For Auburn football, the ultimate goal in 2023 is to 'set the foundation'
After back-to-back losing seasons, the Tigers are building toward a new future. And that starts with a group of unselfish veterans.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Hugh Freeze felt like something was “off” at Auburn.
Freeze faced Auburn five times during his first run as a head coach in the SEC. After beating a rock-bottom Tigers team in 2012, he saw Auburn run all the way to the national championship game under close friend Gus Malzahn in 2013 and win a massive top-five showdown in Oxford in 2014.
The two SEC West programs traded victories in 2015 and 2016, and his time at Ole Miss came to an abrupt end before the 2017 campaign — one that saw Auburn win the annual matchup by three scores en route to an SEC West title.
But in the time since then, something had changed at Auburn. This was a program that had done even better against Nick Saban and Alabama than Freeze did himself at Ole Miss. Yet it didn’t have the personnel to match that reputation.
“It was off from what I believe an Auburn roster should look like,” Freeze told local reporters Tuesday at SEC Media Days. “Recruiting has been a little more challenging than I thought for Auburn, because of what I believe Auburn should be and what it's proven it can be.
“It's, what, one of six teams that has played in two national championship games in the last 13 years or so? I mean, that's pretty recent.”
Things had declined at Auburn toward the end of the Malzahn era, and then it had a self-inflicted double whammy over the last two seasons under Bryan Harsin: A sharp decline in recruiting, coupled with a massive amount of roster attrition.
The result? Back-to-back losing seasons, something that hadn’t previously happened at Auburn since the calendar flipped to the 2000s.
Because of that, Auburn will most likely be anchored toward the bottom of the SEC West ballots this preseason. The hype is much bigger at Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M and Ole Miss. The same could probably be said of Arkansas, and Mississippi State will have some believers.
But while some coaches who get picked to finish not-so-well in preseason ballots might use it as a bulletin-board rallying cry, Freeze goes in a different direction.
“I understand why they would have us all over the place,” Freeze said. “I do. And I'm OK with that. I can't control that, but we can control how we approach us preparing for the opportunities that we're going to be given. … So what will we do with those and how we prepare is what really matters, not where somebody picks us, or what the expectations are.”
That’s why you hear Freeze talk more about the big-picture view of Auburn football than the specific 2023 season.
His goal is for the Tigers to play “a passionate, 60-minute game every Saturday” that will “give our kids a chance to win some games in the fourth quarter.” But he’s not interested in setting lofty goals.
Instead, it’s a one-day-at-a-time approach for a program that has a lot of work still left to do.
“Just, man, can we just play well today at practice?” Freeze said. “Then tomorrow at practice? And then 60 minutes on a Saturday, and see where that puts us.”
That message has resonated with Freeze’s new players — and, most notably, the group of seniors who are coming up at the end of their careers.
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