The road back to an SEC head coaching gig may have been opened for Hugh Freeze this week, and it looks like it could run through Fayetteville 11 years after running through Jonesboro.
In 2011, in his first head coaching position at a mid-major, Freeze led Arkansas State to a 10-2 record just a year after he’d been the Red Wolves’ offensive coordinator. He leveraged that two-year run to earn his first Power 5 head man position at Ole Miss, where he replaced former Arkansas football coach Houston Nutt.
Now, Freeze could be back in the conference thanks to Auburn firing Bryan Harsin after Arkansas invaded The Plains last week and thumped the Tigers. Harsin, also a former Arkansas State head coach, didn’t even last as long at Auburn as Chad Morris lasted at Arkansas. According to BetOnline, the current Liberty coach is one of the early favorites to land the Auburn job.
Arkansas Football Connections Aplenty
Freeze, who preceded Gus Malzahn at Arkansas State (yes, the mind reels a bit when thinking of all these connections), brings his Liberty club to Fayetteville this week as his name is mentioned prominently with the vacant Auburn job. Freeze is a natural fit after five successful seasons at Ole Miss, although most of the official record of it has been wiped off the books since the Rebels were slapped with numerous NCAA violations that both he and Nutt were responsible for.
It was Nutt’s legal team that ended the Freeze Era at Ole Miss after they sued the school for defamation when the school initially blamed Nutt for the violations. Through the Freedom of Information Act, Nutt’s legal team acquired phone records and discovered Freeze made calls to an escort service in Detroit. Freeze claimed it was a misdialed number, but after an Ole Miss investigation, he was given an ultimatum by Ole Miss administration to resign or be fired citing the morals clause in his contract. In July of 2017, just weeks before fall camp opened, Freeze resigned his post.
In 2019, the NCAA ruled Ole Miss had to vacate 33 wins from 2010-16 – 27 of those wins came in the Freeze era, so he was officially 12-25 at Ole Miss instead of 39-25. The Rebels’ 2015 season, which culminated with a Sugar Bowl win and 10-3 record, is still intact.
Nutt, who is 12 years older than Freeze, never got another shot in the SEC after Ole Miss fired him. But Freeze began the process of resurrecting his collegiate coaching career with the Flames, an NCAA Division I independent. So far, so good for Freeze. Liberty is 33-12 in his fourth season and has won three bowl games with a fourth berth impending. The Flames are 7-1 this season and ranked No. 23. More on that in a minute.
Path to Redemption for Hugh Freeze
Most importantly for Freeze, he has kept his nose clean and has stayed off the NCAA’s radar and out of the headlines, which is maybe more important than what he’s done on the field. See former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino after his fall from the motorcycle and grace at Arkansas. Nose clean and opportunities followed. Freeze is on the same path.
The game with the Hogs Saturday could be an audition of sorts and maybe not just for the Auburn job. Despite Freeze’s recent extension that keeps him under contract at Liberty through 2030 with a reported annual salary of $5 million, other athletic directors will be watching as well. Even though Arkansas isn’t ranked or maybe having as good of a start as some thought (the Texas A&M loss still lingers), Arkansas is a solid Power 5 program and sure bowl-game qualifier from the best football conference in America.
From Auburn’s standpoint, it just seems to line up right if Freeze’s Flames play well against an Auburn foe that drilled the Tigers. Perception is reality, and the perception will be that Freeze can win in the SEC West if his mid-major independent team beats an SEC West team during its Homecoming weekend. It’s on-the-job training that no other candidate, including Jackson State head coach and NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, can claim.
The Tigers should be able to afford him, too. After all, this is the same school that gave Gus Malzahn a seven-year, $49 million deal with a massive buyout and just paid Harsin more than $15 million to go away.
The one knock on Freeze at Liberty may be a cushy schedule. The two major wins over Power 5 teams came against Syracuse and Virginia Tech in Freeze’s second season in 2020. Freeze is 1-2 against Syracuse. Liberty lost to Ole Miss 27-14 last year.
Closer Look at Liberty’s 2022 Slate
The Flames’ lone loss this season was a 37-36 setback to Wake Forest, when they failed to convert a late two-point conversion. A notable win came in their last game, when the Flames smacked BYU 41-14 (Freeze is 1-1 against BYU at Liberty) two weeks ago. Arkansas began its two-game winning streak on the road against the Cougars with a 52-35 manhandling.
While it appears Liberty is rolling this season with a national ranking and close loss to the Demon Deacons, it could easily have a loss to Southern Miss (29-27 four-overtime win in the opener), UAB (21-14) and against Gardner-Webb (21-20). Most casual fans probably had no idea the latter had a football team. By the way, Gardner-Webb is only 4-5 and hung on to beat a 2-6 Bryant team 48-40. Liberty’s other wins? UMass, Akron and Old Dominion. Meh.
The BYU blowout was the best win, and we all know the Cougars are sliding. Liberty’s record looks good and may have initially spooked some Arkansas football fans, but Las Vegas has the Razorbacks appropriately favored by 13.5 based on their strength of schedule and back-to-back wins.
Additional Meaning for Arkansas vs Liberty
They are way more battle-tested than Liberty. Arkansas’ depth and physicality should bother Liberty, much as it did BYU. Arkansas needs to play well, but if it does, it should win the game. A third straight win would be huge going into back-to-back home games with LSU and Ole Miss. A win Saturday sets up a November run.
However, Freeze is a good enough coach, and his trademark high-octane offense can put points on the board in a hurry, so there is potential for the game to be interesting. Now, he may have the added incentive of showing Auburn he can take a team with lesser talent and depth and compete with/beat a respectable SEC West program in the state where he got his first big break.
It’s a great opportunity for him.
Brandon Marcello of 247Sports discusses why Freeze-to-Auburn might be less likely than many think:
Liberty play-by-play man Alan York previews the matchup with Chuck Barrett:
More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…