Updated: Nov 2
Photo by Auburn Athletics
When thinking about all the storylines heading into Auburn’s SEC Opener Saturday morning against Texas A&M, it’s hard not to think back to last year’s matchup against the two conference foes. After all the drama the past year and a half had been for the Auburn football program, that November night against the Aggies kickstarted the momentum the Tigers have been riding all offseason. After all the talk of new; recruits, players, coaches, schemes and eras, when the ball kicks off inside Kyle Field we’ll know exactly where Auburn stands against their competition in Hugh Freeze’s first season on the plains.
“Let's just be really clear. We're getting ready to play three teams that have over the last four to five years ranked in the top seven to five in recruiting. Alright, so you're playing the best recruits in the nation. And we're gonna be there soon,” said Hugh Freeze, Auburn head coach. “And that doesn't mean you can't compete and doesn't mean you can't win the game…It's a tall, tall challenge for us in year one to stand toe to toe with A&M and Georgia next week and LSU the following week.”
Freeze’s offense has a tough assignment to start league play against an Aggie defense that ranks third nationally, and leads the SEC, with a 20.6 opponent conversion percentage. Last week at home against Louisiana Monroe, Texas A&M allowed just one third-down conversion on 12 tries. DJ Durkin’s defense also limited its opponent’s run game in the first two weeks of the season after holding Miami to just 77 yards on the ground in Week 2 and limiting New Mexico to 91 yards in the opener.
Photo by Jamie Holt/Auburn Tigers
“You know, the biggest goal for this week against such a talented team and one that's really, really good on third down is you've got to keep yourself at third and manageable. You can't survive in the third and longs,” Freeze said. “You're not going to drop back and win a lot of routes against them. They're really talented. So we got to keep it in third and manageable, hopefully short. To where we can run or pass.”
The key to staying ahead of the chains for Auburn could perhaps be their new balanced rush attack. Last Saturday against Samford, the Tigers gained 222 ground yards, led by 123 from quarterback Payton Thorne. The Michigan State transfer that was advertised all offseason as a someone who could unlock a new vertical passing offense for the Tigers showed on Saturday he can make you pay on the ground too.
Thorne’s unexpected rushing attack along with Auburn’s run by committee approach that has lead the SEC in rushing offense at 215.7 yards per game, an average that ranks 18th nationally could ultimately keep the offense on pace and the Aggie defense guessing with Freeze’s signature RPO game.
“But you know, we've said all along we feel good about that room (running backs) and I think it's important that we keep them fresh and rotate those guys and try to play to some of their strengths and use them in different packages,” Freeze said. “And Jeremiah really gives us some flexibility. He can do a lot of things that we haven't even really gotten to see yet, even in the pass game, so he's dangerous with the ball in his hands.”
The number one thing Thorne and the offense will have to do to escape Bryan-College Station with a win is avoiding the back breaking turnover. The Tigers have had seven giveaways in the last two games, four on the road at Cal and three at home against FCS opponent, Samford. Thorne has had three interceptions accredited to his name so far this season with decision making being at the forefront of the cause.
Photo by Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers
But, to Auburn’s advantage, Ron Robert’s first defense on the plains has seven takeaways of their own over the first three games of this early 2023 season. A season ago, outside of an odd interception by Derrick Hall in the Missouri contest, the Tiger defense didn’t get an interception until the 9th game of the season in Starkville, MS.
“Yeah, I mean that would be a blessing if we could continue that trend. To get some turnovers in these games, particularly on the road would be extremely helpful, particularly if we can take care of the ball. We've got to continue to work on that. But man, turnovers would play a huge role if we could pick off a few of those in this game,” Freeze said.
Robert’s first test in SEC play for his defense will be against a name that has certainly caused havoc in the SEC before. Petrino’s offense is already off to a hot start with quarterback Conner Weigman registering his the third 300 yard passing game of his career and second in as many weeks when he threw for 337 yards in the win over Louisiana Monroe. He boasted a school record 86.2 completion percentage in the win, finishing the day 25-of-29.
“Yeah, he's (Bobby Petrino) very good, very good schematically, very good scheming. And obviously checks a lot of his runs. Based on the looks that you have and that makes it difficult. He's usually right. And then we got to do a lot of a great job of disguising things, but, you know, he's, you know, he's gonna make you stop 12 personnel and spread sets and everything that makes it challenging and then you combine the talent level he's coaching, with his balance on offensive play action and passes and runs and the quarterback that can extend it with his legs when he needs to. It's a very, very difficult task.
With what feels like the outcome of this game could be a trajectory setting moment for both team’s season, a lot rides on the week four matchup in the Lone Star State. Auburn and Texas A&M will kickoff their SEC opener inside Kyle Field at 11 a.m. on ESPN. The game can also be heard around the state of Alabama on the Auburn Sports Network.
“It’s a great challenge. We got to get some young guys ready and they're gonna get baptized into the SEC pretty good in front of A&M’s crowd and the talent on that team,” Freeze said.