Just two seasons after taking down bitter rival Alabama to claim a share of the SEC West title and play in the SEC Championship Game, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn faces a tough season in front of a demanding fan base. The Tigers scrapped and clawed their way to an 8-5 (3-5 SEC) showing in 2018 but fell short of expectations among the loyalists.
With a buyout of $32.1 million as of this past December, Malzahn lives to fight another day on The Plains with the same expectations in place — toppling the Crimson Tide, winning an SEC championship, getting into the College Football Playoff. But does the schedule line up to help Malzahn and the War Eagles accomplish these goals?
The woes suffered by Auburn last season are no mystery. The offensive line lost three senior starters and two amazing tailbacks (Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway), leading to a drop-off in production. The 2017 squad rushed for 218 yards per game, a big reason why the Tigers averaged 34 points per contest. last season the ground production plummeted to 168 rushing yards per game, although the scoring output was basically the same (31 ppg). The lack of a go-to run game impacted the defense, which wore out late in key losses to LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama.
For the 2019 campaign, Auburn features a nice balance of key starters back on both sides of the ball with an influx of talent in the most recent recruiting class. Some of these newcomers will be called upon right away to make an impact on the field as the Tigers' difficult schedule kicks off with a neutral site game an Oregon Ducks team that should challenge for the Pac-12 title.
Bye: Week 7
Week 1 — Aug. 31 vs. Oregon (Arlington, Texas)
Don’t let Oregon's 9-4 (5-4 in Pac-12) record in 2018 fool you. The Ducks are building a monster in Eugene under head coach Mario Cristobal. Oregon finished ranked in the top 25 nationally in scoring last season at 35 points per game. The Ducks lost to then-No. 7 Stanford at home 38-31 in overtime and dropped their other three games on the road to No. 25 Washington State, Arizona, and eventual Pac-12 South champion Utah. With a defense that is improving, Oregon will be a great challenge for Auburn to start the year.
Oregon fans have been waiting for the rematch of this BCS Championship Game. Auburn walked off the filed in Glendale, Arizona, with a 22-19 win closing out the 2010 season. Can the Tigers do it again, this time in AT&T Stadium?
Week 2 — Sept. 7 vs. Tulane (Auburn, Ala.)
The Green Wave should be a nice comedown game for Auburn after the Oregon showdown. Tulane went 7-6 with a 5-3 mark in the American Athletic Conference in 2018. A year ago, Tulane started off the season challenging Wake Forest out of the ACC before falling 23-17 in overtime at home. Auburn is hoping more for the result of the Week 4 game for Tulane against Ohio State in Columbus, a 49-6 beatdown.
Trivia question: Which team owns the all-time series in this matchup? If you guessed Tulane, you are a winner. No matter what happens on the field this season, the Green Wave will maintain the series edge, as they enter this matchup with a 17-14-6 lead. The last meeting was a 38-13 win by Auburn in 2006. Before that, Tulane won 27-13 in 1955.
Week 3 — Sept. 14 vs. Kent State (Auburn, Ala.)
After a two-win 2018 season for the Golden Flashes, expect Auburn to go deep on the depth chart for this home game. Kent State started the year off playing Illinois from the Big Ten tough on the road before falling 31-24. That fight from the Illini didn't carry over, however, in non-conference losses at Penn State (63-10) and Ole Miss (38-17). The Golden Flashes two wins last season came against FCS opponent Howard (54-14) and MAC East counterpart Bowling Green (35-28). Those two teams aren't exactly on the War Eagles' level.
This is the first meeting of the two programs on the gridiron. Although not a prime-time game, some slight college football history will be made in this one.
Week 4 — Sept. 21 at Texas A&M (College Station, Texas)
The timing of this game last season worked heavily in Auburn’s favor. The Aggies had faced No. 13 Kentucky and then went on the road for three straight, as Texas A&M entered Jordan-Hare coming off of a physical contest with Mississippi State's top-ranked defense. The schedule does not lay out the same this season as the Aggies will host FCS opponent Lamar after traveling to face defending national champion Clemson prior to their annual encounter with the Tigers. No chance A&M will look ahead with Arkansas looming the following week.
One could argue this was one of the best games for Auburn in 2018. Down 24-14 early in the third quarter, the Tigers scored twice over the final 5:14 for the win. The Aggies outgained Auburn (423 vs. 278), but three turnovers proved to be too many.
Week 5 — Sept. 28 vs. Mississippi State (Auburn, Ala.)
The MSU game will be a revenge game for Auburn after losing 23-9 a year ago. Auburn was ranked No. 8 in the country and fell out of the top 20 after the loss. The Tigers could not generate offense against the Bulldogs 'ridiculous defense; the War Eagles clawed for 304 total yards of offense but managed just three Anders Carlson field goals on the scoreboard.
Mississippi State will be a team in transition in 2019 with the graduation of starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and the loss of defensive linemen Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat to the NFL. All eyes will be on head coach Joe Moorhead during his second year in Starkville to see how he morphs the offense into his vision.
