Auburn head football coach Hugh Freeze admitted at SEC Media Days in Nashville Tuesday that his team may have some deficiencies this season.

But the Tigers boast a revamped roster in 2023, with Freeze’s winter arrival coinciding with a spring that overhauled nearly half the roster through the transfer portal and the arrival of the 2023 freshmen class. Tuesday afternoon, Freeze talked about where the Tigers are just over a month away from the season opener at home against UMass, touching on what it means as a coach to make it back to the SEC, what things he focused on in the early days of his time on the Plains, the coaching staff, position battles, Auburn’s place among the SEC and nation’s best and much more.

1. What does it mean to make it back to SEC and Auburn in particular?

When Freeze resigned from Ole Miss in 2017 following negative off-the-field conduct reports, he admitted that at the time he didn’t see a way back to coaching at the highest level of competition in college football, the SEC. But Freeze said he believes how people respond to failure mostly greatly defines them.

“Truthfully, when the ending at Ole Miss occurred it was hard to process would you ever get that opportunity again,” Freeze said. “I tell people all the time that I think one of the greatest judges of people are when you experience disappointment or failure … those are tough circumstances, but how a person responds and reacts to those probably tells you more about them than the successes do. So, I would be less than truthful with if you if after we started to have success with Liberty … did the thought start creeping in [my] mind that certain opportunities might present themselves again? Yes.”

2. What are the first things he tried did to implement a new culture at AU? 

Freeze was hired by Auburn following the Tigers’ two tumultuous seasons under head coach Bryan Harsin, during which Auburn amassed a 11-14 combined record. According to Freeze, one of the first things he addressed when he arrived to the Plains was restoring pride in the Auburn culture and family.

“Our culture in based on faith, attitude, mental toughness, integrity and love,” Freeze said. “And what do those things mean to us? The bottom line is, if we are going to re-establish Auburn being what Auburn should be we must have faith in each other. That’s probably where it needed to begin because I think that was lost for whatever reason. What I did sense coming in that the faith in the whole family of Auburn football was fractured somewhat. And I think that is where I had to start in trying to repair that.”

3. What is the offensive system going to look like?

When former Tulsa head coach Phillip Montgomery was announced as Freeze’s offensive coordinator hire, given Freeze’s resume and acumen for play calling, questions immediately arose regarding who would direct the Tigers’ offense from the sideline. Tuesday, Freeze spoke about his play calling ability and eluded to the alignment that he and Montgomery have and how that will lead to good things for the Tigers.

“I needed help,” Freeze said he realized when he got to Auburn. “The first priority was hire somebody that does and believes exactly what I do offensively. We are running the same system that I have always run, that has worked everywhere I have been. But Phillip has helped me with terminology. Game planning is a combination of a lot of people. And obviously Phillip will be the primary play caller but obviously I have the right to step in and say I need to see something. Phillip has been in the head coaching seat and the coordinator seat, and he gets that. I have great trust in him and have been very impressed. He’s going to be the play caller unless I want to step in; that happens all the time.”

4. What is the status of the QB battle?

Freeze spoke candidly Tuesday about Auburn’s starting quarterback battle between Robby Ashford, Payton Thorne and Holden Geriner. Ashford started most of the games in 2022; Thorne has the experience however, transferring from Michigan State this summer after two years as the Spartans’ starter. Freeze called Thorne’s leadership qualities “intrinsic” and said he expects to gain clarity on the top of the depth chart early in fall camp.

“Quarterback-wise, that’s going to be a challenge for us,” Freeze said. “Truthfully, I am a lot more optimistic than most people are, I think we have a great room. We have been able to do things with the quarterbacks everywhere we have been and produced the results to win. Obviously we want to create competition in that room. What [Thorne] adds to that room right now is incredible leadership.”

5.Where does Auburn fit in to new SEC format and 12-team playoff?

With the SEC adding Texas and Oklahoma to its ranks in 2024, and the College Football Playoff Committee’s decision to expand the postseason playoffs from four to 12 teams, Freeze said he expects the Tigers to be in the mix of the conference’s top half soon rather than later, allowing the opportunity for the Tigers to be considered in championship talks at the end of regular seasons. 

“I would see us in the upper-echelon of this conference,” Freeze said. “We have the facilities, we have the support, we have the administration and we are in an area that football is important and an area that you can recruit to. I do believe that the ’24 and ‘25 recruiting cycle will tell a large portion of the story. But we have to start closing the gap on the elite programs in this conference, and when you add Texas and Oklahoma only increases the competition. Hopefully we can create a culture where kids want to come to Auburn and stay at Auburn. I see no reason why Auburn shouldn’t be in the upper half and competing every year. If you’re in the upper half of this conference and you get a break here or there, you’re in the playoffs. And that’s where I see Auburn.”

6. How will new additions through transfer portal fare?

Auburn added a total of 40 new players to its roster this offseason through the transfer portal and the 2023 freshmen class. Freeze spoke Tuesday about transfers Brian Battie (running back, USF) and Caleb Burton (wide receiver, Ohio State) in particular, and the impact they can have this season.

“Really excited about both those young men,” Freeze said. “[Battie] is wiggling through holes and falling forward, and I think he’s going to add great value to us. Caleb Burton …  his high school tape is phenomenal. Now we are able to get four years with him. I think, wide receiver wise, for our offense to work we have to have production there and be able to win some one-on-one’s there. I think I am a ways away from saying exactly where we are.”

7. How are you handling financial literacy with players and NIL?

In the new age of NIL, it is imperative for universities to encourage and guide players towards handling their brand in an educated manner. Freeze spoke Tuesday on what Auburn is doing to achieve just that, and the overall status of NIL.

“The education part is absolutely vital,” Freeze said. “I have five people that work in that arena; they don’t have anything to do with football; they deal with our player development and how we are going to educate them. And then, once a deal is done with On To Victory, they have an incredible board that is set up with financial advisors that are willing to help them do that. I tell every kid that you are very wise if you take us up on the resources we are offering you. I think it is incredible that young men get to benefit. Do I think that at some points it needs some more parameters around it? Of course. But If we are not educating them, then we are just setting them up for more issues.”

8. How close is the talent on Auburn’s roster to the standard of the best in the SEC?

Freeze said he knows it will take intense work to get the Auburn roster to a level comparable to that of the back-to-back National Champion Georgia Bulldog or the dynasty that is Alabama under Nick Saban, but stressed how he believes Auburn’s talent has improved since his arrival.

“I love our team,” he said. “They are my team; they are Auburn’s team; and we are going to coach the heck out of them. Do I think we have improved Auburn with the additions since we have been there? Yes. Does that mean we closed the gap at all? I have no clue. What I do know is we improved Auburn. What I hope that means is that we somehow closed the gap enough to, if we have a good gameplan, to be in some of those games in the fourth quarter and have maybe a shot to pull an upset. But it’s too early for me to really say.”

Freeze was also answered questions about his acumen for second half adjustments, the rivalries with Georgia and Alabama, his relationship with SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, the lingering questions regarding junior running back Jarquez Hunter following his offseason off-the-field issues — which he denied comment on — and more. But the one thing Freeze continuously reverted back to, however, was how much he believes Auburn has improved from its position last year. In about six weeks, the world will begin to find out just how much.