time with my dearest friends and family that would otherwise be hard to schedule, so I’ve made a decision to not allow that man to prevent me from doing so.
That being said, he gets no runway from me. You don’t get time to slowly rebuild when there are other football coaches who are showing that in the portal era, you can be successful right away at worse programs than Auburn. The expectation, then, was for him to never be worse than 8-4, and flirt with and occasionally be in the new upcoming 12-team playoff. While the recruiting efforts have been good (not mind-blowingly so like his fans would have you think), it has to lead to tangible, on-field results right away. This is possible… but even with better talent, the man still has several losses to teams he has no business losing to.
War Damn Eagle and thanks for having me y’all. I won’t pretend to ever like Alabama (the “I cheer for my rival when we’re not playing each other” crowd drives me up the wall),
Y’all please beat Georgia. I hate those assholes.
If you can stomach the extra Auburn content on your Twitter feed, give Ryan a follow at @RyanSSterritt.