We are about midway through the 2023 college football season, and the Auburn Tigers are standing at 3-2 overall and 0-2 in the SEC. However, these past couple of games have ignited very different feelings in the heart of Auburn fans.
The Tigers’ 27-10 loss in College Station was nothing short of disappointing, as Auburn didn’t score an offensive touchdown, let alone even get into the redzone once. The passing game was atrocious with only 56 total passing yards, including 44 of them from Payton Thorne. The offense couldn’t get anything going and Payton Thorne looked extremely unsettled in the chaotic Kyle Field atmoshpere. Some fans were even comparing this performance to games from the Bryan Harsin era. That should speak for itself.
Fast forward one week, there is a solid sense of hope surrounding this program after falling just short of the number 1 team in the nation in heartbreaking fashion; in my opinion, a win that would’ve changed the entire trajectory of the program. It seemed as if Auburn was a couple plays away from beating Georgia, which builds some amount of confidence considering the circumstances of the game.
Here are a few of my brief takeaways after 6 weeks of the season:
The wide receivers have to get better. It’s plain and simple: the wide receivers have made little to no contribution up to this point this season. In the wide receiver room, Jay Fair is the team leader in receptions with 18, and there’s a big dropoff after that with Shane Hooks at 8. The most reliable target thus far has been TE Rivaldo Fairweather, whose large frame and big-play ability have helped Tigers tremendously to win games, especially in the winning drive against California. Auburn just doesn’t seem to have THE guy… the guy you can trust in crunch time… the guy you can rely on to make big plays when you need it most. Some thought Shane Hooks would fit this role – many of these predictions based on the one-handed catch by Hooks that went viral during the offseason. This weak receiving core showed in the loss to Georgia last Saturday. Personally, I think if a couple more of those big passes were completed against the Bulldogs, Auburn would’ve won that game. I’m not sure if it’s the coaches or execution to blame for this lack of production, but one thing is for sure: in order to win in the SEC, the receivers need to improve.
Payton Thorne isn’t consistent. We have seen very different versions of the Michigan State transfer QB throughout his first 5 games on the Plains. Payton Thorne is confident, controlled, and plays fairly well inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. Grant it, two of these games were against non-P5 teams. On the other hand, in the two road outings that we’ve witnessed, Payton Thorne was a complete mess. He was extremely unsettled, unpoised, couldn’t complete any long passes, and honestly looked lost. He’s been a starter at a Big 10 school for two years prior to coming to Auburn, so you would think he should be able to handle these tough road environments. It’s simple: if you want to be the starting quarterback at Auburn, it is crucial to be able to play on the road in the SEC.
Ron Roberts is elite. The biggest surprise for me of the 2023 season is how good the Auburn defense is. Week after week, this defense continues to keep the Tigers in games. If you go back to the game at Cal, the defense is the sole reason Auburn won that game. The offense was absolutely ice cold and couldn’t get any momentum, but this defensive unit came up with big stop after big stop, eventually giving the offense a chance to win it at the end of the game. The secondary is spectacular, led by senior Jaylin Simpson, who is top in the country in interceptions (4). Ron Roberts has done everything he can to put these very average linebackers and defensive lineman into positions to succeed, and it has shown in the first half of the season. With a new and improved front 7, there’s no telling what Ron Roberts will draw up in a few years, but I’m excited to see.
This program is headed in the right direction. Hugh Freeze is the right man for this job and will end up making it work at Auburn. Despite an almost non-existent recruiting effort by Bryan Harsin the past couple of years, Freeze managed to work with the guys he had and truly challenge Georgia, whose personnel is full of five stars and top recruits. Give him two full recuriting classes, and Auburn has a great chance to be competing with the top teams in the country consistently… and we know how good of a recuiter Hugh Freeze is. Overall, the Auburn Tigers are in good hands, and the program will only get better from here.