Photo By Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics
The difference ten months makes. As the Tigers exited Pat Dye Field following a 41-27 blowout loss to Arkansas hope was all but lost for the future of the program. But after a change in football leadership and a ride around the block in a Cadillac, Auburn found a spark. A spark that led to an offseason of a complete roster renovation, record breaking season ticket sales, major recruiting wins and most importantly, hope.
Welcome to the 2023 Auburn Football season.
Saturday afternoon’s contest against the UMass Mineutemen will mark Hugh Freeze’s first game as Auburn’s 31st head football coach. Freeze is 8-4 all-time in season openers and 1-3 in his first game as head coach of a program. Saturday’s 2:30p.m. CT kickoff will also make it the first day game for a new Auburn head coach since Pat Dye’s debut in 1981.
“Really excited about my first experience running out in Jordan-Hare Stadium,” Freeze said Monday afternoon. “I think that's gonna be phenomenal and exciting and I've got more family coming than ever before. It’s gonna be a magical experience in that stadium, provided that we play well.”
Photo by Austin Perryman/AU Athletics
For all the firsts that Freeze will have this upcoming Saturday the opposition is all too familiar. Freeze faced off against UMass all four years at Liberty including last year’s win in Don Brown’s first season back at the helm in Massachusetts. Liberty won all four matchups in the series, the closest being last season’s 18 point victory on the road.
“I saw a drastic improvement last year under Coach Brown. I have great respect for him. I think he's one of the best defensive play callers in the country. Last year their record was atrocious and they had a top 10 defense in the country. So now I think they've added 27 transfers most from Power Five schools. I thought they looked quite different,” Freeze said.
Brown first led the minutemen from 2004-2008 while the program was still in the FCS ranks. His first stint as head coach with the Minutemen led to the winningest five-year stretch in program history accumulating a 43-19 record and making two postseason appearances. He’s spent the last 13 years guiding defenses at Maryland, Connecticut, Boston College, Michigan and Arizona.
In Brown’s absence, the minutemen have struggled since making the jump to the FBS level. The program hasn’t had a season with more than four wins and has won a total of two games in the three years prior to Brown’s return. After a one win year one for Brown, UMass hit the transfer portal bringing in 22 new players, 15 of which were former power five athletes.
The minutemen opened up their 2023 campaign during week zero and defeated New Mexico State 41-30, the programs first road win since 2018 at UConn snapping a 24-game road losing streak. A 28-point fourth quarter sealed the deal for a UMass team that hasn’t started a season with a win since 2018. While the win was a big moment for a rebuilding program, the week zero film could benefit the Tigers in the upcoming matchup.
“It definitely helps. They're quite different on offense than they've been in the past,” Freeze said. “So defensively it's the same that I've faced but offensively they're quite different. And you kind of wish you had even a more of a sample size but it's no question that with everything I saw them do with their motions and shifts and their RPOs and you know that they have more to do with that than just what they showed. And so I think they're very similar to us truthfully now and there's a lot of options and you just got to be aware of the quarterback both running and passing. So it's it was quite different. So I think it was helpful.”
The minutemen’s new quarterback, Taisun Phommachanh, led the team with 192 yards through the air on 10-for-17 passing, while rushing for a team-high 96 yards on 17 carries with a touchdown. The Clemson and Georgia Tech transfer, was rated as a four star prospect by Rivals, 247Sports and ESPN and was ranked as the No.3 quarterback in the nation by 247Sports, the No. 5 QB in the nation by Rivals and the No. 8 pocket passer in the nation by ESPN in the class of 2019.
“They threw the ball effectively, which they have not done in the four years that I played them,” Freeze said.
Photo By Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics
The Tigers will also be rolling out their new transfer quarterback in Payton Thorne on Saturday. Thorne notably led the Spartans to a Peach Bowl win during the 2021 season throwing for 3232 yards, a completion percentage of 60.4% and 27 touchdowns. Thorne’s 3232 single season passing yards would rank 2nd all time in Auburn program history. As for what’s impressed Freeze about Thorne prior to him taking the field for Auburn, it’s in the details.
“Every little thing. You know, it just he's got an advantage that he is in grad school and he has a lot of time and so it's important to him and he's constantly studying. And I sure hope that translates into his decision making come Saturday. The most impressive thing is just he wants to have the mental part of the game plan totally down,” Freeze said.
If the Tigers can get the little things right across the board on Saturday, the talent mismatch between the two teams should lead to an exciting beginning to this new era of Auburn Football under Freeze. The Tigers and Minutemen will kickoff at 2:30p.m. CT on ESPN inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. The game can also be heard around the state of Alabama on the Auburn Sports Network.