Even after a 6-6 season, Auburn believes it still has a championship ceiling
Hugh Freeze is "absolutely, positively convinced" the Tigers have the resources to contend again. So what will it take to get back there?
RB Damari Alston (Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
Some realities from Auburn football’s 2023 regular season feel as harsh and bitter as the cold morning light on the Plains in the days after the Tigers’ heartbreaking Iron Bowl loss to Alabama.
Auburn went 6-6. It fell below its Vegas preseason win total by one. It went 1-5 as an underdog, with the only win coming in a rout over a checked-out Arkansas team. It also went 5-1 as a favorite, with the only loss coming in an inexplicable performance to New Mexico State.
The Tigers did not beat an FBS team that finished with a winning record in the regular season. Cal — a 6-6 team that Auburn needed a last-minute drive to beat on the road in Week 2 — is the only defeated opponent that will go bowling. This is the first time that’s happened for the Tigers since 2008.
Auburn didn’t exceed expectations on the field, but it came extremely and frustratingly close.
The ugly and rather uncompetitive loss to NMSU is a big reason why. Yet Auburn was also tied in the fourth quarter at home with a back-to-back national champion in Georgia that has now won 29 games in a row. It was also a fourth-and-31 stop away from beating an Alabama team that still has a shot at the College Football Playoff.
“It’s hard for me to sit here and say that I am proud of delivering six wins when I felt like it could have been more,” head coach Hugh Freeze said on Monday morning.
There’s nothing Auburn can do now to change the embarrassing performance against NMSU or the crucial final minutes against both Georgia and Alabama. It also can’t go back and take advantage of the stops it strung together against what would be a 10-win Ole Miss team at home — or the chances the defense gave the offense in the first halves of road losses at Texas A&M and LSU.
Auburn has to live with the hurt of the brutal Iron Bowl ending and the missed opportunities elsewhere on the schedule. Freeze said he didn’t sleep at all Saturday night. He’s “watched the film several times,” noting how the Tigers had more moments than the muffed punt return by Koy Moore and the 1-on-1 jump ball loss by D.J. James that they wish they could have back.
“When you care, you want to deliver, and you have an opportunity in the game of that magnitude,” Freeze said. “When you don't, you're not going to sleep very much. … But, as disappointing and hurtful as it is, if you're made of the right stuff, it makes you really determined to get in those situations and go get some players that want to do it with you.”
That was the main message on Monday morning from Freeze, who called a rare post-regular season finale press conference to talk more about the Iron Bowl and the days ahead for Auburn: While the number of wins and losses in 2023 won’t reflect it, the Tigers firmly believe they have what it takes to contend again.
“I’m absolutely, positively convinced this place can be an elite program,” Freeze said. “… We should be in every game. This place — the support it has, the energy, the fanbase, the culture, the family feel, the administration alignment, the facilities — everything is here for us to build.
“And I say ‘build.’ These things don’t happen overnight, to build a championship team here. We can do it.”