What SP+ says about Auburn's roster rebuild — and the 2023 season
The Tigers are just outside the top 25 in the latest SP+ refresh. Here's a game-by-game look at how this fall could shake out.
(Austin Perryman/Auburn Athletics)
Auburn football has a well-established reputation for upending preseason projections and early expectations — both positively and negatively.
So what happens when you take a traditionally unpredictable program and run it through one of the busiest transfer portals ever? How do you begin to project what the Tigers will do with a new coaching staff, a new way of doing things on both sides of the ball and a roster with a ton of new pieces on it?
Since the end of the 2022 season, Auburn has added 41 newcomers — 20 transfers and 21 incoming high school and JUCO players. It has also seen 36 players leave via the transfer portal, graduation and the NFL Draft. That’s virtually half of the roster that has turned over since the last time the Tigers played a meaningful game.
Almost all of the incoming transfers have played significant roles at the college level, while only a couple of the outgoing ones did the same for Auburn under the previous staff. That’s turned into a net gain of more than 17,000 snaps for the Tigers, who needed a sudden and sizable injection of readymade talent this offseason.
It’s like Auburn has a completely new team, and that’s what makes the Tigers feel so unpredictable heading into the 2023 season.
But, if there’s any way to look ahead to the future in college football, it has to be the SP+ rankings from Bill Connelly at ESPN.
For those new to the Observer or SP+, Connelly came up with an advanced ratings system that measures team efficiency while adjusting for both opponent strength and tempo — similar to what Ken Pomeroy and others have done on the basketball side. SP+ isn’t perfect, like any form of sports analytics, but it’s had an excellent track record for well over a decade.
Recently, Connelly did a major SP+ preseason rankings refresh, based on what had gone down over the last few months in spring practices and, more importantly, the transfer portal. As one of the busiest teams in the portal, Auburn made some moves.
One of the major pieces of preseason SP+ rankings is returning production — it makes up more than half of the formula. Transfer production is included, and Auburn went from No. 28 in FBS in returning production to No. 11 after the post-spring additions of players such as quarterback Payton Thorne, wide receivers Jyaire Shorter and Shane Hooks and linebacker Larry Nixon III.
To put it another way, Auburn is No. 8 in Connelly's 2023 recruiting class rankings based on 2023 impact. So, even though Auburn was just inside the top 20 for its high school class in December, a transfer class that brought in more blue-chip players than any other team bumps the Tigers into top-10 territory.
In the big picture, Auburn now sits at No. 27 in Connelly’s preseason SP+ rankings. The Tigers’ preseason SP+ is 13.7 — which is more than double the 6.1 mark that they finished with at the end of the 2022 season. Auburn is projected to have the No. 35 offense (33.5) nationally and the No. 23 defense (19.8).
Does that mean Auburn will be twice as good in 2023 as it was in 2022? Well, the numbers don’t exactly work that way. But it does show you just how much instant-impact talent was brought into Auburn by Hugh Freeze and his new-look staff compared to their predecessors.
How might that translate on the field? Now, that’s a preseason topic really worth diving into with less than 100 days left until the start of the season.
The SP+ rating, like Auburn’s 13.7, can be used to project individual matchups. For example, two-time defending national champion Georgia is No. 1 in preseason SP+ at 29.9. Alabama is at No. 4, at 27.9. That means Georgia would be a projected two-point favorite over Alabama on a neutral field, per SP+.
You can use SP+ to look ahead to future games. It’s gotten such a strong reputation over the years that Vegas treats SP+ projections as a “sharp” bettor, meaning that you usually won’t see point spreads be far off from what SP+ says.
It’s also strong over a season-long basis, too. At the end of last September, when Auburn was coming off that wild overtime escape against Missouri to improve to 3-1, SP+ said the Tigers were most likely to finish the season with a 5-7 record. That projection would prove to be correct.
So, for this edition of the newsletter, let’s go game-by-game through Auburn’s 2023 season using a SP+ probability calculation table. We’ll take a look at where each of the Tigers’ opponents are projected in SP+, what the numbers say about the matchup and what the most likely records would be coming out of those games.
(Austin Perryman/Auburn Athletics)
Week 1: vs. UMass
Overall Ranking: 131st (-21.7)
Offense Ranking: 130th (11.0)
Defense Ranking: 101st (32.7)
On paper, UMass isn’t the easiest FBS opponent Auburn could start the season with in 2023 — but it’s really close.
Since joining FBS in 2012, UMass has gone 21-103 as a program. It has won just three games in the last four seasons and has lost 37 in the process. It hasn’t beaten an FBS team that finished with a winning record since 2017. It hasn’t beaten a Power Five team, period, since its arrival in FBS. Last season, the Minutemen’s only victory came against FCS program Stony Brook, which finished 2-9 in the lower subdivision.
Former Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown was once a highly touted assistant on that side of the ball, and the UMass defense is projected to be better than its offense. But that’s not saying much, as UMass averaged just 4 yards per play in 2022 and scored more than 24 points just once. Even if Auburn has to iron out a lot of stuff in the opener, this shouldn’t be close at all.
Auburn’s Win Probability: 98.71%
Most Likely Record: 1-0 (98.71%)
Week 2: at Cal
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