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Cal football 2023 opponent first looks: Auburn
The California Golden Bears and the Auburn Tigers have one of the more uncertain early season battles this season.
Coming off an intense battle with North Texas, Cal gets to come home, rest up, and enjoy a spirited battle with plucky upstarts…checks notes…Auburn.
A year ago, Cal seemed to be in a good spot for their first ever meeting with Auburn, who were stumbling around the SEC for most of 2022. Unfortunately, the Tigers pulled the plug early on the Bryan Harsin disaster masterclass, and Auburn will likely be returning to their chaotic medium they’ve inhabited for years.
There is no point in predicting what exactly Auburn will do week-to-week, except it’ll be wildly watchable.
This will be the second year in a row Cal will play an OOC opponent comprised of primarily blue-chipper starters (4- and 5-star recruits). The Bears took it down to the wire in South Bend. Can they do the same with a revamped Tiger team that is brimming with talent but not a ton of experience playing together?
New coach, does not come with ankle monitor
While at Liberty, Freeze took to Twitter (hopefully not on his company phone) to harass a former Liberty student who sued the university over the continued mishandlings of sexual assault and Title IX issues. According to Inside Higher Ed, one of the woman’s complaints was the hiring of Liberty Athletic Director Ian McCaw, who was the AD during the sexual assault scandal at Baylor. Freeze took the time out of his day to DM this woman to defend his boss, very publicly, on Twitter.
Three women who were students at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis in the late 1990s and early 2000s described to USA TODAY Sports how Freeze made them feel uncomfortable with inappropriate behavior.
Katie Dalmasso, 32, said she was an eighth grader at Briarcrest in 1999 when Freeze made her change shirts inside his office after he said her Grateful Dead T-shirt violated school dress code.
“Coach Freeze pulled me in his office and told me that my shirt represented drugs,’’ Dalmasso said. “I said, ‘I’ll go change in the bathroom,’ and when I said that he said, ‘No, you’re going to change in here so I get the (Grateful Dead) shirt and you can’t have it back.’
“He didn’t do anything sexual. But I stood in the corner and faced the wall when I did it and I changed out of my shirt. No privacy.’’
Another former Briarcrest student said Freeze was “hyper attentive’’ to the length of her skirts and that he loomed in the parking lot after she would go to her car to change clothes. She also said she was troubled by the time she and some football players faced discipline for arriving late from lunch, when she asked to be paddled — a form of discipline reserved for the male students — instead of receiving detention. She said she was stunned when Freeze obliged rather than getting a female teacher.
It’s a shock Hugh Freeze was even allowed back into the SEC after all the vacated wins he left behind at Ole Miss.
In 2017, Freeze resigned—not fired, not parted ways—resigned as head coach at Ole Miss after it was discovered by USA Today that Freeze was making calls to female escorts on a university-issued phone.
Ole Miss received the sanctions after being accused of 15 Level I violations under coach Hugh Freeze. The NCAA panel on infractions said the school lacked institutional control and fostered "an unconstrained culture of booster involvement in football recruiting."
Hugh Freeze sucks.
The coaching staff will be a problem
Unfortunately, Freeze is a pretty good coach at turning things around fast, and he assembled a pretty formidable staff.
Phillip Montgomery is a solid offensive mind. Under (ugh) Art Briles at Baylor, he helped create the offenses that unleashed Robert Griffin III and Bryce Petty, culminating in a Big 12 title in 2013.
Ron Roberts is a pretty good defensive coordinator. His defenses at Baylor were some of the best in college football under Dave Aranda to capture a Big 12 title. He is best known for his development of defensive backs who eventually found their way onto NFL rosters, which bodes well for an already excellent Auburn pass defense.
Three assistants hail from Freeze’s old staffs at Liberty, and two position coaches (interim head coach/RB coach Cadillac Williams and defensive back coach Zac Etheridge) were retained from the previous Auburn staff. More details on the entire staff here.
This will be a seasoned group of coaches. Cal definitely will be facing an experience gap here.
