The Auburn Tigers are coming off of spring practice and a spring game that showed a lot of positives on both sides of the ball. They return 18 starters as a team and many fans are expecting big things from this young squad this season.
But in the SEC, it's never really about the amount of talent your roster has: it's about the amount of competition you have to play. The Tigers have a few cupcakes on the schedule, but will end up playing several powerhouse teams that have a shot to reach a BCS bowl this season.
This season will tell a lot about the direction that head coach Gene Chizik has this team going in.
Key: Prevent 100 rushing yards.
We all saw last season how explosive this Clemson offense can be, as it averaged nearly 34 points and 440 yards a game. Bad news for opponents is that every key player on that unit is returning this season as well. The good news is that when you're able to limit Clemson in the running game, you'll likely have success.
Of the four games Clemson lost last season, three of them were when they failed to get at least 100 yards on the ground.
Stopping quarterback Tajh Boyd isn't going to be easy either, but it's almost a guaranteed loss if Auburn lets this Clemson offense do whatever it wants the entire game. Auburn was ranked 11th in the SEC last season, allowing 189 rushing yards a game, including 238 to Clemson in last season's loss.
Key: Take the crowd out of it early.
Mississippi State returns 15 total starters, including seven on the defensive side of the ball. The offense did lose a starting quarterback and running back Vick Ballard, but the replacements have looked really solid throughout the spring.
Regardless of the talent on the rosters, playing in Mississippi State is never an easy task, and it will be important to try and silence the crowd early. Hearing cowbells all afternoon can get extremely annoying after a while.
Key: Don't look ahead.
Does anybody believe that Louisiana-Monroe can upset the Tigers in this matchup? No, well, me either.
It's taken three years for this program to win 10 games in the Sun Belt Conference of all places. There's really no advantage the Warhawks have coming into this matchup, unless the Tigers get caught looking ahead to the big game against the LSU Tigers the following week.
Even then I don't see Auburn losing this game, but it's truly the only hope that ULM has going into it..
Key: Slowdown that Tigers running game.
Once again, the key early on in the season is to focus on the opponents running game. LSU has the deepest backfield in the country with four running backs who rushed for at least 300 yards last season. Together as a team, LSU averaged over 200 yards on the ground per game.
What's weird about the game against LSU last season is that Auburn didn't play that bad to lose by 35 points. They held the Tigers to under 400 total yards on offense and picked up 18 first downs themselves. It was the fact that they couldn't get into the end zone and turned the ball over twice that caused them to lose by such a wide margin.
If Auburn can slow down the running game and force new quarterback Zach Mettenberger to throw the ball, the Tigers will have a greater chance than most other teams will have against a Top Five team in college football.
Key: Get that running game going.
Much like the game against Clemson, Arkansas has an offense that can score on anyone and it will put up points in a hurry if you're not careful. But while we know that the Razorbacks offense is fantastic, it's their rush defense that wasn't so great last season.
They surrendered 167 yards on the ground per game, which was ranked ninth in the SEC. In their two losses last year, they allowed a combined total of 483 rushing yards. Arkansas also has issues on the defensive line with many players graduating.
If running back Onterio McCalebb and company can run with success and keep that Arkansas offense off the field, the Tigers will have a chance to pull off the upset.
Key: Win the turnover battle.
Ole Miss is a team that doesn't have many bright spots heading into the season. Only four teams in the country had a worse scoring offense than the Rebels and many of those key players may be ruled ineligible this season.
Auburn should win this game fairly easily like they did last year, but the key will be the turnover battle. Ole Miss lost a total of 10 games last year, and nine of them came when they had at least one more turnover than the opponent.
The Tigers will enter this game as the favorite, but the Rebels don't stand a chance to pull off an upset if they can't hold onto the football.
Key: Prevent third down conversions.
One of the underrated keys in winning a football game is being able to get off the field on third down. Auburn was the worst in the SEC last season, as they allowed a ridiculous 48 percent of third downs to be converted.
Vanderbilt is a team that's rapidly improving under head coach James Franklin. They return a total of 16 starters, including nine on offense. Although this program is slowly rising in the SEC, they struggled to convert on third down. The 34 percent conversion rate was good for ninth in the conference and in seven losses last season, they converted less than 30 percent.
If the Tigers expect to win this game, the defense must do a much better job of getting off the field and giving the offense more opportunities.
Key: Win the battle in the trenches.
Many are questioning whether or not Texas A&M truly belongs in the SEC, but they do have one thing going for them: a solid offensive and defensive line. The offensive line returns every starter from a unit that only allowed nine sacks, while the majority of the front seven is looking to build on a season in which they finished with 51 sacks.
Auburn is a team that could have done a better job at protecting the quarterback and put a bit more pressure on opponents last year (they allowed 32 sacks and only picked up 22 sacks all of last year).
In the SEC, the team that does a better job of getting to the opposing quarterback is the team that usually wins. Auburn must not back down from a physical Aggies team.
Key: Generate pressure.
While Auburn has to do better with their offensive line, New Mexico State is another team that allowed a lot sacks (34, which was tied with FAU and Washington for 101st in the country). At least the Tigers have most of their players coming back to help fix some of their issues. The Aggies only bring back eight total players from last season.
I think it's safe to say that the Tigers will win this game regardless. After all, this is a squad that went 4-9 in the WAC last year. Generating pressure on a team that was terrible at protecting the quarterback will seal the deal on this easy victory.
Key: Avoid turnovers.
Georgia is one of the more talented teams in the country. They have enough offensive weapons to compete with anybody, especially with quarterback Aaron Murray leading the way. Then, you add a defense that returns nine starters from a unit that was ranked fifth in the country in total defense, and 15th in sacks with 35.
The Bulldogs will compete for an SEC title this season.
In last season's matchup against Auburn, Georgia dominated by a score of 45-7. They controlled the Tigers on both sides of the ball, causing them to surrender over 500 yards on defense and holding them to just nine first downs on offense. It also didn't help that the Tigers turned the ball over three times either.
The Bulldogs are 13-1 in the last two seasons when they win the turnover battle. It's going to be tough to play with Georgia this year, but it's even tougher when you're constantly giving the ball back to an explosive offense.
Key: Just play Auburn football.
Is there really a game plan needed for Alabama A&M? It's a team in the SWAC Conference, if the Tigers don't win this game by at least two touchdowns, the program should be put on probation for a minimum of two years.
It truly doesn't matter how the Tigers play in this game, I'll go out on a limb and say they'll end up winning it regardless. Just run the ball successfully, don't turn the ball over, and score touchdowns. That's the key for knocking off the Bulldogs in the game before Auburn plays the real team from Alabama.
Key: Move those chains.
Alabama is the defending national champions and with the team it's returning, it's truly hard to find a weakness that Auburn will be able to attack. Along with not turning the ball over, one of the things that will keep the Tigers in this game is picking up first downs. They only managed to earn nine in last year's loss, but perhaps this year could be different with more experience on the field.
If Kiehl Frazier ends up being named the starter, he should make things a little more difficult for this defense with his dual-threat ability.
It's hard imagine the Tigers knocking off the Crimson Tide this season, but they'll have a shot if they can eat the clock up and keep that defense on the field. That will keep the game close and crowd in the game throughout the contest.