Last week, the staff at Auburn Wire revealed their predictions for the 2023 season. The guys predicted that the Tigers would easily defeat the Minutemen to move to 1-0 on the season. The second edition of “The Roundtable” takes a further look at the season-opener.
This week’s installment includes Payton Thorne talk, wide receiver predictions, and a final score discussion.
Things are different this season… how excited are you personally to watch the season get underway?
TJ: I have noticed a lack of dread regarding Auburn football heading into the year, which is welcoming. The SEC is better when Auburn is good, so I hope Auburn’s beginning momentum stays with them throughout the season.
JM: This team is drastically different than last year’s squad which had a very limited ceiling and Auburn has clearly upgraded at several positions, including the coaching staff. While I’m not expecting a ton of wins, this team should be way more fun to watch, especially as the newcomers come together.
BH: I am so interested to see how this new-look Auburn team operates in the first game of the season. We’ve been talking all offseason about Hugh Freeze and his transfers coming to the Plains, now it is finally time to see the squad in action. Excitement should build during this first month of the season as the Tigers have a great chance to start 3-0.
Thorne in motion
Payton Thorne is set to start Saturday’s game. How often do you think we will see his running game?
TJ: In my opinion, Freeze made a statement by naming Thorne as the starter. That statement is, “We are going to air it out.” The wide receivers and revamped offensive line will assist Thorne in that regard, and the running will be left up to Jarquez Hunter, Damari Alston, and Brian Battie. Thorne may have one, possibly two designed run calls, but I don’t expect much more than that.
JM: I think we will see some RPOs where he has the option to keep the ball and run but I’m not expecting him to tuck it many times. Auburn should be able to beat UMass without putting Thorne in any danger and with Robby Ashford already banged up I would be extra cautious.
BH: It’s always nice to have a true “dual-threat” quarterback behind center, and if Thorne can develop into a decent runner I’m all for that. However, I want to see Thorne throw, throw, and throw some more in game one. Even if Auburn gets out to a huge early lead, as they should, I would love to see Hugh Freeze keep his starting signal caller in the game for as long as possible, rotating weapons around him. I’m hoping the opener gives us a taste of Thorne developing chemistry with one or two of his favorite targets.
Hooks and ladders
Hugh Freeze has always been a pass-happy coach. Which receiver will be the most productive in game one?
TJ: I predict that Shane Hooks and Jyaire Shorter will make impressive debuts, but the talk has been heavy regarding Jay Fair. Fair had a great fall camp and is my sleeper pick to be the Tigers’ top receiver. I look for Fair to make a great impression against UMass.
JM: Shane Hooks looks to have separated himself from the pack and he is my pick. He has the ability to be a No. 1 wide receiver and I think he will have a solid debut as a Tiger.
BH: Auburn SHOULD blow the doors off of UMass in this game, creating a carousel of players entering the game once the second half begins. All the starters should play the whole first half though, and out of those starting receivers I think Shane Hooks will be the most productive. Hooks had a great camp that culminated in the highlight of the preseason on a circus catch he made in the team’s final scrimmage. He seems to have an early rapport with Payton Thorne, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds the end zone once or twice in week one.
The secondary is by far the most experienced unit heading into the season. Which player do you think has the best season?
TJ: I like DJ James this season to be the MVP of the defense. Last season, opposing quarterbacks only completed 40% of passes thrown in his direction. I hope to see his interception total rise this season.
JM: D.J. James is the clear answer to me, he was sensational last season and he should only be better in his second season on the Plains. The group is full of talented players but he is a cut above the rest to me.
BH: Senior cornerback Nehemiah Pritchett has been on nearly every preseason All-SEC list for a reason. After winning the team’s “Defensive Back of the Year award” in 2022, I expect big things out of Pritchett in 2023. It would really surprise me if he doesn’t make the All-SEC second team or better after the season ends.
I'll take a field goal for three, Alex
There’s no longer a Carlson kicking for Auburn. How well do you think Alex McPherson performs in his first full season as Auburn’s kicker?
TJ: It will be strange not seeing a Carlson kicking, however, I feel that the unit is in good hands with Alex McPherson. McPherson nailed a 60-yard field goal in high school and has shown proven accuracy in his short time at Auburn. I predict that he makes 92% of his attempts this season, with a long of 56.
JM: He’s no Carlson but McPherson has the ability to be just as good as them. Like most young players, it will take some time for him to reach his potential but he will finish the season as one of the top kickers in the SEC.
BH: Auburn has become “Kicker U” over the last five-plus years. Daniel Carlson has turned into one of the premier kickers in the NFL, his little brother Anders is the starter for the Green Bay Packers, and now Alex McPherson, the younger brother of Cincinnati Bengals kicker Evan McPherson, will get a chance to become the third straight Auburn kicker to get drafted and find a starting spot in the league. I don’t see any reason he can’t do it.
Moving on up
How many carries do you anticipate Damari Alston getting in game one?
TJ: This will all depend on Jarquez Hunter’s status. However, I feel that no matter the situation, he will record at least 10 carries, with Brian Battie taking a few as well.
JM: I envision Alston having a role similar to the one Hunter had the last two seasons where he is clearly the No. 2 back but someone who still gets around 10 carries a game.
BH: Alston will probably end up with around 12-14 carries if the game script goes according to plan. I think only four or five of those end up being during true competitive snaps. Alston is definitely talented and should carve out a bigger role as the season progresses, but I don’t see him playing often in the first half of week one.
The final score
What is your final score prediction?
TJ: Auburn shows flashes, but I don’t know if we will see them at full strength in game one. I like the Tigers to win 37-3 on Saturday.
JM: UMass has the ability to give Auburn a fight in several key areas, but Auburn is just too talented and should be able to cruise to an easy victory to start the Freeze era. Auburn 48, UMass 10.
BH: Auburn wins it 42-13 in the first game of the Hugh Freeze era.