Auburn coach Hugh Freeze topped Alabama coach Nick Saban in 2014 and 2015 while Freeze was coaching Ole Miss, which explains why he was so attractive to the Auburn administration when he was tabbed to take over the role previously occupied by Bryan Harsin. Freeze, along with former Auburn and current UCF coach Gus Malzahn and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, are the only active Power Five coaches who have topped Saban more than once.
Malzahn served as coach of the Tigers from 2013-20, and he developed a close relationship with Freeze as they worked their way through the coaching ranks before arriving in the SEC. Malzahn believes that Freeze is in a perfect spot to recapture the magic at Auburn and challenge Saban on an annual basis.
"He will," Malzahn said when asked by Sports Illustrated whether Freeze will pose the same threat to Saban as he did in 2014 and 2015.
Freeze knows that topping Saban, with whom he interviewed after being dismissed from Ole Miss prior to the 2017 season, is job No. 1 on The Plains.
"Yeah, I want to beat the crap out of him during the Iron Bowl, but we are friends," Freeze told Sports Illustrated.
Malzahn knows -- more than most -- what resources are available at Auburn. He led the Tigers to within 13 seconds of a national title during his first season leading the program in 2013. He also served as the Tigers' offensive coordinator when Heisman Trophy-winner Cam Newton led them to the national title in 2010.
"I think Auburn and Hugh is a really good match," Malzahn said. "Auburn is an unbelievable place. Hugh is really, really good. I'm excited for both parties. You can win the whole thing there. Unbelievable fan base and support. He's coming at a great time with NIL and the new facility. Everything came together."
CBS Sports got an exclusive look at that facility -- the Woltosz Football Performance Center -- in January, shortly after it opened to the football team.
Toured the new Auburn football facility yesterday before dropping my dog off at the vet school to repair a torn ACL. The football facility is a dang palace. pic.twitter.com/2YYfcpveEl— Barrett Sallee 🇺🇸 (@BarrettSallee) January 16, 2023
As far as NIL is concerned, Freeze is still learning the ropes. He told CBS Sports in February that becoming comfortable with how name, image and likeness is discussed in recruiting is something that he wasn't prepared for after his four-year stint at Liberty (2019-22).
"To me, it should be for your locker room and for the ones who have created value for themselves, not the reason you choose a school," Freeze said. "That's what I believe. I think that's what it was intended for. I really want to do that. I don't want it to be the sole reason you choose a school. I do think our collective is incredibly fair with the examples that we can give for how our team is going to be treated. There has to be a sense of 'Man, I gotta come and earn that.' I was kind of thrown into the fire so late, and every dang discussion ... that's what they wanted to talk about. That was uncomfortable. I didn't like that at all."
That is an ongoing challenge for Freeze. But, now that he's had time to decompress, he has his sights set on topping Saban, winning the SEC and perhaps a national championship -- something that Malzahn played a massive part in during his stints as an assistant and head coach on the Plains.