The history books may show another national championship feather in the cap of Alabama head coach Nick Saban, but the Auburn Tigers hold the designation of 2017 SEC West champion by way of a victory over the Crimson Tide in the Iron Bowl.
Gus Malzahn’s team was a win against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game away from a likely appearance in the College Football Playoff. Instead, a once promising season is best known for its contribution to UCF’s faux national championship claim after defeating the Tigers in the Peach Bowl.
This preamble is not to make Tigers fans suffer through reliving what was once considered a promising season for Auburn. To the contrary, it is to remind them of how close this program is to accomplishing great things.
Many of the stars that contributed to the 10-win season return for another shot at the playoff. Senior quarterback Jarrett Stidham leads a Tigers offense that returns a host of skilled playmakers, and the defense is expected to be stout upfront and stingy in the backfield.
It’s not a question of talent. It’s a question of schedule.
Out of the gate, the Tigers will be challenged by a neutral-site game against Pac-12 power Washington at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Tigers also will make road trips to top-five programs Georgia and Alabama after leveraging home-field advantage to victories against each in 2017.
Do the Tigers have what it takes to be road warriors? The fate of their season relies on it.
Athlon asked a few editors and college football contributors to share their realistic win/loss projection for Auburn in 2018.
Auburn Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2018
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The opener against Washington and a road trip to Mississippi State in early October are tough, but there’s a good chance coach Gus Malzahn’s team will be 10-0 headed into November. However, the path to a second SEC West title is on the road with matchups at Georgia and Alabama. Auburn doesn’t have many glaring personnel issues to address from last year’s 10-4 team. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham is only going to get better with more experience in this offense, and the defense returns a good foundation with six returning starters. Replacing standout running back Kerryon Johnson and restocking the trenches are the biggest concerns for Malzahn. The play of the offensive line is even more critical with matchups against standout defenses like Washington, Mississippi State, Georgia and Alabama likely to decide whether or not Auburn repeats in the West or simply finishes 9-3 or 10-2. The Tigers won’t slip too far from last season, but the schedule and concerns up front prevent a repeat trip to Atlanta.
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Auburn's 2018 schedule looks very similar to its 2017 schedule, with two significant differences. The big non-conference game this year is against Washington in Atlanta rather than Clemson at Clemson. And the two most difficult games on the SEC schedule are on the road (at Georgia, at Alabama), not at home like a year ago. I envision an Auburn win over Washington and losses to both Georgia and Alabama. That leaves the Tigers at 10–2 overall and on the fringe of the CFB Playoff debate.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
The Tigers check off a lot of boxes. Jarrett Stidham can put up some big numbers and contend for the Heisman and that defensive line should be one of the best in the conference. I'm still not sure the depth is there across the board that some of their rivals have and the loss of Herb Hand as offensive line coach (along with a few key players) is a tad concerning. Auburn's season comes down to those three marquee games though (Washington, Auburn, Georgia), all of which are away from the Plains. Gus Malzahn has enough talent to knock off one of the trio but it will probably be the two on the bookends that define the season.
Nick Cole (@NickColeSports)
Auburn may have one of the SEC's biggest ranges for projected victories. As displayed during the run to the SEC West title last season, the Tigers are capable of beating any team in the league--- including Alabama and Georgia -- on any given week. But in a story increasingly familiar to Auburn followers, the Tigers struggled in tough games away from the friendly confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2017. All four of the team’s defeats came away home, as regular-season losses at Clemson and LSU coupled with a pair of postseason losses in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in nearby Atlanta (vs. Georgia in SEC Championship Game and vs. UCF in Peach Bowl).
Gus Malzahn, who is just 12-10 in true road games as the Auburn coach, will have to travel to Georgia and Alabama this season. Another tough road game against Mississippi State lingers earlier in the season. Throw in a neutral-site game against a potent Washington team in Week 1 (Malzahn is 3-5 in neutral-site games at Auburn), and it’s entirely possible that Auburn winds up as the best four-loss team in America... again.