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<p>Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze<em>Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press</em></p>
Ole Miss head coach Hugh FreezeRogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

Opinion: Hugh Freeze might not be worth the "price" Auburn is paying

AUBURN, Ala.—The news leaked over the weekend, the backlash was heavy, and Auburn still went through with hiring Hugh Freeze. Critics of Freeze and his past transgressions were called “woke”, though I am not sure that word has much meaning anymore.  

I am not here to cover the character issues that are present with Hugh Freeze. Other people who are more qualified than me have discussed that at length and will continue to do so, but Auburn has made its choice for head football coach. Eagle Eye TV’s Mikayla Kelly also wrote a comprehensive piece tying most of that together.

So Auburn chose Hugh Freeze, and over the weekend the majority of his supporters lauded him as a winner, a great recruiter and a quarterback developer. But what exactly does that mean outside of simple words, and what is Auburn getting in its third head coach in four years?

Freeze’s career saw a meteoric rise, from a high school coach in 2004 to a Power Five head coach eight years later. Freeze’s time at Arkansas State was impressive to say the least, bringing the Red Wolves offense from No. 95 in the country to No. 43 during his one year as offensive coordinator then getting a 10-2 record during his one year as head coach. 

From there, it was straight to Ole Miss and he took the SEC by storm. The Rebels last recruiting class before Freeze was No. 48 in the nation, and Freeze’s first in Oxford was the fifth-best in the country. He followed that with No. 17, No. 17, No. 5 and No. 31 classes. Those results certainly show some recruiting acumen, except Freeze and the Ole Miss program were hit with 15 Level 1 infractions from the NCAA, stemming from a swath of recruiting violations. Laremy Tunsil admitted to receiving cash for the assistant athletic director for football operations and the NCAA suspected that one player received help on his college entrance exam. 

Freeze was an elite recruiter during his time at Ole Miss, however the NCAA conclusions show that the Rebels were paying players, the extent of which can never truly be known. And still, the defenders of Freeze return fire with the fact that paying players is essentially legal now due to NIL and Freeze is made for the new era of college football recruiting. But a critical fact is lost in this, the playing field has been leveled. Freeze can pay his players, and so can the rest of the SEC. Auburn’s NIL “war chest” is right there with LSU, Alabama, Georgia and the rest, but the “advantage” that Freeze had at Ole Miss has been neutralized, and he will have to go head-to-head with the resources of Nick Saban and Kirby Smart. 

And even then, with those recruiting classes, Freeze’s success in the SEC was marginal at best. His two-wins over Alabama outshine three losses to Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide and the victories were highlights in seasons bookended by losses that should not have happened. The 2014 season, infamous for the run of Ole Miss and Mississippi State near the top of the CFP ended with the Rebels losing four of their last six. The losses: a tough 10-7 loss to 8-5 LSU in Death Valley, the 35-31 loss to Auburn, a 30-0 beatdown at the hands of 7-6 Arkansas and a 42-3 loss to TCU in the Peach Bowl. 

The 2015 season saw another shocking upset over No. 2 Alabama, but the Rebels’ hopes of an SEC championship appearance were dashed with a 38-10 loss to 10-4 Florida and a wild 53-52 overtime loss to 8-5 Arkansas. Overall, it was Freeze’s best season in Oxford, but Ole Miss also lost in non-conference to Memphis, a team which a listless Auburn team defeated later that year in the Birmingham Bowl 31-10.

All of this is to not harp on wins and losses, because circumstances can change and coaches can improve, but it is simply food for thought considering how much baggage comes with this hire off the field. 

It is of course worth mentioning that Freeze’s follow-up to 2015 was a 5-7 campaign, and while people may point to the injury of Chad Kelly, Ole Miss was 4-5 before his season was cut short. In five seasons, Freeze was 19-21 against the SEC. 

Gus Malzahn was 38-27 against his own conference during his seven years on the Plains, including two seasons with just one-loss each in conference play. The idea of Ole Miss being a limitation is also flawed because Freeze pulled in two top-5 classes during his stint with the Rebels, both higher than any class during the Malzahn-era. 

Even at Liberty, while his recruiting classes have dwindled, Freeze did pull off a 10-1 record during the covid-season. However, the Flame only met two teams with a record over .500, and Freeze went 1-1 in those games. That was Freeze’s only season with over 10 wins and the other three years have been 8-win campaigns. 

Even his recruiting at Liberty has been subpar, with his 2023 class being No. 97 according to the 247Sports database. At an independent Group of 5 school it is fair for there to be a drop, but Liberty currently sits behind the likes of Georgia State, Northern Illinois and USF, which does not currently have a head coach. 

And lastly, there is the quarterback guru or developer tag that has been applied to Freeze, and whether it is justified or simply an indication of how broken Auburn fans were by the stagnation of the Malzahn offense remains to be seen, but Freeze has had three quarterbacks during his time between Ole Miss and Liberty. 

His first, Bo Wallace, was solid and he did knock Alabama off at home while throwing for 3,000+ yards in back-to-back seasons. However, in his three years there, Wallace had a TD-INT ratio of 62-41 and he never quite progressed beyond his best year which was a 22 touchdown to 14 interception season in 2014. Solid numbers to be sure, but for Freeze to be touted as a quarterback developer, three years produced little in terms of dramatic development. 

Then there was Chad Kelly, and he did look really good in the Ole Miss offense, throwing 50 touchdowns to just 21 interceptions. That was Freeze’s last true starter before leaving Ole Miss. 

That brings us and this article to a close with Malik Willis. Willis was brilliant in his two years with the Flames, throwing 47 touchdowns to just 18 interceptions and getting selected in the third round of the NFL Draft. Willis was nominated for several awards and deserves a lot of credit for growing beyond his immature days at Auburn. However, Willis’ competition left something to be desired while at Liberty. The Flames’ Strength of Schedule according to CollegeFootballReference was just 127th in 2020 and 104th in 2021. Compare that to Auburn’s schedules which were 4th and 6th during those same seasons. 

All this to say, Auburn has hired Freeze and there is nothing I or anyone can do to change that, but what needed to be a homerun hire with a united fanbase, NIL collective and new facility behind it is looking more like a lateral move to a coach that presents many of the same tendencies Auburn fired Gus Malzahn for just two seasons ago. Though two seasons is starting to feel like a lifetime on the rollercoaster that is Auburn football.

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