Payton Thorne comes in from Michigan State, coming in with a very similar profile to Jack Plummer when he came to Cal from Purdue. Thorne is a solid multi-year signal-caller who has proven to be quite efficient with his throws, but apparently
However, Thorne transferred to Auburn AFTER spring football. That means the player with the most reps with Auburn’s new look offense is returning starter Robby Ashford. Ashford was very shaky last year (7 TDs to 7 INTs, but his upside is tantalizing because he can fly when needed (Ashford ran for 709 yards and seven touchdowns last season) and provides that dual threat ability that Thorne does not possess.
If Cal had a good portal offseason, Auburn walked away as one of the clear winners. Including Thorne, the Tigers landed TWENTY potential two-deep rotation players, and a dozen-plus projected starters.
These additions include:
Five wide receivers, including Nick Mardner (Cincinnati), Rivaldo Fairweather (FIU), Caleb Burton (Ohio State), Jyaire Shorter (North Texas), and Shane Hooks (Jackson State). Hooks was the top receiver for Deion Sanders at Jackson State. Shorter was catching bombs for the Mean Green last year, leading the FBS in 27.2 yards per reception.
Four offensive linemen, including tackles Dillon Wade (Tulsa), Gunner Britton (Western Kentucky), center Avery Jones (East Carolina) and Jaden Muskrat (Tulsa).
Running back Brian Battie (South Florida) is also joining Auburn’s backfield.
SIX defensive linemen are in, including interior linemen Mosiah Nasili-Kite (Maryland), Lawrence Johnson (Purdue), and Justin Rogers (Kentucky), as well as edges Elijah McAllister (Vanderbilt), Jalen McLeod (Appalachian State), and Stephen Sings (Liberty).
Three linebackers add needed depth to the Tigers, including DeMario Tolan (LSU), Austin Keys (Ole Miss), and Larry Nixon III (North Texas).
Auburn lost nearly the same amount of players, but most of the Tigers who were transferred out were not major contributors outside of offensive lineman Keiondre Jones.
It’s safe to say 2023 Auburn will bear very little resemblance to the bumbling 2022 edition that fell to 5-7 and 2-6 in SEC play. This is one of the most talented squads the Golden Bears will play this season, and you imagine once they start clicking they’ll be tough to beat.
Hopefully, that time isn’t in the second weekend of September.
A thin backfield
Auburn’s backfield (205.75 yards per game, 5.06 yards per rush, both top 30 FBS marks) was their biggest strength in 2023.
But their backfield is in a perilous position. Tank Bigsby is a Jacksonville Jaguar. Jarquez Hunter (675 yards, 7 touchdowns, 6.5 yards per rush mark which was top 30 among all FBS rushers) was slated to be the starting running back and the main engine of the Tigers offense. But Hunter has been indefinitely suspended because of an alleged video circulating on social media.
If Hunter doesn’t return, this will force the load on Battie, who is more than capable (1,186 yards rushing in 2022). But it will force Damari Alston (14 carries last season) and incoming freshman Jeremiah Cobb to step up and produce early.
Takers, meet more takers
The back seven returns every key piece, including corners Nehemiah Pritchett and D.J. James, from a unit that finished among the nation’s top 25 in pass efficiency defense (121.34) and fewest yards allowed per pass attempt (6.48).
This game could come down to how much trouble Auburn’s new-look defensive line will give Cal’s new-look offensive line. Jaydn Ott might need to have himself a game (or potential starting QB Sam Jackson will need to use his legs often) to open up opportunities for the untested Cal pass attack.
Can the offense cycle into form?
Auburn offensive line was bad last year. They could generate no chunk plays outside of deep shots.
According to SEC Stat Cat, this is how Auburn's plays shook out based on yards gained:
Negative yards: 9.59% (11th in the SEC)
0-3 yards: 18.48% (11th in the SEC)
4-7 yards: 17.20% (13th in the SEC)
7-10 yards: 8.10% (13th in the SEC)
10-15 yards: 8.24% (13th in the SEC)
15+ yards: 13.72 (3rd in the SEC)
It was quite literally all or nothing.
So the Tigers were the true definition of a boom or bust offense. The new offensive line transfers should change that dynamic in a hurry, but will they gel this early in the season?
Cal fans, what are your thoughts on the Auburn matchup?