It’s that time of year when football feels so far away. Spring practice has passed. There’s nothing to discuss from the draft anymore, and it’ll be several months before we see any more pads poppin’ across the country. That’s why at DawgsHQ, we’re starting to look ahead to those brighter days with out Opponents at a Glance series, previewing each of Georgia’s Power Five opponents for 2023 with an offseason overview. We continue with the Auburn Tigers and the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.
Head Coach: Hugh Freeze (1st season)
2022 Record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
Last Meeting: October 8, 2022 (Georgia 42, Auburn 10)
It’s a new era of Auburn Football. Gone are the days of Bryan Harsin and in comes new life with Hugh Freeze as the head coach.
After spending the last four seasons at Liberty, Freeze makes his return to the SEC at a program that’s always been on his horizon. He takes over with the Tigers in a bit of a downward spiral, failing to go above .500 in each of the last two years and not having won a bowl game since 2018.
In the rivalry against Georgia, the Tigers have dropped six straight – only one within a single score – and nine of the last 10 overall. That includes last year’s 42-10 win for Georgia at Sanford Stadium as the Bulldogs rushed for six scores and kept Auburn in check with less than 100 yards on the ground. Daijun Edwards carried it 12 times for 83 yards and three touchdowns while it was true freshman Branson Robinson that led the way with 12 carries for 98 yards and his first career score.
For Auburn, as it does many teams, it all starts at the quarterback position – or lack thereof. The Tigers took a transfer after the end of spring practice in search for answers at the position. Robby Ashford returns after starting nine games, but he’ll have competition from Michigan State transfer Payton Thorne. In two seasons as the Spartans starter, Thorne completed 61% of his passes for 6,493 yards and 49 touchdowns, also adding 270 yards and six scores on the ground.
Tank Bigsby is gone at running back, drafted in the third round of the NFL Draft this spring, but the Tigers bring back Jarquez Hunter while adding South Florida transfer Brian Battie to create a one-two punch at running back. Behind Bigsby, Hunter carried it 104 times for 675 yards and seven touchdowns. He also contributed in the passing game as the team’s third-leading receiver with 17 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, at USF, Battie had 1,1186 yards as one of three American Athletic Conference running backs over the 1,000-yard mark. He did that on 176 carries and scored eight times.
Auburn’s quarterback struggles go hand-in-hand with what we see from the receivers. The Tigers only threw for nine touchdowns last season led by Ja’Varrius Johnson. For comparison purposes, Georgia pass catchers hauled 31 touchdowns. Auburn’s total was fewest in the SEC and among the only ten teams in the country to have single digit scores through the air. Johnson and Koy Moore, the team’s top two receivers from last season, are both back but the Tigers will need others to step up.
Meanwhile, on defense, two of Auburn’s top three tacklers from last season are gone. Owen Pappoe and Derick Hall were both seniors last season and move on. That’s over 150 tackles to replace between the two of them.
Linebacker Cam Riley was the team’s second-leading tackler behind Pappoe with 66 stops, and he’s back. Same goes for nickelback Keionte Scott and linebacker Wesley Steiner, both in the top five for tacklers.
Safety Zion Puckett returns to patrol the back end of the defense alongside Donovan Kaufman, Nehemiah Pritchett and DJ James, giving the Tigers all five of their starters in the secondary back, but up front replacing Hall, Colby Wooden and Eku Leota creates a challenge. Hall and Wooden were the two Tigers that had double-digit tackles for loss last season. Look for the likes of Marcus Harris, Jayson Jones and possibly even Auburn’s top signee in the Class of 2023 Keldric Faulk to take on bigger roles up front.