Life for an Auburn fan living in the state of Alabama is never easy as comparisons rule the day. The Tigers have posted one national championship over the last decade while big brother in Tuscaloosa has cleared space in the trophy case for six. This inadequacy in comparison falls into the lap of head coach Gus Malzahn. Further detailing the differences, during this same stint Auburn has taken home just two SEC West titles while their Crimson Tide brethren have taken home eight. The chorus of displeasure on the field is echoing down from the nosebleed seats making 2020 a pivotal season for Auburn.
In a narrow window, Auburn’s 9-4 season a year ago can be explained away starting with one of the nation’s toughest schedules. The Tigers competed against seven top-20 teams, four in the top 10, winning three marque games. If Malzahn had capitalized on the 48-45 home win over bitter rival Alabama in the Iron Bowl by beating Minnesota in the Outback Bowl, Auburn fans perhaps would be more carefree entering the 2020 campaign. As is, the upcoming season has the feel of a make-or-break one for Malzahn, but will the schedule provide any relief towards a vital SEC championship?
Bye: Week 8
Week 1 — Sept. 5 vs. Alcorn State (Auburn, Ala.)
Playing an FCS opponent to start the season relieves early stress as opposed to facing Oregon, as was the case in 2019. The Braves were 9-4 last season out of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. They lost their only game against an FBS team last season, getting dismantled 38-10 by Southern Miss.
Week 2 — Sept. 12 vs. North Carolina (Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta)
Dropping an upstart Oregon team out of the Pac-12 for one in the ACC is an even trade-off on the stress-meter. The Tar Heels enjoyed a resurgence in Mack Brown's first season back as head coach, finishing 7-6. UNC fans will be quick to point out that the team was better than their record, losing those six games by a combined 26 points. Add in the return of 3,600-yard, 38-TD quarterback Sam Howell and this one could be a thriller.
Week 3 — Sept. 18 at Ole Miss (Oxford, Miss.)
Catching Ole Miss early in the schedule should favor Auburn. As is the case for many SEC West teams, the Rebels are going through a complete coaching change. Former Tennessee, USC, and Florida Atlantic head coach Lane Kiffin is the new guy on the sidelines in Oxford. This will be Kiffin’s first SEC contest with Ole Miss – welcome back to the conference, Lane.
Week 4 — Sept. 26 vs. Southern Miss (Auburn, Ala.)
The Golden Eagles are no strangers to playing SEC teams and are equally accustomed to taking the loss in those meetings. Last year, Southern Miss traveled to Mississippi State (38-15) and Alabama (49-7) on the way to a 7-6 record out of Conference USA.
Week 5 — Oct. 3 vs. Kentucky (Auburn, Ala.)
Kentucky was one of the surprise teams during the 2019 college football season showing great strength in the face of adversity. The injury bug depleted the depth chart at quarterback giving way to an improbable season under center for receiver-turned Wildcat quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr. Bowden led the SEC in rushing yards (1,468) on the way to a 9-4 showing but the team will have to find a new leader on offense between Sawyer Smith and Terry Wilson. Kentucky will be in true midseason form by this one having collided already with Florida on the road and South Carolina at home.
Week 6 — Oct. 10 at Georgia (Athens, Ga.)
A 14-point fourth quarter was too late of a run for Auburn last season against the Bulldogs, succumbing to a 21-14 loss. Georgia is in a unique position refitting its offensive line and breaking in new starters at quarterback and running back. The Bulldogs will more than likely be a preseason top-10 team, but their slotting among the best will be tested early with a road game in Tuscaloosa.
Week 7 — Oct. 17 vs. Texas A&M (Auburn, Ala.)
If Auburn can split the Georgia and A&M games, or even better win both, Malzahn will be sitting pretty during the postgame pressers. A&M may be the best team returning per starting experience in the SEC West, making them a dark-horse contender. To this point in the season, the Aggies will not have faced much of a challenge heading to The Plains as the first of a two-game road trip with South Carolina to follow. Auburn and A&M face pretender or contender status in this one.
Week 9 — Oct. 31 at Mississippi State (Starkville, Miss.)
Former Washington State head coach Mike Leach heads to Starkville bringing his potent Air Raid offense with him. Leach has a soft start to his tenure with the Bulldogs facing New Mexico, NC State, Arkansas, and Tulane. But the schedule turns on him with Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU on the road, and then a return trip home to face Auburn. It may take some time for Leach to integrate the Air Raid with his roster and the SEC slate doesn't do him many favors, so this showdown between offensive-minded coaches may not be up to the billing.
Week 10 — Nov. 7 vs. Arkansas (Auburn, Ala.)
The Tigers begin November with three straight at home, a stretch that could set them up for postseason success. The homestand begins with an Arkansas squad getting everything together under first-year head coach Sam Pittman. The Razorbacks have capable coordinators in Kendal Briles (OC) and Barry Odom (DC), but do they have the talent on the roster to challenge the top teams in the SEC West, especially on the road?
Week 11 — Nov. 14 vs. Massachusetts (Auburn, Ala.)
Another cupcake on the schedule, but this one at least qualifies as an FBS matchup. UMass managed just one win (1-11) as an Independent last season despite playing a schedule that featured just two Power 5 teams (Rutgers and Northwestern).
Week 12 — Nov. 21 vs. LSU (Auburn, Ala.)
There could be a four-way battle in the West for the right to go to Atlanta, and the outcome of this game could help define who books the flight for the game. LSU will have a tough time replacing all the missing pieces from their 15-0 season a year ago, but their schedule does align where a run could happen if other dominoes fall into place. Two weeks prior, LSU will have faced Alabama setting the tone for an end-of-season run. But coming off of playing UMass and getting this game in Jordan-Hare, it's the other Tigers who could be favored.
Week 13 — Nov. 28 at Alabama (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
This is one of those seasons for Nick Saban that if he claims an SEC West title, he will have earned it the hard way. The Crimson Tide will have played USC and Georgia at the start of the season as well as navigated back-to-back games against Tennessee and LSU. Bama's final two against A&M and Auburn are both at home, which should only aid their cause. If anything helps Auburn in this one it's last year's Iron Bowl victory. If Auburn, LSU, and Alabama are somehow in a three-way tie in the West entering this game, a head-to-head win over the Tide could be the tiebreaker that sends Malzahn's Tigers to the SEC Championship Game.
— 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.