Tigers' SEC West title hopes could come down to last two games of the season
If Auburn fans were upset with head coach Gus Malzahn after a 9-4 (5-3 SEC) 2019 season with an end-of-the-year No. 14 AP ranking, wait until the 2020 schedule comes to a stop. The Tigers took on seven top-20 teams a year ago, four ranked in the top 10, and have another brutal slate this fall with five foes ranked among the top 18 in Athlon Sports' Top 25.
On the bright side, there are only three very challenging road games, with space in between. But this Auburn squad has been depleted of returning starters, leaving questions about expectations once the season kicks off on Sept 5.
And if experience in the SEC counts for anything, Auburn is in trouble. The offense returns just three starters while the defense has four back. An optimistic War Eagles fan will point out that sophomore quarterback Bo Nix is one of the three returnees and he'll have his top three targets from 2019 back as well, but the entire line is being reassembled.
On the other side of the ball, Auburn's linebacking corps returns K.J. Britt and Owen Pappoe with Big Kat Bryant at defensive end. Those that will be counted on in the trenches got valuable experience in 2019, but how well that group holds up for an entire season is why we watch.
So here is Auburn's schedule broken down from the easiest game to the toughest matchup on what figures to be a challenging slate from start to finish.
12. Sept. 5 vs. Alcorn State
The Braves were a high-achieving team in the FCS ranks last season, posting a 9-4 (6-1 Southland) record. Their sole matchup against an FBS team ended with a 38-10 thumping courtesy of Southern Miss.
11. Nov. 14 vs. UMass
UMass meets the requirement of being an FBS team, but certainly not an elite or even very competitive, one. The Minutemen struggled again as an Independent, going 1-11 in 2019.
10. Sept. 26 vs. Southern Miss
The Golden Eagles from Conference USA are always a scrappy team, but have great difficulties against SEC squads. They took on Mississippi State (38-15) and Alabama (49-7) last year, heading back to Hattiesburg in defeat both times.
9. Nov. 7 vs. Arkansas
The Razorbacks kick off an end-of-season, three-game homestand that can help dictate how life on The Plains goes for Gus Malzahn beyond 2020. Arkansas is coming off back-to-back two-win seasons, and should not be much of a threat to win an SEC road game in head coach Sam Pittman’s first season at the helm in Fayetteville.
8. Sept. 19 at Ole Miss
Under former head coach Matt Luke, the Rebels got Auburn’s attention at Jordan-Hare Stadium before falling 20-14 last season. Ole Miss had converted into a run-heavy team, laying it on squads for an average of 251 rushing yards per game. Without the benefit of a normal spring practice, it is tough to tell how well the Rebels offense will function under new head coach Lane Kiffin. Auburn could catch an unsure Ole Miss team early, and one that will face LSU and Alabama in consecutive weeks following the Tigers' visit.
7. Oct. 31 at Mississippi State
Fans of Mississippi State have to be disappointed that their new Air Raid offense under Mike Leach did not get a chance to work through some kinks over the spring months. What the Bulldogs may have to offer offensively, we will have to wait and see. Auburn travels to Starkville after facing Kentucky, Georgia (road), and Texas A&M with a bye week to reset before this one. Mississippi State’s schedule is ridiculous heading into this showdown – hosting the Aggies followed by back-to-back road games against Alabama and LSU.
6. Oct. 3 vs. Kentucky
The Wildcats may not be getting the preseason "love" from the media, but this team will give SEC squads fits with their offense in 2020. A year ago, the Wildcats adapted on the fly at quarterback due to injuries. While there's uncertainty surrounding who will be under center, Kentucky does have a couple of options and whoever wins the job will be supported by eight returning starters, including one of the nation's top offensive lines. The defense might not be as dominating statistically speaking, but should still be able to get the job done. Fortunately for Auburn, this game is at home.
5. Oct. 10 at Georgia
The old college football saying about top teams reloading with talent holds true at Georgia, but that talent better be ready to play this season or this is more of a rebuilding year. UGA’s No. 1-ranked 2018 recruiting class will be under pressure to deliver, especially with just two starters back on offense and learning under the team’s third offensive coordinator in as many seasons. The defensive front for the Bulldogs will be hard to run against, so can Bo Nix carry his team with his arm on the road?
4. Sept. 12 vs. North Carolina (in Atlanta)
Any one of the next four games on the list has the potential to be Auburn’s toughest. But with a warm-up game against Alcorn State before heading to Atlanta, the War Eagles should be healthy and fired up for this non-conference clash. Leaving Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a win against the resurgent Tar Heels will not be easy, however. After a 7-6 (4-4 ACC) campaign in Mack Brown’s return to Chapel Hill, and with 17 starters back, North Carolina has lofty aspirations in 2020. The Tar Heels' success in this game, and the season overall, hinges largely on the performance of sophomore quarterback Sam Howell.
3. Nov. 21 vs. LSU
The good news for all SEC squads: LSU will not be the same well-oiled offensive machine in 2020. With just three starters back, LSU’s offense may have to lean more on the run game and hope that their talented but inexperienced defense can keep games low scoring. Auburn should be ready for the Tiger Bowl after facing Arkansas and UMass. LSU hosts South Carolina the week prior but may be feeling some pressure depending on the SEC West standings and with a road date against Texas A&M looming.
2. Oct. 17 vs. Texas A&M
Until Texas A&M actually takes that next step and wins the SEC West, the Aggies will continually be dismissed by the media and college football fans across the country. If ever there was a year for the Aggies to take that next step, 2020 is the time. Led by national championship-winning head coach Jimbo Fisher, A&M boasts 16 returning starters and appears to have been given a very favorable schedule.
1. Nov. 28 at Alabama
A rivalry game on the road, and with Alabama once again picked as a preseason favorite to win the SEC, the Crimson Tide might be the toughest foe for Auburn yet again. The War Eagles shocked the nation, beating then- No. 5 Alabama 48-45 at home last season setting up a revenge game for Nick Saban and company. Alabama should have a very good offense this season, as the Tide are loaded at the skill positions, but the defense has some question marks with only five returning starters.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.