First and 10: Hugh Freeze, Auburn and social media. What could go wrong, right?
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
If the goal at Auburn, above all else and forever, isn’t winning, Bryan Harsin would still be employed.
So let’s use that as our foundation for the mental gymnastics on each side of the hiring Hugh Freeze argument, and move forward with reality.
Auburn needs to win football games. If you can’t get Lane Kiffin, and you’re not brave enough to hire Deion Sanders, Freeze gives Auburn the best chance to slay the beast in Tuscaloosa.
Because that’s what this is all about.
We can ping-pong on Auburn “values” and Auburn “family” and Auburn reality until we’re burnt orange and blue in the face. It’s fruitless.
Those with money who run the show — and we all know who they are — didn’t just throw another $100 million at the program for a state of the art football facility to take a chance on a former player and a feel-good month with the substitute teacher (because that’s what every interim coach is).
Auburn needs to win football games. The program has played for 2 national titles in the past 13 years but has been stuck in neutral since 2019. It can’t afford to take chances and fall further behind in the SEC.
NIL and free player movement have opened the Playoff and winning big for everyone. In 2 years, Texas and Oklahoma enter the SEC, and ridiculous NIL money will be thrown around the conference in an effort to win now and win big.
Don’t have what you need? Hit the transfer portal, outbid other schools and get immediate, impactful help. Then outbid others for high school stars.
I’m not saying this negatively, it’s factual: Hugh Freeze has a history of doing just that. He knows the system and knows how to play it — and nearly got Ole Miss to the BCS National Championship Game before Kiffin made it hip to think of the Rebels playing for it all.
Freeze did it by paying players. That’s not me saying it, it’s the NCAA. Ole Miss was hit with 15 Level 1 recruiting violations under Freeze, and the program was forced to vacate games and bowl eligibility.
The NCAA said Ole Miss under Freeze fostered an “unconstrained culture of booster involvement in football recruiting.” Basically, NIL.
And before you get on your holier than thou kick, Aubie, I don’t need to remind you that no program has a more — how do I say this? — colorful history of “booster” involvement.
Once the NCAA approved NIL before it had any idea what it would lead to, the doors flung far and wide to boosters controlling the sport. While universities can’t contribute to collectives, they can publicly ask for support of the collectives.
Translation: You need a coach — and a salesman. That’s why Freeze fits.
Let’s also not forget that Freeze is a heckuva coach, a guy who beat Alabama with Bo Wallace and Chad Kelly playing quarterback. That, in and of itself, should be all you need to know about Freeze’s coaching resume.
The only remaining question is how Freeze makes it work this time around. How does he avoid the problems of the past, and focus solely on football and coaching?
“If it were just based on coaching, it’s a no-brainer,” an SEC athletic director told me. “But it’s more than that. There’s history, and there’s a track record.”
2. Football above all else
Less than 24 hours after Kiffin publicly said no, the backlash on Freeze was in full force from Twitter warriors.
Let’s explain what is known: While at Ole Miss, Freeze used a university cell phone to call and set up escort services. Not a good look — in any way, shape or form.
It’s important to note that Ole Miss backed Freeze during the NCAA investigation, and only cut ties with him after the escort calls were revealed.
Apart from flouting the NCAA law (which Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl did at 3 different schools — and was still hired years ago), this is the baggage. Anything else currently circulating on social media is an allegation.
Let me be perfectly clear here: I’ve said from Day 1 that Auburn should hire Deion Sanders. No one is perfect, but you’re not going to find objectionable skeletons in Sanders’ closet.
Doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t curse.
At the very worst, Auburn would have to figure out how to deal with his flamboyancy and the fact that he won’t fall in line behind the big money that runs the program. For that, you’ll get an elite recruiter and a guy who has proven in 3 seasons at Jackson State that he knows how to assemble a staff and win big.
But here we are with Freeze as the top candidate (for now), and the reality that if hired, he must figure out how to make it work and how to get a fractured Auburn fan base (many of whom want interim coach Cadillac Williams) on the same page.
It begins with hiring a staff with SEC experience and doing everything he can to keep Williams by making him associate head coach — giving him a title and organizational responsibilities that will make it easier for him to get a Power 5 job in the future.
Then start recruiting the transfer portal, and high schools, and start throwing around the NIL money in Auburn’s deep war chest. Get a few significant transfers — or unsigned elite high school players — and watch how quickly the scars of the past fade.
3. The Freeze decision, The Epilogue
Auburn has been looking for a head coach for nearly a month, so you would think the vetting process has been thorough.
But it’s so much more than that. Two years ago, then Auburn AD Allen Greene wanted to hire Harsin, but Auburn’s infamous money men — you know, the “Auburn Man’ and “Auburn Family” — wanted Kevin Steele.
While Greene won the power struggle, the Auburn Man and the Auburn Family won the war. Harsin was scrambling for his job after 1 season, and survived a very public, and very social media-driven coup (sound familiar now?) to get 1 more season.
Less than 1 season later, he was fired. Why Freeze — or any coach — would willingly walk into this mess is a legitimate question. Freeze is making $5 million a year at Liberty, and can stay there as long as he wants.
But he’s not competing for national championships at Liberty. He’s not competing in the SEC, and he’s not recruiting elite players.
He’s getting Power 5 castoffs, and 2- and 3-star recruits, and competing in a conference that no one cares about — much less watches its games unless they’re playing a Power 5 team in a non-conference game.
All coaches have egos, and you better believe Freeze does, too — or he wouldn’t be putting himself through this mess again. He got away from the SEC meatgrinder, and says he changed his life around and is happy.
Now he’s willingly trying to get back in — at the most dysfunctional place in college football.
