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Monday, Dec 11, 2023 | Latest Print Edition

Players to watch, keys to victory against Samford

The Tigers return home this week following a 14-10 West Coast win last Saturday at California to take on the Samford Bulldogs in the annual homecoming game. While the Bulldogs are a team Auburn has had nothing but success against in the past, a 28-0-1 record all time in the series, the Tigers will have to continue the success, specifically on the defensive side of the ball, to remain undefeated prior to conference play.  

“(Chris) Hatcher and I've known each other for years," said Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze. “I mean, I think he's one of the better offensive coaches in football. He's done a remarkable job there, and he will have his kids excited and well prepared to play here. I have no doubt and they'll test you in the passing game for sure and throw it all around.”

Hatcher, a storied head coach in the FCS ranks, has led nine teams to NCAA postseason play during his career, including the 2016, 2017 and 2022 FCS Playoffs with the Bulldogs. For Hatcher, the name of the game is the offense. Over the last eight seasons, the Samford offense has scored at least 30 points 49 times. The unit has put up at least 40 points 27 times, and at least 50 points a total of 14 times. 

The Bulldog offense could have a tough assignment on Saturday with an Auburn defense that leads the SEC in red zone defense percentage, .333%, second nationally behind Syracuse, and in third down conversion percentage defense at .185%.

“And I was so proud of just the leadership on that side of the ball that just we got you,” Freeze said. “And Eugene Asante played his tail off and as did others I don't want to get to pointing them out. But we played really well. Jalen McLeod makes us different when he's playing. So there's so much to build on from that because we're gonna have some adverse situations in this league, particularly at the point we are in our program.”

Despite the Auburn offense only putting up 230 total yards, the fewest for the program in a win since a 34-3 home win over Arkansas in 2018, and the constant missed opportunities and turnovers, the defense kept giving Freeze’s squad a chance to pull out a victory in the end.

“You just don't win many games like that. And so we're very fortunate," Freeze said. "I know this, I don't know that I've ever had a season where you didn't have a game where you felt like God we easily could have lost that game but our kids found a way and you can build on stuff like that and just really proud of our staff and kids." 

Players to Watch:

Samford Bulldogs:

Micheal Hiers (QB)

Preseason All-American Micheal Hiers returns to the Bulldogs this season following a Southern Conference Championship season in 2022 in which he threw the ball for 3,544 yards and a program record-tying 36 touchdowns. Named the Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Year, Hiers threw for 300 or more yards in five games and tossed a season-high four touchdowns in seven games. 

Last Saturday in a loss at Western Carolina that featured a nearly six-hour weather delay, Hiers went 21-for-34 with 315 yards and one touchdown through the air against the Catamounts. 

Chandler Smith (WR)
Named to the All-SoCon team this fall, Chandler Smith caught a team-high 100 passes for 1,071 yards and 11 touchdown a season ago. Smith, also a threat in the punt return game, returned eight punts for 48 yards with a long of 20 yards in 2022. Smith has 130 yards through the air this season with an average of 11.8 yards per catch and two touchdowns. 

Auburn Tigers:

Rivaldo Fairweather (TE)

After recording zero catches in the opener against UMass, Rivaldo Fairweather was crucial in must-have plays late on the touchdown drive to seal the deal at Cal. Fairweather led the team with 39 yards receiving and a crucial 28-yard completion to keep the final touchdown drive alive. After all the fall camp buzz around the FIU transfer, the Tigers could be unlocking a new weapon for this offense. 

Kayin Lee (CB)

The Tigers have been plagued with multiple injuries in the defensive secondary, with the likes of Nehemiah Pritchett, an All-SEC defensive back, and J.D. Rhym both out, but Lee, the former 4-star recruit, has turned heads early in his freshman season. Lee is the Tiger’s fourth most played defender this year, with 101 snaps and two starts in the first two contests. 

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“You know, we think he's gonna be really tough. He's really talented. He's gonna be really good. He's just young," Freeze said. “There's times I think he's still a little unsure about his confidence level and gives too much ground. There were a couple of those in the game. And obviously the 15 yard penalty, we didn’t need was critical at that juncture. But did he play well? Yes.”

Eugene Asante (LB)

Eugene Asante was named the SEC Defensive Co-Player of the Week after a career-best 12 tackles in Auburn’s first ever win in the state of California. Along with a sack, Asante, the North Carolina transfer, record two quarterback hurries, 1.5 tackles for loss and one pass breakup in the contest. 

Keys to Victory:

Samford Bulldogs:

The Bulldogs have never beaten Auburn and haven’t won against an SEC team since defeating the Ole Miss Rebels 7-6 in 1934. If Samford wants to pull off the shocking upset it’ll have to be through the air. The Tigers secondary is thin due to injuries and Hiers, along with the receiving core, will have to make them pay.

The turnovers will also be a huge factor if Samford wants to put itself in a position to win. Auburn gave the ball away four times on the road last week, and if the Bulldogs can limit the Tiger offense’s chances, it could go a long way to determine the outcome of the game. 

Auburn Tigers:

With an offense that is very much still a work in progress, the defense will need to come through again for the Tigers to walk into College Station, Texas, undefeated next week. The Ron Roberts defense will look to slow down and contain a Hatcher offense that has had 183 scoring drives of two minutes or less and 82 that have lasted one minute or less during his eight seasons with Samford. 

Payton Thorne and the offensive side of the ball will look to improve upon last week's performance that had the Tigers entering the fourth quarter of play with just 46 yards through the air. With only three players recorded double digit receiving yards for Auburn last week, Freeze and company will certainly try to change that in Saturday’s matchup. 

Auburn and Samford will kick off from Jordan-Hare Stadium at 6 p.m. CST in the annual homecoming game. The television broadcast can be found on ESPN+/SECN+ and can be heard around the state of Alabama on the Auburn Sports Network. 

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