Aubserver Mailbag 139: Is this a Year Zero?
This week: Play-calling, Payton Thorne, the defensive front rotation, the RB rotation, Auburn basketball's roster, Bruce Pearl and comfort food
(Zach bland/Auburn Tigers)
Hello, and welcome to another edition of the Aubserver Mailbag.
I did that thing again where I went extremely long on the answer to a very good lead question to this mailbag. That made it so that I wasn’t able to answer everybody’s questions this week, and it made it so that I wouldn’t have much room for an intro. We’ve gotta make all of this fit in an email, after all.
Auburn’s loss to Texas A&M last week, coupled with this Saturday’s matchup against back-to-back national champion and decade-long tormenter Georgia, has made the outlook pretty bleak for some fans in a hurry.
However, I’ll say it’s important to keep sight of the big picture after just one (bad) loss — especially in a season like this one.
And that’s where we start this week’s mailbag. Thanks again for your continued support of The Auburn Observer. The fact that this is the fourth Auburn-Georgia game I’ve covered since we started this venture is mind-boggling. Let’s go.
Is this a "Year Zero"? Not sure if you've said it on the podcast, but searching posts, it doesn't look like you've written it.
If I wasn't 100% thinking so going into the season, I think I am now.
earnest, scared, stupid
For those of you who might be unfamiliar, “Year Zero” is a term that has been around college football for the last decade or so. Derek Dooley used it during his ill-fated Tennessee tenure. And it was used to describe what P.J. Fleck was dealing with early in his time at Minnesota.
I credit the spread of “Year Zero” to Steven Godfrey and Bill Connelly, back when they did “Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody.” As Godfrey wrote in 2020, “Year Zero was born out of the accepted idea that not all first seasons are remotely equal… yet it’s hard to tack down a single metric that explains why.”
And here’s how Connelly explained it in 2019: “In these situations, the rebuild is significant, and the short-term record doesn't matter. The goal is simply to put the pieces in the right places for (next year) and beyond and, hopefully, play better in November than September.”
Does that describe Auburn in 2023? I think so.
Granted, Auburn is a place with much higher expectations than most. This is a top-15 or a top-20 program historically, depending on your criteria, and it just fired a head coach less than two years in the job. Normally, that quick of a firing would rule a program out of being eligible for a Year Zero, because it communicates a massive lack of patience from the outside.
But, as the majority of you reading this know, Bryan Harsin inherited an Auburn program that never had a losing season under Gus Malzahn. Things started well in his first season, then it fell apart down the stretch — with the injury and eventual departure of Bo Nix becoming a real turning point for the tenure.
Harsin’s inability to recruit anywhere near the level expected for a team that wants to compete for championships in the SEC, combined with a massive amount of roster attrition that had a lot to do with him and his staff, put Auburn even further behind its rivals in a very short amount of time.
So, when Hugh Freeze arrives late last year, he’s immediately talking about having to rebuild a roster through multiple cycles of recruiting and development. Even though things plateaued in the latter years of the Malzahn era, the cupboard wasn’t as bare for Harsin as it was for Freeze.
Auburn didn’t hit the transfer portal so hard and grab a bunch of Group of Five players because it was the key to a championship season — it was the key to survival.
Let’s go back to Connelly’s definition of a Year Zero: The rebuild is significant, and the short-term record doesn’t matter. The goal is to build for the future and get better as the season goes on.
That describes Auburn in 2023. This is a team that was projected to win six or seven games by Vegas and the computers. This is also a program that hasn’t shied away from the fact that it’s going to take years of improved talent acquisition through recruiting in order to compete with rivals like the one it’ll face this weekend.
As Freeze said this week, after Auburn’s ugly loss at Texas A&M, fans “should expect (the Tigers) to improve.” I think that’s true both inside the season — play better football in November than you did in September — and overall. Auburn went 5-7 last year. Getting bowl-eligible is a sign of progress, and it’s proof of concept for the building process that lies ahead.
A Year Zero doesn’t mean a team is unable to impress or exceed expectations, and it’s very clear that Auburn is going to have to play better football moving forward in order to just check off the boxes of what you would want to see. But, ultimately, the on-field wins and losses are going to matter more in 2024 and beyond than 2023.
Freeze’s first year is different than it was for Harsin or Malzahn, and the same can probably be said for Gene Chizik. (Malzahn was walking right back into a place that had recruited well and was familiar with his offense. Chizik, another former Auburn assistant, took over a 5-7 team.) Tommy Tuberville inherited a squad that won just one SEC game in 1998 and had a losing record with it in 1999. But, the very next year, Auburn won the West. That’s taking advantage of a Year Zero.
The money and the pressure to win immediately is higher than it’s ever been in major college football, but the final year of a 14-team SEC and a 4-team College Football Playoff was always going to be a good reset opportunity for Auburn.
The Tigers should want that 13th game and the bowl practices that come with it. In that very strict sense, the record in 2023 definitely matters. That might rule it out from a traditional Year Zero — although a losing record wouldn’t put Freeze immediately on the hot seat — and the spirit of the term is still very much in place after the backwards steps of the last two seasons.
Maybe the best way to put it is that Auburn is in a Year 0.5 with Freeze. The win-loss record doesn’t matter as much as it usually does here, but a losing season wouldn’t and shouldn’t be easily accepted.
What's the likelihood that Hugh takes play-calling over moving forward?
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