Gus Malzahn’s fifth Auburn team has high expectations, as the Tigers are coming off a Sugar Bowl appearance and have several proven offensive pieces that should make this team scary. But what kind of traps might be ahead for Auburn?
An SEC East crossover opponent like Georgia is always challenging, especially in a year like this one. So, too, is a non-conference behemoth like reigning national champion Clemson. If it’s any consolation, Auburn gets both those games — plus the Iron Bowl — at home.
Here is how the entire Auburn schedule stacks up, ranked from easiest game to most difficult.
12. Sept. 16 vs. Mercer
Again and again: Why?
11. Nov. 18 vs. ULM
Auburn beat the Warhawks 58-7 last year, which overlooks the job head coach Matt Viator did in his first year at ULM, turning a two-win team into a four-win team. The Tigers should again have a field day with this defense, in its tune-up for the Iron Bowl a week later.
10. Sept. 2 vs. Georgia Southern
New coordinator Bryan Cook should field an Eagles option-based offense that taxes opposing defenses, but there are so many new faces on this team that it is hard to forecast expectations, especially in Week 1.
9. Sept. 23 at Missouri
Since Mizzou entered the SEC in 2012, it has played Auburn once: In the 2013 SEC title game. While that game — a 59-42 Auburn win — was a blast, it remains inexcusable that teams from the same “conference” have had zero scheduled meetings through five years. Here’s hoping this one, like the 2013 league title game, was worth the wait.
8. Sept. 30 vs. Mississippi State
The Tigers and Bulldogs have split four meetings during the Malzahn era, with both teams having won and lost on each other’s home field. A good old-fashioned shootout between Jarrett Stidham and Nick Fitzgerald sure would be fun to watch.
7. Oct. 7 vs. Ole Miss
The Rebels have plenty of talent. How motivated they will be in a bowl-ban season — with the looming specter of more NCAA uncertainty hanging over their program — is anyone’s guess.
6. Oct. 21 at Arkansas
Malzahn is 3-1 against Bret Bielema, including a 56-3 beatdown of the Razorbacks last season. Still, there are no easy road games in this division, and the Tigers’ last trip to Fayetteville featured plenty of twists and turns, ending with a 54-46 win in four overtimes.
5. Nov. 4 at Texas A&M
Kyle Field is never a fun place to play, but after so many recent late-season flameouts by the Aggies, you have to wonder what will be at stake for the home team in this one. A&M has always had players under Kevin Sumlin, though, so this is a dangerous game for the Tigers, who at least get a bye before this one.
4. Nov. 11 vs. Georgia
The Bulldogs have won three in a row in this rivalry, after Auburn’s incredible comeback win during its magical 2013 season. Does the tide turn this season? Both programs enter 2017 with mammoth expectations, so this late-season contest should be a good one.
3. Oct. 14 at LSU
Auburn ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back last season, as former LSU head coach Les Miles was fired a day after losing to the Tigers. Amidst all the excitement of the Ed Orgeron era, LSU fans probably haven’t forgotten that.
2. Sept. 9 at Clemson
Only Florida State can also lay claim to playing this past year’s two national finalists. Auburn gave Clemson a scare last season on the Plains but will face a different kind of early-season challenge this year as it heads to Death Valley.
1. Nov. 25 vs. Alabama
It gets no bigger than the Iron Bowl, and if the Tigers live up to preseason hype, fans could be in for a special one at Jordan-Hare Stadium for the regular-season finale. Will this decide the SEC West too?
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.