At the end of April, Payton Thorne wasn’t even a student at Auburn and in fact was in the Big Ten. Now the Michigan State transfer is the starting quarterback for the Tigers in the start of the Hugh Freeze coaching era on The Plains on Sept. 2 against cupcake UMass, which is a 40-point underdog. That is the biggest spread on the Week 1 college football board.
#WarEagle Tigers would have been around -40 whether Thorne or Robby Ashford had won the job, but improving the passing game is Job 1 for Freeze, and offense is his specialty as opposed to former Auburn coach Bryan Harsin, who was one of the worst coaching fits in the SEC this century.
Under normal circumstances, Ashford should have had a leg up in the competition because he was Auburn’s primary starting QB last year. But the Tigers finished 119th nationally in passing offense (172.7 YPG) in a 5-7 slog. And there’s an entirely new coaching staff and offense that frankly wants to put the stink of 2022 in the rearview mirror, so this was not a normal circumstance.
Ashford is a terrific athlete, but he’s really a running back as he completed a gruesome 49.2% of his passes with seven TDs and seven picks. He did run for 710 yards and seven scores and will have “packages” in the offense.
“Robby, he will always have a package,” Freeze told reporters Thursday. “If he handles all of this the right way, he will always have a package because he has an element to us that’s just a little different.”
Thorne, a redshirt senior, is miles better as a passer and was a two-year starter at Michigan State, shocking the Spartans by entering the transfer portal on April 30, the last day to do so. Obviously he missed all of Auburn’s spring activities – committed on May 5 -- and the little time to settle into the program as opposed to Ashford and Holden Geriner.
In the 2021 season, his first as the starter in East Lansing, Thorne threw for 3,233 yards and 27 touchdowns with 10 interceptions and Sparty reached a New Year’s Six Bowl. Last year with a less talented roster around him, Thorne threw for 2,679 yards and 19 touchdowns with 11 interceptions and MSU was 5-7.
Freeze had all that success years ago in the SEC at Ole Miss with a QB who could read the defensive front and make smart decisions at the line of scrimmage while at least running enough to keep that defense honest (Chad Kelly, for example). Thorne is nowhere close to Ashford as a runner but he’s not a statue, either.
"My gut is usually right and I'm not saying my gut is right and Payton is the guy for all 12 games, but my gut is saying it's the time to do this and get us best prepared for the opening of the season," Freeze said. "To this point, I think the separation, the reason Payton is getting the nod, is just the leadership ability and the understanding of the offense. He's been in some really good battles, and it just seems like he was more efficient in the decision-making to this point."
Via one major offshore book, this is a minor upset as it listed Ashford as the -140 favorite in late July to win the job and Thorne at even money.
Most likely, Thorne won’t be in there long against UMass, one of the worst FBS football programs in the country, to ensure he’s healthy for Sept. 9 at Cal. Auburn should be 3-0 when it visits No. 23 Texas A&M on Sept. 23 in the SEC opener.
The Tigers have an over-under win total of 6.5. They might only be favored in six: UMass, at Cal, vs. Samford (Sept. 16), vs. Mississippi State (Oct. 28), at Vanderbilt (Nov. 4) and vs. New Mexico State (Nov. 18). The “swing” game? Most likely vs. No. 22 Ole Miss on Oct. 21.