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Preparation - The New Mexico State Game

Photo by Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers

The Iron Bowl is looming. It would be so easy to look ahead to what will most certainly be a big time atmosphere against a big time opponent and an opportunity for Hugh Freeze to put an exclamation point on what has already been a highly successful first year on the plains. 

The Tigers are on the cusp of seven wins, the most for the program since 2019, recruiting is rolling with multiple flips occurring in the last week and all seems to be headed into the right direction as the rebuild continues. And the possibility of what Auburn could do against Alabama in Jordan-Hare Stadium, a house of horrors for several Nick Saban teams in the past, has all in this state anxiously waiting for the annual thanksgiving weekend clash next Saturday.  

A New Mexico State team that has surpassed any preseason expectations stands in between Auburn and the 88th Iron Bowl. The Aggies find themselves with an 8-3 record with two games to play and have clinched their 3rd bowl bid in program history – and will now go “bowling” in consecutive seasons for the first time. 

“It's good to be bowl eligible, for sure. We're excited about representing Auburn, wherever that is, but we have more work to do,” Hugh Freeze said on Monday. “That starts this week with our return to Jordan-Hare and playing what I think is one of the better Group of Five teams. They've gotten better and better and better as the year has progressed.”

“We'll be faced with some of the normal challenges of wanting to rest on last week, and all those things that come as temptations, and we'll have to fight against that. So the leadership with the team, I'm going to ask them to help me with that,” Freeze said.”

Photo by Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers

The Aggies have found success this season with their dual threat quarterback Diego Pavia. Pavia currently leads the team in sack adjusted rushing yards with 703 on the season. New Mexico State has now rushed for 170 or more yards in each of its last 14 contests, including going over the 200-yard mark in three of the last four games.

But, Pavia can also air it out from time to time. He finds himself ranked 11th nationally in passing yards per completion with 14.38 on the year. And all season long the Aggies have been able to find balance when utilizing Pavia within their offensive system averaging 205.6 yards per game on the ground and 214.2 passing yards per game this season. 

“He's a very talented quarterback. Extremely, extremely tough, and mobile. He's (a) handful, for sure,” Freeze said. “They are using him in a lot of ways with a lot of motions, shifts and formations. They have a really good plan, and he can make a lot of things happen with his feet.”

New Mexico State, however, until last Saturday’s road win at Western Kentucky had not beaten an FBS level team with a winning record the season. The Western Kentucky’s loss to the Aggies moved the Hilltoppers’ record to 5-5.

With all the success Jerry Kill’s squad has been able to experience this season, the Aggies could be in for an eye opening experience against SEC caliber talent. But despite the likely result in Saturday’s contest, it could pose the perfect test run for an Iron Bowl matchup against an improving dual threat talent in Jalen Milroe. 

For an Auburn defense that has been playing its best all season the last few weeks, a slight challenge could be exactly what Ron Roberts’ side of the ball needs to be firing on all cylinders next Saturday. 

“I don't remember going on the road in this conference and it going quite like it did for us Saturday. It's the first time that Auburn's held an SEC opponent to 15 or fewer points in three straight games since 2016,” Freeze said.

Photo by Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers

Roberts’ defense has found success all season long, recording a turnover in 19 straight games dating back to last season – ranking second nationally behind Toledo with 21. But, the havoc that the Tigers have been able to create has started to come from a different spot on the field. 

The defensive line, a point of concern when the unit was analyzed during the preseason, has turned into a big positive despite injuries and depth concerns. Jalen McLeod was named the SEC defensive player of the week following a 3 sack and nine tackle performance in Fayetteville, AR last Saturday. 

“I think you're just now seeing with Jalen McLeod what we saw at the beginning of fall camp. Truthfully, it's taken him this long to get over that high ankle sprain. The last few weeks, you watch practice and you see he is getting close to 100 percent now. Congratulations to him,” Freeze said.

What’s most noteworthy, for the entire defense as a whole, is that after an injury plagued first half of the season, experienced players are beginning to get back into the defensive action 

“D.J. (James) has improved, improved and improved, and Nehemiah has played two really solid games. Kayin Lee and Tyler Scott came in, two freshmen, and played solid also, but those two seniors, they have that experience, and not just experience but having experience and talent,” Freeze said. “I've seen them mature and handle more of the leadership role, and they are more accountable to the little things. That's rewarding to see.”

Saturday will provide an opportunity for Freeze and his improving team a chance to continue to get everything ready; experience against dual threat talent, players fully back from injury and a chance to test the maturity and leadership of his players before Auburn’s big date with the Crimson Tide in one week's time. 

Auburn and New Mexico State are scheduled to kickoff from Jordan-Hare Stadium at 3 p.m. CT with television coverage on the SEC Network. The game can be heard around the state of Alabama on the Auburn Sports Network. 

“It's going to test our maturity. We're going to talk about it today in our team meeting. That'll be my message, and we won't talk about the other team you mentioned (Alabama). We're going to talk about the team we have right in front of us that could sting us, and I have experienced that before,” Freeze said. “We need to continue getting better. We have a lot of things we could improve on. That will be the challenge and the message is ‘How will we choose to handle this week?'.”

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