Aubserver Mailbag 134: How much has Auburn really improved this offseason?
This week: The direction of the program, Week 1 success, Rivaldo Fairweather, the newest commits, road trips and Haley Center
(Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
What would the line be for a game between next week's Auburn team and the 2022 team that faced Alabama in the season finale?
I usually start mailbags with a short intro. But I really like this question and want to dive straight into it, because it’s a more fun way of asking this: How much has Auburn really improved this offseason?
The staff is almost completely brand-new. Around half of the roster is made up of players who weren’t here when the Tigers ended their season against Alabama last November. An overhaul of this magnitude absolutely had to happen, because Auburn was going backwards in what was already the toughest conference in football.
But how much better are the Tigers, really? This is something that new head coach Hugh Freeze himself has brought up multiple times over the last several months.
“I believe we have improved the Auburn football team through recruiting,” Freeze said at the start of fall camp. “What does that mean as far as closing the gap on the guys in this conference? I don't know yet, but we're excited to find out.”
Here’s a quick tale of the tape:
Auburn has improved at quarterback, adding a two-year Big Ten starter in Payton Thorne for T.J. Finley and bringing Robby Ashford back.
The running back room is deeper after adding two newcomers, but it might not necessarily be better after the loss of Tank Bigsby to the NFL. The potential is still there for a big season, though.
The wide receivers had four in and four out, trading little-used players for transfers with experience and the high potential of young Ohio State addition Caleb Burton III.
The tight ends traded John Samuel Shenker for the more explosive Rivaldo Fairweather.
One of the biggest stories of the offseason was how Auburn added almost an entirely new offensive line’s worth of players with post-high school experience. All signs point to it being an upgrade.
The defensive front lost the elite tandem of Colby Wooden and Derick Hall, along with some established depth pieces. The transfers up front all have potential, but most will have to either adjust to playing at the Power Five level for the first time or be more productive than they have been in their previous stops.
Auburn’s inside linebackers lost Owen Pappoe but gained Austin Keys and Larry Nixon III while also seeing plenty of improvement from several returners, including the quick rise of Eugene Asante.
The defensive back room, essentially, is all back and even deeper than it was last year.
Auburn returns most of its special teams unit, adding former All-American Brian Battie to the kick return game and fully turning placekicker duties over to Alex McPherson.
On paper, Auburn has gotten better at almost every spot on offense and most places on defense outside of the question marks along the line of scrimmage. This might not be a roster built to contend for a championship right away, but it looks better for sure. While the Tigers have lost some serious star power to the NFL, there’s more depth and balance after the work that’s been done in the transfer portal and the 2023 class.
Patrick asked for a line, so let’s give him a line. Auburn finished the 2022 season with an SP+ rating of 6.1. In the final preseason SP+ rankings posted earlier this month, Auburn was up to 12.8. Since both teams would be on their home field, it’s essentially a neutral-site game. But I’ll give the 2023 team a few more points because of the improved coaching situation: a unified staff versus an interim crew trying to do their best at the end of a rough season.
I’ll put the line at 9.5 points. Do you think September 2023 Auburn would beat November 2022 Auburn by double-digit points, or would things be closer? I think that’s the type of line that would split opinions among fans, and that’s exactly what you’ve got to do in the world of hypothetical wagering.
From an overall perspective, how would you evaluate the changes you have seen since the new coaching staff came on board around 8 months ago? We know that recruiting has jumped. How about development of inherited players? Morale? Team-building?
What's your overall take on direction before the first snap of 2023?