This isn’t Hugh Freeze’s first time facing Mississippi since his scandal-plagued exit from the school. It is Lane Kiffin’s initial visit to Auburn since his reported candidacy for the job that ultimately went to Freeze.
The two coaches meet with their programs in very different stages of rebuilding. Kiffin’s 13th-ranked Rebels (5-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) visit the struggling Tigers (3-3, 0-3) on Saturday night in a stadium where they’ve historically had trouble.
Freeze, who stepped down after leading Ole Miss from 2012-16, faced his old team two years ago while at Liberty. That may help with the emotional aspect of this game in a challenging first season.
“I’ve got a lot of friends there,” said Freeze, whose Liberty team lost 27-14 at No. 15 Ole Miss. “But the trip back there absolutely helps with this. Now this is not something that’s new.”
Ole Miss has won two straight SEC West games since a loss to No. 11 Alabama, remaining in contention for the division title. The Rebels haven’t won back-to-back games over Auburn since capping three straight victories in 1952, a game played in Memphis.
“We like breaking records,” said Kiffin, whose team broke a six-year losing streak in the series last season.
Incidentally, the Tigers broke the Ole Miss streak 70 years ago in the first meeting on the Plains, where Auburn holds a commanding 17-3 edge in the series
“I just think having played there here, having played there at Alabama, (Jordan-Hare Stadium) just sometimes has some kind of magical things happen in it,” Kiffin said. “They’re always sold out. The fans seem to be into it from the beginning on, and they seem to play better there, especially at night.”
Case in point: Kiffin took over as Alabama’s offensive coordinator less than six weeks after the Tigers’ famous Kick-Six play in 2013 to beat the top-ranked Crimson Tide on their way to the BCS national championship game.
Freeze’s return to the SEC came more than five years after his Ole Miss tenure ended. A quick recap: He resigned in the summer of 2017 after school officials uncovered a “pattern of personal misconduct” starting with a call to a number used by an escort service from a university-issued cellphone. The program ultimately landed on NCAA probation for 21 violations of academic, booster and recruiting misconduct, mostly under Freeze’s watch.
On the field, he was successful at Ole Miss, which went 39-24 and rose as high as No. 3 in the AP poll.
Auburn starting quarterback Payton Thorne has passed for a total of 228 yards without a touchdown over the last three games. Robby Ashford has gotten plenty of playing time but has only attempted 22 passes all season, completing 11.
Freeze has made it clear the problems go beyond the quarterbacks. He expects both quarterbacks to continue playing, whatever the order.
“We consider everything and everybody. So that will continue to be in our thoughts,” Freeze said.
Ole Miss is leading the SEC and ranks 11th nationally with a plus-6 turnover margin, while Auburn is third in the league (plus-3).
The Rebels are aided by the fact that quarterback Jaxson Dart has only been intercepted twice. Auburn has forced 11 turnovers, including Jaylin Simpson’s four interceptions.
Ole Miss tailback Quinshon Judkins grew up about 45 minutes from Auburn in Pike Road, Alabama, just outside Montgomery. He had a big game last season against the Tigers, running for 139 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.
Judkins insists it’s just another game.
“I think my mentality is just the same as any other game,” he said. “That’s how i look at it. Prepare well just like I do every week, come out, practice and gameplan.”
Auburn is coming off a 48-18 loss to LSU, getting outgained 563-293. Kiffin isn’t sure that’s an indictment of Auburn’s defense since his own team survived a 55-49 shootout against LSU when the teams combined for more than 1,300 yards.
“LSU does that to everybody,” Kiffin said.