Maybe he should be disqualified on that reality alone.
4. The big adjustment
The best thing that can happen at Florida is Anthony Richardson leaving for the NFL.
If Richardson leaves, the grand experiment is over. The weeks and months of coddling a talented but erratic player at the most important position on the field are gone — so is coach Billy Napier’s odd reliance on him.
If there’s one big mistake by Napier this season, it’s not playing another quarterback — for a quarter at least, or a game at most — to get Richardson to see things differently from the sideline. Win or lose, it would’ve set an undeniable tone on a wayward team desperate for leadership.
No one is untouchable. No one is guaranteed anything.
Napier instead muddled along with a quarterback who sandwiched stretches of poor play and unthinkably bad throws — the 3rd-and-12 throw to wide-open, 6-5 tight end Jonathan Odom on the last drive against FSU that sailed 10 feet over Odom’s head — around improbable big plays and moments.
John Wooden, who won a boatload of NCAA championships, famously said a coach’s best friend is the bench. Napier won’t make that same mistake again and not use the bench.
Look for Florida to sign 2 quarterbacks from the transfer portal (Sam Hartman of Wake Forest?), and have competition at the position in spring practice and fall camp. Year 1 has left no wiggle room for Napier, who can’t afford another season of uncertainty at quarterback.
5. The Weekly 5
Five reasons Alabama is Playoff worthy, should TCU and USC lose on Championship Weekend:
1. Both losses (to Tennessee and LSU), on the road, were on the last play of the game — games Alabama had control of in the 2nd half.
2. Put QB Bryce Young, the best player in college football, in the Playoff and watch him work magic.
3. Are you really going to keep a team out of the Playoff out of spite?
4. Who else can beat Georgia?
5. Honestly, what team wants any part of a Nick Saban defense after 3 weeks of preparation?
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout analyzes the prospects of a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Florida G O’Cyrus Torrance.
“Love this kid. A mauler. A true, strong, heavy hands interior force. Massive size with athleticism and quickness to get to the second level, and engage and disrupt. He’s going to play a long time in this league. He’s one of those rare guards you spend a Day 1 pick on. You watch the tape, and he just dominates in a conference where defensive linemen are a premium.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll and 1 big thing: an NFL scout gives the highest-drafted player and round projection, assuming all draft-eligible players are available:
1. Georgia: DT Jalen Carter (1st).
2. Alabama: Edge Will Anderson (1st).
3. Tennessee: WR Jalin Hyatt (1st).
4. LSU: Edge BJ Ojulari (1st).
5. South Carolina: CB Cam Smith (1st).
6. Mississippi State: CB Emmanuel Forbes (3rd).
7. Ole Miss: OT Nick Broeker (2nd/3rd)
8. Kentucky: QB Will Levis (1st).
9. Florida: G O’Cyrus Torrance (1st/2nd).
10. Missouri: CB Kris Abrams-Draine (3rd/4th).
11. Arkansas: C Ricky Stromberg (2nd/3rd).
12. Texas A&M: CB Antonio Johnson (1st/2nd).
13. Vanderbilt: CB Jeremy Lucien (UFA).
14. Auburn: DE Derick Hall (2nd/3rd).
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Will the NFL still be interested in Hendon Hooker even with the ACL injury? — Rick Wright, Memphis.
I reached out to 2 scouts about Hooker, who was moving up many draft boards during the season. He doesn’t have elite arm talent and is playing in a quarterback-friendly offense that takes advantage of Tennessee’s physical and athletic advantages.
The big concern heading into this season was his tendency to hold onto the ball too long. That typically means quarterbacks aren’t seeing the field — a big red flag.
That criticism also plays into the quarterback-friendly offense. What happens when Hooker plays in a pro system and must get through progressions and deliver quickly?
One scout I spoke to said Hooker reminded him of Jalen Hurts.
“Coming out, it was clear Jalen knew football, knew defenses, knew where the ball had to go. It was only a matter of time,” the scout said. “There’s nothing better in this business than seeing it all come together for young guys that work hard at their craft. I see (Hooker) as one of those guys.”
That doesn’t mean Hooker’s knee injury won’t impact his draft grade.
“Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray were in those types of systems, but they have elite arm talent — both probably had the strongest arms in their respective drafts,” another scout told me. “They also were ahead of (Hooker) in terms of concepts and seeing the field. He has been more decisive this year, but when he holds the ball too long, he starts to drift and that affects his mechanics and everything is compromised. Classic case of a guy who stayed and improved. Unfortunately, he also had the injury. A tough, tough break.”
8/0. Jimbo Fisher made an interesting statement during his postgame press conference after an upset of LSU: “There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing (offensively).”
Considering the struggles of the Aggies’ offense this season, it’s hard to imagine Fisher making such a statement. But he clearly feels like freshman QB Conner Weigman — 1 of 8 5-star recruits from the 2022 recruiting class — is the future of the program.
And why wouldn’t he? Weigman has a TD/INT ratio of 8/0 in 4 starts to finish the season (2-2 record). Fisher tried Haynes King and Max Johnson over the first 8 games, and the results were ugly. Then Weigman entered the equation, and the offense had more rhythm and fluidity. By the end of the season against No. 5 LSU, the offense looked downright efficient.
It’s easy for Fisher to point to Weigman — who started in wins against LSU and UMass, and lost to Ole Miss and Auburn — as the reason 2023 looks promising for the Texas A&M offense.
10. Quote to note
Tennessee coach Josh Heupel: “Loved the way our kids responded and finished the season. Been a long time since we’ve won 10 (games). This group loves each other, and that’s why we’ve turned this thing around.”