Observations: Maryland 31, Auburn 13
In a frustratingly fitting finale to the 2023 season, Auburn fell into a large hole early and didn't have the offense to climb out of it.
(Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It didn’t have to be like this.
Yes, Auburn entered 2023 knowing that the longterm rebuilding job for Hugh Freeze and his first-year staff was going to be won as much off the field in recruiting as it was on the field in the win-loss columns.
In the grand scheme of things, Auburn going 6-7 in Year 1 under Freeze doesn’t automatically doom the Tigers to more years of struggle.
But the seven losses Auburn had en route to its third straight losing season — the first time that’s happened since the mid-1970s — didn’t have to go down like they did.
The Tigers lost competitive, four-quarter home games to top rivals Alabama and Georgia, including an Iron Bowl defeat that came after inexplicably not preventing a touchdown on fourth-and-31.
They also looked uncompetitive for most of the game in their losses to Texas A&M, LSU, Ole Miss and — somehow — New Mexico State.
That continued Saturday in the Music City Bowl, where Auburn fell behind by three touchdowns quickly to Maryland and never got close to making it a good game after that. And it was a frustratingly fitting finale to a season of on-field underachievement.
Think that’s too harsh? Just hear it from the head coach himself.
“I don't think I did a very good job in a lot of areas this year with our staff and with our team,” Freeze said after Auburn’s 31-13 loss to Maryland. “We felt like we competed really, really well in some games, and we had some letdowns in others, and we didn't complete some games we could have won, and we weren't consistent in the level of competitiveness that you have to have to win at this level, particularly in our conference or against Big Ten teams.
“We can all say we need to improve our roster, and we've said that, and we're working on that, and we're going to do that. But even with the roster we had, I felt like we could have gotten more out of it if I had done a better job.”
Auburn ended its 2023 campaign with another performance that didn’t exactly match up with even modest expectations.
Auburn was a touchdown favorite after Big Ten all-time passing leader Taulia Tagovailoa opted out for Maryland. The Tigers, even with their recruiting falling short of the elite echelon in the SEC over the last several cycles, were No. 18 in the 247Sports Team Talent Composite this year. The Terrapins were No. 42.
Yes, Auburn didn’t have top defensive players Marcus Harris, D.J. James, Nehemiah Pritchett and Jaylin Simpson. Yes, Auburn had only a handful of scholarship wide receivers available.
But Maryland had arguably bigger player opt-outs and portal losses, and it cruised to a massive early lead on the Auburn defense that was never truly threatened by the Auburn offense.
“They had a big play on offense, and we came out and went three-and-out at least twice in a row,” quarterback Payton Thorne said. “We didn't help our defense at all, and that's on us.”
Now Auburn will enter a long offseason filled with questions. Things must change on the field for the Tigers to be competitive at a high level in 2024. Signing a top-10 recruiting class is excellent, but Texas A&M is living proof that even being the best of the best on the trail doesn’t guarantee championship-level contention in the SEC.
And the way the Tigers finished 2023 — a historic heartbreaker of an Iron Bowl sandwiched between two uncompetitive losses to teams that weren’t at their talent level — has to fuel any sort of fire for a turnaround.
“I told the guys, 'Man, you've gotta keep that in the back of your mind. Don't let it leave. Because if you let it leave, you forget what it feels like to lose like that. Keep that feeling, how it feels to lose, and build from it,’” defensive end Keldric Faulk said.
Here are four Observations, along with some special Quotes of the Day on a big theme from the postgame, from Auburn’s Music City Bowl loss to Maryland.
(Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers)
The QB situation must be considered “wide open” again
Even with the deficiencies at wide receiver, the opportunity was there for Thorne to set the tone for what everyone involved with Auburn football hoped would be a stronger 2024.
That didn’t happen. Instead, Thorne struggled against a Maryland defense missing several of its best players. He finished the game 13-27 passing for just 84 yards, a short touchdown to Brandon Frazier on a late second-quarter drive that featured a lot of Rivaldo Fairweather and a rough pick-six early in the third quarter that pretty much ruled out any real hopes of an Auburn comeback.
“We didn't play well, and that starts with me,” Thorne said. “We've got to play better.”
Auburn went 0-7 against FBS teams that finished the regular season with a winning record in 2023. In all of those losses, the Tigers were outperformed through the air in terms of yards per passing play.
In those seven games against winning FBS foes, Thorne went 70-129 (54.2%) passing for 651 yards (5.04 YPA), four touchdowns and five interceptions. Thorne entered Saturday last in the SEC among qualified quarterbacks and No. 92 nationally in yards per attempt in these games — and that mark fell significantly Saturday. (He’s currently projected to finish outside of the top 100 nationally for 2023.)
While Thorne strung together quality performances in the second half of the season, those all came against non-bowl teams in Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Arkansas. The New Mexico State loss wasn’t quite the same statistically, and he didn’t hit triple-digits in either the Alabama or Maryland losses.
Prior to the bowl game, Freeze had strongly stated that he believed in Thorne and had given him a vote of confidence as QB1 for 2024. After this rough showing, though, Freeze admitted that he might have to change his tune.
“It's wide-open,” Freeze said of the quarterbacks. “… I'm constantly evaluating players, staff, everything. And if we see that my evaluation has been wrong, then we have to change gears and reevaluate to make us better, then that's the steps we should make. That position should be an interesting one, certainly, in spring practice.”
Auburn clearly can’t afford to have another season of passing performances like this against quality competition. Those struggles can’t all be attributed to Thorne, as there are a lot of moving parts that go into an air attack — play-calling, protection, receiver play, etc.
But there’s no question that the Tigers have to be better at the most important position on the field. Banking on a bunch of highly rated freshman wide receivers alone to fix things in 2024 feels like a big risk.
There are a bunch of different directions Auburn can go in 2024, from the staff and the quarterback down to all the other parts that make up the passing game. And, speaking of quarterbacks…