How much can Auburn's offense realistically improve this season?
Forget talent gaps. Forget growing pains. Hugh Freeze said the Tigers can — and should — be better on offense. But how?
HC Hugh Freeze (Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers)
Despite all the talk of talent gaps and growing pains, Hugh Freeze came right out and said what a lot of Auburn fans have been thinking during a four-game losing streak.
Auburn’s offense shouldn’t be struggling this much. No one should have expected it to struggle this much. He’s even said it shouldn’t be struggling this much.
And, even though the Tigers are already more than halfway through this season, they don’t have to automatically resign themselves to this fate on offense the rest of the way.
It’s not “punt on the season and recruit.” It’s not “the Year 1 results don’t really matter.”
The head coach himself has said it doesn’t have to be like this.
“It's obvious we can get better,” Freeze said Monday. “We should be able to get better.”
This is uncharted territory for Freeze and offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery, who have spent the vast majority of their collegiate coaching careers overseeing high-powered offenses.
Auburn currently ranks No. 95 nationally in yards per play (5.28) and No. 80 in points per game (26.7). Condense it down to SEC games, and the averages fall to 4.41 yards per play and 17.3 points per game — ranking only ahead of Vanderbilt.
In Freeze’s first season at Ole Miss, his team averaged 5.38 yards per play and 28 points per game in SEC contests. The Rebels averaged more than 5.5 yards per play against SEC opponents during the rest of his time there. When he was at Liberty, the Flames averaged more than 5 yards per play against Power 5 opponents each year.
During Montgomery’s three seasons as the offensive coordinator, Baylor ranked No. 4, No. 7 and No. 16 nationally in yards per play against Power 5 opponents. In his first season as the head coach at Tulsa, the Golden Hurricane put up 603 yards in a loss to a top-10 Oklahoma team and 563 yards in a bowl shootout against Virginia Tech.
And yet, despite Freeze and Montgomery’s quick successes against quality competition elsewhere, Auburn has gotten even worse statistically in what has been a multi-year era marked by struggles on that side of the ball.
“Those are the challenging times that I think, boy, they hit you right in the face,” Freeze said. “You ask a lot of questions, and it certainly challenges you. But I do think that's where the most growth happens for people that handle it the right way. We've played some good football teams, and some of it's us, some of it's them.
“But, no, I haven't experienced a stretch quite like that.”
Through seven games, it really feels like Auburn is what it is on the offensive side of the ball. The Tigers have one of the least efficient and least explosive attacks in major college football, with their leading receiver only topping out at 22 catches and 241 yards through seven games. Their leading outside receiver has eight receptions.
Freeze said after a 28-21 loss to Ole Miss last Saturday that the team is still “searching” on the offensive side of the ball. Part of that searching has included a two-quarterback system with Payton Thorne and Robby Ashford. On Monday, Freeze gave more insight into the split between the two quarterbacks — because it’s not a very common one at all.
“They are doing two different things, truthfully, in the packages,” Freeze said. “Whether that’s smart or not, I don’t know. We’ve got to figure that out. We obviously think it is, or have thought it is. When they’re doing two different things, I don’t think that’s an issue. They’re really confident in what you do: ‘Here’s your package, get really confident with that.’
“It’s not like we’re asking one to go do the whole game plan right now, because there are two distinctively different packages.”
As strange as it sounds and looks, Auburn is at the point that splitting the offense into a package for Thorne and a package for Ashford — and going back and forth between them — has felt like the best possible plan for this staff.
As Freeze said, that could change, because it hasn’t worked yet. He said Monday that he continues to feel like Ashford “has a place” in the offense and that “we’ll see this week” if that place is “every down.”
The quarterback situation is just one piece. Freeze has a lot to figure out with his offensive staff this week, as it faces a “really, really chaotic” Mississippi State defense in a game that feels pivotal to Auburn’s chances at a bowl game in 2023.
Because, when I asked him Monday if he thought Auburn could realistically improve on offense at this point in the season, Freeze said he did — and a lot of that falls on his shoulders.
“I'm always an optimist,” Freeze said. “I thought we were gonna be pretty good last week, and I'm gonna believe that this week also. I'm gonna do everything within my power, as soon as I get through with this meeting, to get started on that and see how much better we can get this week. … That will be the goal. My focus will be on that.”
Outside of settling on just one quarterback — which might not be the direction the Tigers go in after all — what could realistically improve for Auburn’s offense at this point in the season? Freeze and his staff will work to figure that out this week.
Instead of waiting to see on Saturday, though, here are a few more ways that make the most sense on paper.
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