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Freeze, Malzahn put friendship on hold for a week

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Auburn's Gus Malzahn, left, and Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, right, will put their friendship on hold while the two teams square off Saturday. (AP Photos/Dave Martin/Bill Haber) Auburn's Gus Malzahn, left, and Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, right, will put their friendship on hold while the two teams square off Saturday. (AP Photos/Dave Martin/Bill Haber)

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze had one final text exchange Sunday with Auburn coach Gus Malzahn.

The gist of the conversation: It's hard playing against friends, so we'll talk when this is over.

"We don't enjoy it," Freeze said. "But we've got to do it."

No. 24 Ole Miss (3-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) travels to face Auburn (3-1, 1-1) on Saturday in a matchup of improving programs that are trying to climb higher in the competitive SEC Western Division.

It's the first time Freeze and Malzahn — both former high school coaches who have had storybook climbs to SEC jobs — will meet on the football field as head coaches.

"I feel very humbled and very blessed to have had this journey," Freeze said. "The reality is there are many high school coaches that are some of the best coaches in the nation. If given the opportunity that Gus and I have been presented, they could do the same thing."

Less than a decade ago, Freeze was leading a powerhouse prep program at Briarcrest Christian Academy in Memphis, Tenn., while Malzahn was the architect of a consistent winner at Springdale High School in Arkansas. The two met during those days when speaking at coaching clinics across the region.

But they didn't become friends until both became assistants in the SEC — Malzahn at Arkansas and Freeze at Ole Miss.

"He's definitely a friend, one of my best friends in this business," Malzahn said. "We came from a similar background, a similar path. He's very talented. He's good at what he does. He's a great communicator and a very good football mind."

They've kept in constant contact over the years even as their careers crisscrossed the country. Malzahn was the offensive coordinator at Tulsa and Auburn while Freeze became head coach at Lambuth (Tenn.) before moving on to San Jose State and Arkansas State.

Freeze became head coach at Arkansas State in 2011, and promptly led the Red Wolves to a Sun Belt Conference championship. That earned him the job at Ole Miss.

Malzahn then replaced Freeze at Arkansas State in 2012 and had the same success. He took the Auburn job in December.

"I can't speak for him, but it is somewhat eerily similar," Freeze said. "We've shared many times that we wished we weren't in the same half of this conference. Then we'd see each other every so often and be able to help each other. That's not reality. We have to go and play."

Freeze and Malzahn don't just share a high school background, but also an affinity for the quick-tempo offense that's become popular across college football.

That helped Freeze engineer a quick turnaround during his first season at Ole Miss. The Rebels improved from 2-10 to 7-6 and won the BBVA Compass Bowl against Pittsburgh.

Malzahn looks like he could do the same thing at Auburn this fall. The Tigers have already won a conference game this season — something the program failed to do in 2012.

"He's on his way," Freeze said. "He's off to a good start with getting them to buy in. I don't know his depth chart issues well enough to say exactly where he is on those things. I don't think that they were as down as we were when we came here. There was some talent that they had there. I'm certain he's not as deep as he would like to be. I can't really compare those. But he's got them playing with some confidence."

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AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Auburn, Ala., contributed to this story.

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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