Updated: Nov 4
Photo by Jamie Holt/Auburn Tigers
The toughest stretch of Auburn’s year one campaign has come to a finish after four straight losses to start conference play, for the first time since the infamous 2012 season. The first four SEC games for the Tigers have been against the top offenses in the league with LSU, Georgia, Ole Miss and Texas A&M ranking first, second, third and fifth in scoring in the SEC, combining to average 40.1 points per game.
“Obviously, the last three weeks, I think we've lost games to the number one, 12, and 15 ranked teams in the country,” head coach Hugh Freeze said on Monday. “I felt like we had a chance at two of those at home. Any time you have a chance to beat a team that's highly regarded, then you certainly regret it.”
Ideally for the Freeze and his program, the Tigers’ remaining four SEC opponents, (Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Alabama, rank 11th, 10th, 14th and eighth in the league in scoring offense, averaging 28.0 points per game, and 11th, 12th, 14th and ninth in total offense, averaging 342.9 yards per game.
Auburn is also favored for the first time in an SEC contest this season, with Mississippi State coming to town. And while the grass certainly seems greener ahead for the 2023 season, the lack of identity on the offensive end could still be a Thorne in Auburn’s side.
“I think you can go look at my offensive stats everywhere I have been, and the answer is no,” Freeze said when asked if he has ever had offensive numbers like this as a head coach. “Those are the challenging times that hit you right in the face…We have played some good football teams. Some of it is us, some of it is them, but no, I have not experienced a stretch quite like this.”
Over halfway through the season, Auburn finds itself 13th in the league in total offense averaging 337.0 yards per game and 261.0 yards per game in power five contests. A lot of the lack of yardage by the Tigers comes from the struggles in the passing game.
Photo by Jamie Holt/Auburn Tigers
As a team, Auburn is last in the SEC in team passing efficiency with a grade of 119.93. Thorne, the predominant passer for the offense, ranks towards the bottom in most passing statistics in the conference; 14th in passing efficiency, 16th in passing touchdowns, 14th in passing yards per game and 14th in passing yards per completion.
And while the passing side of this offense has certainly been a weak point for Auburn, abandoning it all together, especially in this day in age when it comes to modern offenses, doesn’t seem to be a blueprint to success against SEC defenses.
“I told the staff yesterday that we have to be more balanced,” Freeze said. “I firmly believe you play to your strengths. I do think that we have proved we can be somewhat successful running the football, but I do think that we have to play balanced football. We must find the things that our players can do - receivers, quarterbacks, protections - and be more aggressive in calling those. I expect to see that change some, but I’m not sitting here saying to you that you won’t see more runs than passes. I think we have to play to our strengths.”
Freeze and the offense might just have an opportunity against the Bulldog defense to finally find a breakthrough through the air at home on Saturday. While defense has been the strength of Mississippi State all season, the Bulldogs have struggled to defend the secondary against SEC caliber competition.
In Mississippi State’s four games prior to their road win at Arkansas, the defense allowed each opponent to surpass their season average for passing completion; LSU averages 70.2 percent and completed 83.7 percent of their passes, South Carolina averages 70.6 percent and completed 90.0 percent of their passes, Alabama averages 61.7 percent and completed 76.9 percent of their passes and Western Michigan averages 63.3 percent and completed 73.3 percent of their passes with their third string quarterback.
Most recently on the road against Arkansas, the Bulldogs were able to keep the a struggling Razorback offense, that fired their offensive coordinator this past week, under their season averages. The Bulldog secondary earned a coverage grade of 89.7 against Arkansas, its best coverage grade since 2014.
Photo by Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers
There certainly seems to be an opportunity for the Auburn offense to move the ball down the field through the air and tempo, an old trademark of any Freeze offense, could be the key to the matchup of the Tiger’s passing attack and State’s secondary.
“My history has been around tempo, and RPO. I think Monty is more comfortable in tempo, and it seems Payton is more comfortable in his skill set with some of that,” Freeze said. “Our defense has been playing well, but thin at certain spots. The fewer plays that they play, you would think we would have a better chance at being successful. So, those two thoughts of us going fast and me trying to protect them to the strength of our team to give us a shot in the fourth quarter. They really don’t coincide when you think about it. I don’t know if that was the right approach.”
The big question when it comes to implementing tempo into the Auburn offense is will it cause more harm than good? Will it lead to better offensive production and points or quicker ends to drives and more time on the field for a thin Tiger defense? Could the tempo and more passing lead to more mistakes and turnovers? It certainly seems like we’ll find out on Saturday.
Dating back to the 2022 season, Mississippi State has recorded a takeaway in 10 of its last 12 games. Ironically, getting turnovers has also been a strength of the Auburn defense which leads the SEC in turnovers forced with 13 through the first seven games, 9 interceptions, 4 fumbles recovered. Those nine interceptions are the most by an SEC team this season.
Mike Wright, who made his first start at quarterback for Mississippi State, did throw an interception in the Bulldogs’ 7-3 victory over the Razorbacks. Wright started in place of Will Rogers, who was out with an injury, ending Rogers’ streak of consecutive starts at 38.
In what could be a weird, low scoring matchup between Auburn and Mississippi State, for the final time as western division foes, a turnover or two could certainly be the difference in a contest between two teams desperate for a win.
The Tigers and Bulldogs are scheduled for kickoff inside of Jordan-Hare Stadium at 2:30pm CT with television coverage on the SEC Network. Radio coverage can be heard around the state of Alabama on the Auburn Sports Network radio affiliates.