Auburn shrugged off one of the toughest schedules in college football during the 2017 season taking down two No. 1-ranked teams, Georgia and Alabama, on the way to a surprise SEC West Division title. Although the Tigers fell short in the SEC Championship Game against the Bulldogs in a rematch, head coach Gus Malzahn has positioned the Tigers for another run to Atlanta in 2018 with a stout roster and a favorable early-season schedule that sets up yet another all too important Iron Bowl against archrival Alabama.
Here is Auburn's schedule ranked from easiest game to toughest matchup.
12. Nov. 17 vs. Liberty
After five tough consecutive SEC games ending with a trip in Athens to face Georgia for a third time in two seasons, Auburn welcomes Liberty for a practice run before facing Alabama. The Flames are making the transition to the FBS after going 6-5 in 2017. Former Nebraska quarterback Turner Gill is entering his sixth season leading the program. It's worth noting that Liberty knocked off Baylor 48-45 in Waco to open last season.
11. Sept. 8 vs. Alabama State
Auburn's annual FCS opponent offers a little something different this year, as Alabama State gets a shot at its in-state big brother. Local players that may have been bypassed by Gus Malzahn and his coaching staff get an opportunity to impress in Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Hornets lost their first five games of the 2017 season, which resulted in the dismissal of head coach Brian Jenkins and Donald Hill-Eley receiving the interim tag. The team responded by going 5-1 to finish the year.
10. Sept. 29 vs. Southern Miss
In Jay Hopson’s second season in Hattiesburg, he had the Golden Eagles playing tough. In the season opener against Kentucky, the Eagles fought to the wire before falling 24-17 and gave Tennessee a run for their money in Neyland Stadium before accepting a 24-10 defeat.
Auburn is hoping for a little breather here at the end of a four-game home stand that includes LSU and Arkansas before going to Starkville.
9. Oct. 13 vs. Tennessee
A 4-8 season (including going winless in SEC play) in 2017 for then-head coach Butch Jones opened the door for Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt in Knoxville. Pundits do not think much of the Volunteers' chances in 2018 (Athlon has them finishing sixth in the SEC East), but the defense may surprise everyone. Six starters are back on defense with the rest of the positions filled by upperclassmen. The big question for Tennessee is putting points on the board.
The Volunteers may stumble into this one beat up after hosting Florida and visiting Georgia.
8. Sept. 22 vs. Arkansas
The Razorbacks present one of the biggest question marks on Auburn’s schedule. The Tigers should be favored by two scores at home, but the Hogs storm into Jordan-Hare after three easy games to start the season (Eastern Illinois, Colorado State and North Texas) ready for their first big challenge of the year.
The Hogs could be better than advertised with former SMU head coach Chad Morris taking over for Bret Bielema and former LSU and Texas A&M defensive coordinator molding the defense into shape. This could be a coming out party for Arkansas or a reality check for the Hogs.
7. Oct. 6 at Mississippi State
On paper, Mississippi State has the potential to be one of the best teams in the SEC with 16 starters back including dazzling dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and 1,100-yard rusher Aeris Williams. If Dan Mullen was still on the sidelines, the media might be picking the Bulldogs as a dark horse in the SEC West, but with offensive-minded Joe Moorhead coming in from Penn State, how MSU fares is anyone’s guess.
The Tigers will have a good idea of what to expect from MSU ahead of this showdown as the Bulldogs will have faced Kentucky and Florida back-to-back before welcoming Auburn to Starkville. The Tigers swatted MSU 49-10 last season.
6. Oct. 20 at Ole Miss
The Rebels represent the end of the first half of the season with Auburn having gone through the heart of its SEC schedule before reaching its bye. Ole Miss should be prolific on offense again in 2018 with QB Jordan Ta’amu and WR A.J. Brown leading the way, along with four starters returning up front. If the Rebels can improve on defense (116th nationally), watch out.
Ole Miss should be up for this game coming off matchups with ULM and a road test against Arkansas. Last season, Auburn got the Rebels after their 66-3 humbling road loss to Alabama.
5. Nov. 3 vs. Texas A&M
The timing (after a bye) and location (at home) of this one bodes well for the Tigers; yet proceed with caution. The Aggies are expected to be much improved with a different look on offense under former Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher. Fisher inherits two solid quarterbacks in Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond along with leading rusher Trayveon Williams. The defense has seven starters back making this a tough matchup for Auburn.
Fisher rolls into this one with a heavy dose of life in the SEC after consecutive games against Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina and Mississippi State. Texas A&M's visit to Jordan-Hare also will be the Aggies' third straight road game.
4. Sept. 15 vs. LSU
LSU shocked then- No. 10 Auburn 27-23 in Jordan-Hare a year ago. In 2018, Auburn appears to have the edge in returning talent and firepower, especially with LSU sorting out its quarterback situation and needing to replace All-SEC running back Derrius Guice. Even though only five starters return on defense, that side of the ball should be salty for LSU once again.
This is a needed win for both teams, and for their respective head coaches. Each team opens the season against tough non-conference foes -- Auburn vs. Washington and LSU vs. Miami -- with a FCS squad in between before opening conference play. The “boo-birds” like Malzahn and LSU head coach Ed Orgeron. A loss for either coach welcomes the choir of boo-birds for the rest of the season.
3. Nov. 10 at Georgia
Georgia had a breakout season in 2017, going 13-2, winning the SEC and earning a spot in the College Football Playoff. Quarterback Jake Fromm did not play like a freshman and the defense was lights out under second-year head coach Kirby Smart. The million-dollar question, can the Bulldogs replicate the same type of success?
This late in the season, it is gut-check time for all teams. Auburn heads to Athens after facing Texas A&M while Georgia welcomes the Tigers after a three-game road trip that includes LSU, Florida (in Gainesville) and Kentucky.
2. Sept. 1 vs. Washington (in Atlanta)
For those football fans that do not pay attention to games on the West Coast, Washington is trending. In his fifth year in Seattle, head coach Chris Petersen has the Huskies perched atop the Pac-12 as one of the elite teams after back-to-back double-digit-win seasons that include two Pac-12 North Divisional titles.
The Huskies' offense will be tough with four starters back in the trenches and senior quarterback Jake Browning running the unit. The defense was one of the best in the country in 2017, finishing eighth or better in three of the four major categories. With nine starters back on that side of the ball, Auburn is in for a tough non-conference test as the two teams kick off their seasons in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
1. Nov. 24 at Alabama
Before last season started, yours truly wisely predicted an Auburn upset of Alabama the Iron Bowl. The Tigers held home court for a resounding 26-14 victory. But can they do it again?
Alabama’s offense will open up more if sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa wins the starting job, but lost will be Jalen Hurts’ ability to keep drives a live with his legs. The change on offense should not bother Auburn too much, as the Tigers' defense might be even better in 2018 compared to last year's unit, which finished 14th in the nation last season. The Crimson Tide reloads each year, and this season will be no exception, but it doesn't change the fact that the defense is replacing eight starters. Playing in Bryant-Denny is not easy for any team, especially with the likelihood of the stakes being sky high once again.
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-- 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.