People from Alabama take their football seriously. Because of that, there is a little added pressure on coaches who aren’t winning at a high level. Auburn’s Gus Malzahn now finds himself in year four with the Tigers, having only beaten Alabama once, back in 2013. Malzahn teams have gone 8-5 and 7-6 the past two seasons so this year’s group needs to show progress or Auburn may start looking for a new coach.
With little stability at quarterback, the Tigers likely will rely on their offensive line and returning running back Jovon Robinson to carry the load this fall. Auburn’s schedule will be a big factor when it comes to navigating the 2016 season. The Tigers have an advantage in not hitting the road until Oct. 8. However, Auburn is the only team in college football that has to play both participants from last year’s national championship game.
College Football: Jeremy Foley, Beer and… Gaming?
Here is a look at Auburn’s 12 regular season games, ranked from easiest to toughest:
12. Nov. 19 vs. Alabama A&M
Auburn is one of several SEC teams essentially taking a vacation the week of Nov. 19. That’s not to discredit or disrespect Alabama A&M, but the Bulldogs simply aren’t capable of beating a Power Five team, especially not a traditional SEC powerhouse. Many people outside the southeast criticize the SEC for its late-season scheduling. That’s understandable.
11. Oct. 1 vs. ULM
Auburn will take on the Warhawks from Monroe, La., to cap off a run of five straight homes games to start the season. ULM is no stranger to SEC competition, having faced plenty of teams from the conference over the years. In fact, the Warhawks beat Alabama in 2007 and Arkansas in ‘12. But a lot has changed in a few years. Last season, ULM went 2-11 and gave up more than 50 points on five separate occasions.
10. Sept. 10 vs. Arkansas State
When it comes to Sun Belt competition, Arkansas State brings a little more to the table. The Red Wolves are coming off a 9-4 season, but must find a replacement for quarterback Fredi Knighten. Head coach Blake Anderson, now in his third season, should have a pretty solid defense. Last year, the Red Wolves led the nation with eight defensive touchdowns. Auburn and Arkansas State will meet on the gridiron for the fourth time since 2006.
9. Nov. 5 vs. Vanderbilt
The Tigers get somewhat of a break in drawing Vanderbilt from the SEC East, but the Commodores shouldn’t be taken lightly. Derek Mason has done a good job of getting this team to a more competitive level. When Mason took over, it was bad… really bad. Now, Vanderbilt appears to have one of the SEC’s best defenses, at least on paper. This team will be pushing hard to get to a bowl game by November. Auburn will have a fight on its hands.
8. Oct. 8 at Mississippi State
I’m tired of typing “Dak Prescott,” and you already know all about it, so we’ll leave it at this: Mississippi State has to find a new groove on offense, and be creative in getting the ball to its playmakers. Last season, the Bulldogs were able to edge Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium without much offense, 17-9. Auburn will be on the road for the first time when it travels to Starkville, so this will probably be a tightly-contested game.
7. Sept. 17 vs. Texas A&M
This week three matchup could give us a clearer picture of the SEC West hierarchy. The Aggies and Tigers are two of the most puzzling teams to figure out in the division. Both have coaches who arguably could be on the hot seat, yet both also have a good deal of talent. It’s easy to get the impression that either team could be a sleeper pick. Since Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012, the teams are 2-2 against each other, with the road team winning every time.
6. Oct. 22 vs. Arkansas
Last year, Auburn and Arkansas had a crazy, four-overtime thriller in Fayetteville. The game was tied at 24 at the end of regulation, but the Hogs prevailed 54-46 when the smoke cleared. That was Malzahn’s first loss as a head coach against his home state. This time around, the Hogs will be rebuilding on offense, so Auburn might have an advantage in the running game.
5. Nov. 12 at Georgia
The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry goes all the way back to 1892. Talk about history. This has been one of the most hotly-contested rivalries in all of football, with Georgia holding a slight edge, 56-55-8. The Bulldogs have caught up in the series after winning eight of the last 10 matchups. Georgia’s new head coach, Kirby Smart, is certainly familiar with the Tigers. If this game is half as good as the 2013 contest, we should be in for a treat.
4. Oct. 29 at Ole Miss
Auburn and Ole Miss typically have pretty close games. This season, Auburn certainly has more question marks, but Ole Miss has shipped off a ton of talent to the NFL. The Tigers would probably rather deal with Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly at home, but they’ll have to travel to Oxford instead. Auburn’s ground game will need to be well established by this point in the season for the Tigers to have a chance to win this one.
3. Sept. 24 vs. LSU
Leonard Fournette had a field day against Auburn last season, rushing for 228 yards and three touchdowns. That performance is still running on highlight reels all across Louisiana. Auburn was totally embarrassed in Baton Rouge, and will undoubtedly be looking for revenge down on the plains. LSU looks to be loaded again, but this will be its first true road test. Jordan-Hare Stadium will be loud.
2. Sept. 3 vs. Clemson
With great challenge comes great opportunity, but Auburn fans are probably wishing their team was playing Clemson a few years down the road. Clemson returns one of the most talented rosters in college football, including Heisman Trophy front-runner Deshaun Watson at quarterback. But, you know, it’s been proven time and time again that anything can happen in week one. Just imagine the scene on Toomer’s Corner if Auburn pulls this one out.
1. Nov. 26 at Alabama
The only team that beat Clemson last year was Alabama. The Crimson Tide have more questions than usual coming into the season, but until something changes, there’s no reason to think Alabama won’t be in contention for a College Football Playoff spot once again. Because this game is on the road and Auburn won’t have as much time to prepare for it, chances are Alabama will be the Tigers’ most difficult challenge in 2016.