Week 6 — Oct. 5 at Florida (Gainesville, Fla.)
This is where the rubber starts hitting the proverbial pavement of the season for Auburn. After back-to-back challenging games against Texas A&M and Mississippi State, Auburn has to tackle a three-game road trip starting with the Gators. In this spot last year, Auburn took a shocking 30-24 home loss to unranked Tennessee.
Hands down Florida head coach Dan Mullen is one of the best in college football. He turned the Gators from a 4-7 (3-5) unit to a 10-3 (5-3) team with an end-of-season No. 7 AP ranking. The Gators got big wins against No. 23 Mississippi State, No. 5 LSU, and No. 8 Michigan in the Peach Bowl. This game will be circled for Malzahn. Florida fans watch out, this could be a trap game. Coming off a game against FCS opponent Towson, Auburn comes to town before the Gators head to Baton Rouge to face LSU.
Week 8 — Oct. 19 at Arkansas (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Coming off a 2-10 season in Year 1 under new head coach Chad Morris, it will be tough for teams to take Arkansas too seriously in 2019. The Hogs will have chances early in the season to be a winning team before getting into the heart of their SEC schedule. With consecutive games against Texas A&M and Kentucky before seeing Auburn followed by a road game to Alabama, Morris and company will have their hands full come mid-October.
The Tigers have won five of the last six meetings in this series and three in a row. The last three wins by Auburn have been by an average of 39 points.
Week 9 — Oct. 26 at LSU (Baton Rouge, La.)
Chalk up another revenge game for Auburn circled on the schedule. This showdown a year ago was the pivot point for both teams. LSU went on to a top-10 end-of-season ranking while Auburn struggled after allowing LSU to score nine unanswered points in the fourth quarter in the 22-21 loss.
LSU has won nine of the 12 meetings, including two in a row. Auburn comes off a bye in this one while LSU could be looking at a trap game. The other Tigers are notorious for getting caught looking ahead. Although they get a bye after Auburn, the next opponent on the Bayou Bengals' schedule is Alabama.
Week 10 — Nov. 2 vs. Ole Miss (Auburn, Ala.)
Ole Miss had the unfortunate task of facing Auburn after the stunning 30-24 home loss to Tennessee in 2018. The Tigers used a 21-point third quarter to put this one away, topping the Rebels 31-16. The Rebels' offense was prolific a year ago but faces challenges losing their top skill players and senior quarterback Jordan Ta’amu. This is a must-win game for Auburn.
If not going up against SEC teams, the November schedule heavily favors Auburn with four straight home games starting with Ole Miss. But the devil lies in the details.
Week 11 — Nov. 16 vs. Georgia (Auburn, Ala.)
Last season's annual cross-over matchup with Georgia saw the Tigers hanging tough on the road in the first half. But a 13-10 halftime score saw the No. 5-ranked Bulldogs do all the scoring in the final two quarters, as the home team went on to win 27-10. The Tigers defense wore down in the second half eventually giving way to 186 rushing yards by D'Andre Swift and 93 more from Elijah Holyfield.
Since 2006, this series has been owned by Georgia with 11 wins and just three victories for Auburn. With the Bulldogs loaded yet again and sure to be a College Football Playoff candidate in the preseason magazines, this is another difficult showdown for the Tigers, even at home.
Week 12 — Nov. 23 vs. Samford (Auburn, Ala.)
After a back-half of a schedule that could feature two top-10 teams in LSU and Georgia with a third looming in Alabama, a breather is needed. That chance to rally before facing their in-state rival comes in the form of Samford. The Bulldogs were a scrappy FCS team in 2018 going to the wire in Doak Campbell Stadium with FSU before succumbing to a 36-26 final score.
This money game for the Bulldogs gives a chance for the Alabama-raised players on the Samford roster to play against some of their old friends and foes from the high school ranks. A backyard rumble for those perhaps overlooked along the recruiting trail by Auburn.
Week 13 — Nov. 30 vs. Alabama (Auburn, Ala.)
For a spell in the 2000s, this rivalry was owned by Auburn. But since Nick Saban took over in Tuscaloosa, this has been a win two for the Crimson Tide then win one for Auburn kind of affair. Last season, this was yet another close game at halftime with Alabama up 17-14 only to see the halftime adjustments go in favor of the opposition. Alabama poured it on with 35 second-half points on the way to a 52-21 runaway win. Can Auburn buck the trend in 2019?
Alabama’s 2019 schedule will be ridiculed vigorously throughout the season, and rightfully so. The Tide may get lucky to face just two ranked teams this year in Texas A&M and LSU, perhaps South Carolina and Mississippi State. Nick Saban and company get a "rest-up" game with FCS opponent Western Carolina before this year’s Iron Bowl. The defending SEC champs will be ready for the Tigers.
— 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.