Observations: Ole Miss 28, Auburn 21
The Tigers might have only lost by a TD to a ranked team — but that doesn't tell the whole story of yet another ugly offensive showing.
QB Payton Thorne (Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers)
The record book will forever state that Auburn lost by seven points on Saturday night to an Ole Miss team ranked No. 13 in the country. That, on paper, isn’t an awful result.
But college football is defined by the details — the context that surrounds each game and the process of how the final score came to be.
And, while Auburn lost by just a single score, the thousands leaving Jordan-Hare Stadium in orange and blue Saturday night probably weren’t calling this a close call with a ranked team.
That’s because Auburn, for the fourth time in five games against Power 5 opponents, was held to fewer than 300 yards of offense. (The lone exception, a touchdown loss to Georgia, only featured 307.)
That’s because Auburn went three-and-out six different times, with all but one of them coming in a stretch of seven consecutive possessions that went for a grand total of 30 yards.
That’s because Auburn’s three touchdown drives against Ole Miss were the products of a 53-yard touchdown run, a short field created by an interception and a two-minute drill down by two scores that depended on a fourth-and-15 conversion that more than doubled the Tigers’ passing yardage to that point.
Auburn had some defensive errors, sure. But make no mistake: Auburn has been one of the worst offenses in college football against quality competition this season, and no stat from the 28-21 loss to Ole Miss is going to change that this week.
The Tigers had six straight possessions in which they could have taken the lead at home on an Ole Miss team that — while playing fairly well this season, with just one loss at Alabama on its record — isn’t anywhere near the recruiting power that Auburn faced in its previous three losses. The talent gap isn’t a reliable narrative from this one.
Ole Miss hadn’t beaten Auburn in back-to-back years since the early 1950s. It had only won three times in 20 tries inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. But the Rebels walked out with a victory over Hugh Freeze, who once coached there.
Georgia and Alabama were understood to be ahead as programs, as well as LSU and Texas A&M. But Ole Miss, often a team Auburn is clearly superior to in the SEC landscape, is also ahead.
And now it’s clear that Freeze has an even longer way to go at his new job. The recruiting rebuild is real and necessary. But on the field, right now, there don’t seem to be many answers.
“I think our kids played hard, and (I) just feel like that we've got to coach 'em better,” Freeze said. “And it starts with me, again.”
This is becoming an all-too-familiar tune in the postgame for Freeze during what is now a four-game SEC losing streak.
Freeze said he “can’t answer the exact why” for Auburn’s recurring problems, saying it’s a “combination” of factors. He also said that he didn’t expect the Tigers to be this bad on offense in Year 1, and that they’re “searching” for answers — now more than halfway through the season.
Auburn’s next three SEC opponents have a combined record of 1-12 in league play, with the only win coming from one of them (Mississippi State) beating another one (Arkansas) by a score of 7-3 on Saturday.
The path to a bowl game and tangible progress in the record book are both still out there. But it’s tough to expect Auburn to pull that off with the same old problems that have been around in every game against Power 5 opponents.
Here are four Observations from Auburn’s 28-21 loss to Ole Miss, along with Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Night.
WR Koy Moore (Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers)
Whatever this offense is, it’s not working
Let’s start with the postgame quote from Freeze that drew the most attention — and not the good kind — from Auburn fans.
Auburn started Robby Ashford at quarterback, but it basically alternated drives between him and Payton Thorne throughout the night.
Once again, Ashford didn't appear to run the full scope of the offense, attempting just four passes and playing a lot in multi-back and multi-tight end formations.
Thorne attempted 13 passes and completed nine of them, but most of his yardage came on the very last drive — and he still was sacked three times.
Both Ashford and Thorne were on the field on scoring drives, once again. Yet both had their notable mistakes.
In particular, both of them threw interceptions into double coverage on Ole Miss’ side of the field. Ashford’s came on the first play of a drive that followed a gift of a shanked punt, while Thorne’s came at the end of a 48-yard drive in the middle of the fourth quarter.
There was little-to-no consistency on offense. Yet Freeze said he believed the back-and-forth switching between Ashford and Thorne was to blame:
“Yeah, I don't think that had anything to do with the outcome of the game. I think that both had a really good package and they both worked at times. But, I mean, it'd be nice to have one (quarterback), for sure. But we're searching to see what is the best avenue for us to go to win.
“And I still think that Robby should have a package. And I felt good about both of these packages tonight, and I think they both worked at times.”
After the game, Freeze said “everything is up for evaluation” on offense, “and it should be with the numbers we’re putting up.”
Auburn doesn’t have much of a threat to throw the ball downfield at all, and it was the biggest dividing line — once again — between itself and its opponent in an SEC loss. The Tigers looked like they had fully abandoned the passing game on several occasions.
“We wanted to get to the fourth quarter and shorten the game,” Freeze said. “Maybe that was the wrong approach. It felt like they were so explosive on offense that if we could get to the fourth quarter, we did feel like we could run the ball on them. Maybe it's the wrong approach.
“Again, you look at and second guess after a loss that you feel like you had a chance to win. We need to stay balanced, but we've struggled to throw the ball consistently no matter who's back there — and protect it and catch it.”
To this point, Auburn hasn’t changed much about its offense during the losing streak. The two-quarterback system is still in place. Any personnel tweaks haven’t made much of a difference in the passing attack. The running game is still good, not great.
And a lot of failure goes back to self-inflicted wounds, with Auburn burning timeouts or picking up penalties during all the substitutions. Certain play-calling decisions, such as a failed double pass with little-used third-stringer Holden Geriner when Auburn had just crossed into scoring range in a tie game, doomed drives.
Freeze said it himself: Auburn doesn’t look well-coached. The Tigers are making the same mistakes over and over again. It’s putting some of players at a loss for words.
“I don't know,” tight end Rivaldo Fairweather said. “We've just got to be better, man.”
Even if the talent level isn’t where it needs to be longterm, Auburn should be better than this. Freeze and offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery have had much more impressive Year 1 offenses in similar — or, maybe, even worse — inherited situations. And one of the big reasons Freeze was hired was his track record with quickfire offensive success.
Freeze and Montgomery have stuck to their guns over the course of this losing streak. There might not be a ton that can change about the offense at this point in the season, but some Year 1 goodwill is evaporating from parts of the fan base with each week of the same old offensive production.
And doing that against weaker competition moving forward, particularly if it leads to more losses, could be quite damaging to a program that could really use a bowl game.
“We've just got to go back to the drawing board and just try to figure out something that will work,” offensive lineman Gunner Britton said.
Whether it’s sticking to one quarterback or a substantial strategic move, something has to change.
If not, it could be a lot more of the same down the stretch — which could easily lead to a third straight losing season.
RB Jarquez Hunter (Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
Once again: Can tempo be one of those changes?
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