Aubserver Mailbag 149: What if AU decides to run it back with Payton Thorne?
This week: The transfer portal, the Music City Bowl, basketball's offensive counterpunch, bluebloods and Christmas movie rankings
QB Payton Thorne (Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
The transfer portal in college football is more crowded than ever. There are two weeks left until the early signing period for high school and JUCO recruits. Bowl practices are about to be underway. And we’re in the thick of non-conference play in college basketball.
Even though Auburn is still stinging from the Iron Bowl loss in football and is coming off a tough defeat at App State in basketball, the vibes seem to be higher than expected for Tigers fans at this time of year.
Maybe it’s the recent news of massive 5-star wide receiver Cam Coleman flipping to Auburn and then literally flipping his way to a state championship this week. Maybe it’s the bowl draw in Nashville, which has already led to a sellout. Maybe it’s the optimism around the Tigers’ talent acquisition in football under Hugh Freeze and the ability to bounce back quickly in basketball under Bruce Pearl. Maybe it’s some good, old-fashioned holiday spirit.
Whatever it is, it’s making for a fun time around The Observer. This week’s mailbag is an eventful one, focusing on what Auburn may — or may not — be doing at quarterback for the 2024 season and continuing into some other big-picture thoughts for the program. We also tackle a couple of Music City Bowl questions and look ahead to the Indiana game in basketball. (We’ll have a Stretch 4 previewing that matchup in full on Saturday morning.)
Thanks as always for asking questions and subscribing to the Auburn Observer. We’re still running our special $5/month or $50/year throughout the rest of December, and folks who give gift subscriptions can email me at the1andonlyJF@gmail.com to get some free time added to their accounts as a thank you for bringing more people into the fold.
With 7-digit NIL money being reported, do you think Auburn dips into the deep transfer market for a QB of any kind or rolls with Payton Thorne at QB1?
In this first week of the portal window, Auburn has reportedly extended nearly 20 offers to transfers. There have been confirmed offers to wide receivers, offensive linemen, defensive linemen, defensive backs and at least one inside linebacker.
But there hasn’t been anything concrete linking the Tigers to a transfer quarterback — at least not publicly. Most of the chatter, like the early talk about Riley Leonard, has been more speculation than anything. We know of visits for other transfers at Auburn, and we know of visits for quarterbacks to other schools. We haven’t heard about a visit for a transfer quarterback to Auburn.
Think about NIL money as a mysterious salary cap working behind the scenes. Whatever Auburn has to offer, it’s got to be smart in how you give it out. And you also have to remember that NIL goes to both transfers and high school recruits, and the Tigers are trying to put the finishing touches on what could be a top-10 class.
The top names in the transfer portal at quarterback are going to go to places that might just be a signal-caller away from contending. Auburn, as it is currently constructed, is not one of those teams. It has needs at several positions, and it’s going to take time to build up the recruiting firepower necessary to compete with the best of the best in the SEC on a consistent basis. The Tigers are more than a quarterback away.
With that in mind, it might be more sensible for Auburn to take its NIL war chest and spread it out to more positions than just quarterback, which is going to command a large chunk of it. The Tigers need to upgrade at other spots on the field, and there’s more value in getting blue-chip prospects who could be here for multiple years than a one-year rental at quarterback. While an upgrade at quarterback could do wonders for Auburn in 2024, does it make the program better for 2025 and beyond?
Either direction, as I said in Thursday’s podcast, has its own pros and cons. Auburn currently is set to return a starting quarterback in Payton Thorne with three years of Power 5 experience who has already been in the system. That’s valuable, and we’ve seen transfer quarterbacks get even better after Year 1 with their new teams. The Heisman race has several of them. (Note: This is not me saying that Thorne will be a Heisman contender next year. But college players are allowed to get better over time.)
Auburn also has, right now, four other quarterbacks who will be on scholarship. I would expect movement there, but the Tigers might not have to go out and replace any departures until they actually happen. Unless there’s a mass exodus, Thorne could get pushed by younger quarterbacks like Holden Geriner or Walker White in the 2024 offseason.
I’ve said recently that Auburn could go the 2023 Ole Miss route and bring in a transfer quarterback like Spencer Sanders or Walker Howard to compete with the incumbent starter, like Jaxson Dart. That’s still on the table. But a lot of the big names currently in the portal are going to want near-guarantees that they’re going to start at their next location. If Thorne is back in 2024, I don’t see Auburn making any such guarantees. That doesn’t seem to be the way Freeze and Co. roll.
Auburn might still get a transfer quarterback in this cycle. It’s just not the top priority, which might prevent the Tigers from being serious contenders for the premier quarterbacks who are already in the portal.
The lack of an effective passing game against quality competition — which is not completely on the quarterback position — is a huge area that needs to be addressed this offseason. But it’s not the only area that needs to be addressed, and Auburn doesn’t have unlimited recruiting resources. We’ll see how it plays out.
What is Payton Thorne’s ceiling if he returns with the new WRs arriving next season?