BY WIL CREWS
The book on the 2022 Auburn football season came to a bittersweet conclusion Saturday as the Tigers suffered a 49-27 road loss to Alabama in the 87th edition of the Iron Bowl.
“At the end of the day, I had a group of men in them kids, and this staff, we did not do a good enough job of getting these guys prepared and locked in,” said interim Auburn head coach Carnell “Cadillac” Williams.
The Tigers took a 7-0 lead early in the contest, but mistakes — including five false starts and two turnovers — began to pile up, and the scoreline swiftly slipped into a 21-7 advantage for Alabama.
“We got to be better mentally, and prepared more,” Williams said. “A lot of times, we’re not as focused, as sharp as we ought to be playing this game. So, if they can take anything from this, not pointing fingers at them, just with their life, their next job, whatever they do — they got to be intentional with everything that they do.”
The Tigers never stood much of a chance after falling behind, with a limited passing attack hindering their ability to quickly score points and get back in the game. Alabama would stretch its lead to 35-14 by halftime as junior Heisman-winning quarterback Bryce Young made a habit of tormenting the Auburn defense.
Young would finish the 20-for-30 on his throws, passing for 343 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Young, combined with the untimely self-inflicted mistakes from the Tigers, prevented Auburn from ever getting a foothold back into the contest.
Still, ignoring the negative result, Auburn accomplished many things in the game within a game.
For starters, the Tigers amassed 318 total rushing yards, the most by any team against Alabama in the Nick Saban era. Moreover, the offensive performances from quarterback Robby Ashford and running back Jarquez Hunter provided special moments in a not-so-storybook script.
Hunter, despite coughing up a costly fumble in the second quarter, was statistically Auburn’s best rusher on the day. The sophomore tallied a team-high 134 yards on just 11 carries, good for an average of over 12 yards per touch.
“I pray to God that Cole and Cuinn, my two boys, got his type of attitude, his work ethic,” Williams said of Hunter. “That young man is special. Not just talking about on the field, but the way he treats people, the way he goes about his business, the kindness he has to people, the great teammate he is. Man, he definitely exemplifies what an Auburn man should be like, to be honest with you.”
Ashford, who admitted after the game to playing through multiple injuries these past few weeks, finished with 121 rush yards and two touchdowns through the ground. Additionally, the redshirt sophomore delivered inarguably his best pass of the season on a 20-yard corner-of-the-end-zone touchdown strike to Ja’Varrius Johnson.
“That guy’s a fighter,” Williams said of Ashford. “He’s going to compete. He’s going to give you everything he has. The guy’s incredible. One of the better athletes I’ve been around. Ever. And man, he was trying to will us to that win.”
Auburn finishes its campaign 5-7 overall, its worst showing since the 2012 season when the Tigers finished 3-9. But it’s not all negatives around The Plains. Showings from the likes of Ashford and Hunter on Saturday — and largely throughout the final stretch of the schedule — lay out a mold with which Auburn can build for the future. And although Auburn went 2-2 in its final four games under Williams, the program enjoyed an earnest restructuring, as morale, effort and accountability all improved under his leadership.
“So, that’s the thing I am most happy for when I had this opportunity, that is what I told players, and staff — was I don’t know how many games we were going to win, and honestly, quite frankly, it was harsh to say it didn’t matter, but it didn’t,” Williams said. “I saw kids that were broken. I noticed kids that needed help … An opportunity to get to serve them and see how they have opened their hearts, how they did a (180) and how they’re back believing.”
Speculation entering the Iron Bowl was that a win over Alabama would go a long way toward the prospect of Williams taking over head coaching duties next season. But even with the loss, the Auburn Family, the players and Williams and his staff can fondly reflect on the end of the 2022 season. It did not appear that would be case earlier this season.
With the news of Auburn hiring Hugh Freeze made official, and with Williams officially staying on as associate head coach, those with a vested interest in Auburn football can optimistically look forward to the future.
“I mean, from the Auburn family, just the people — there’s a reason two decades ago that I chose Auburn,” Williams said. “And it was one of the best decisions I ever made, and these past four weeks have been special. I’m talking about absolutely special the way they done poured into my life, the support, the way they got behind this team. Whew. Auburn is in a better place because of these seniors and the Auburn family. Future is bright, very bright.”