Auburn Football: Early Game-by-Game Predictions for the 2014 Season
The Auburn Tigers are less than 100 days away from the start of the 2014 season, which they hope will end with another trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
Auburn returns most of its starters from the 12-2 season as BCS National Championship finalists, and Gus Malzahn's team is projected to be a major player in the first season of the new College Football Playoff system.
The Tigers offense will look for more balance with a more experienced receiving corps after dual-threat quarterback Nick Marshall led the way in the nation's top rushing attack. On defense, Auburn wants to see more improvement following a season with great fourth-quarter and red-zone performances but less-than-ideal results between the 20s.
Preseason hype is at a new high on the Plains with all of the returning talent, but Auburn will have to battle through a tough schedule that features trips to both rivals, Georgia and Alabama, for the first time in program history.
With three months left before the season's first kickoff at Jordan-Hare Stadium, here are my game-by-game predictions for Auburn's 2014 slate.
Arkansas vs. Auburn
This season, for the first time since 1995, Auburn will kick off its campaign against an SEC opponent. The defending conference champions will welcome Arkansas, a team that's coming off a dreadful 3-9 season without a single SEC win.
If Arkansas is going to pull off an Auburn-like comeback from 3-9 to SEC champions, Bret Bielema's squad will have to show remarkable improvement from the opening kickoff of the 2014 season. According to the Razorbacks' post-spring notes, Arkansas returns seven starters from an offense that finished 100th nationally in total yards and six starters from a defense that averaged allowing 6.1 yards per play.
Although Auburn's balance-minded offense should be salivating ahead of this season opener, quarterback Nick Marshall and the passing game will go up against a secondary that returns all four first-teamers from 2013. Arkansas was underwhelming against SEC competition last season, but the Razorbacks should have a solid amount of experience and motivation from Bielema in the midst of an ongoing pace-of-play debate.
While Bielema will be itching to pull off a massive season-opening upset, Auburn's speed and talent will be too much for Arkansas. The Tigers might go back and forth with the Hogs in the first half of this heated matchup, but the host team should pull away for a double-digit win on the Plains.
Projected Record: 1-0 (1-0 SEC)
San Jose State vs. Auburn
After a season-opening SEC win against Arkansas, Auburn will face a nonconference opponent fresh off a middle-of-the-road season.
San Jose State went 6-6 in the debut season for Ron Carragher, who replaced successful Spartans head coach Mike MacIntyre. Now, the Spartans will have to move on in 2014 without starting quarterback David Fales, a star player who threw for 33 touchdowns last season.
Carragher's squad has several holes to fill outside of Fales, including three offensive linemen. The Spartans return seven starters on defense, but they had a hard time slowing down their opposition in 2013, finishing 93rd nationally in total yards allowed, 104th in points allowed per game and 106th in run defense.
The Spartans lost by three scores against both Pac-12 powerhouse Stanford and Big Ten opponent Minnesota last season, and they might be in for another big power-conference loss away from home. San Jose State's offense will have a lot of growing up to do if it wants to keep up with Auburn's high-powered attack.
Projected Record: 2-0 (1-0 SEC)
Auburn vs. Kansas State
Seven years after Auburn rallied in the fourth quarter to knock off Josh Freeman's Kansas State team in Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Tigers will head to Manhattan, Kansas, to face the Wildcats for the second half of their home-and-home series.
Both teams have seen recent BCS-level success. Kansas State was 10-0 and was the No. 1 team in the country back in 2012 before dropping games to Baylor and Oregon. Bill Snyder's team started slow last season but rallied to win eight games for another solid campaign in the Little Apple.
The Wildcats return six starters from a solid offense and an above-average defense, including quarterback Jake Waters, who threw for 2,469 yards last season. While they will try to rebuild their offensive line, they will boast a great defensive line that could be the strength of their matchup against Auburn.
Auburn and Kansas State will both have an off week heading into the Thursday night battle. The Wildcats are a dark horse for the Big 12 title this season, but the Tigers' championship-caliber offense should be enough to pull off a close road win against Kansas State. Auburn has enough talent on offense and Kansas State has enough questions on its defensive back seven for a hard-fought Tigers road win.
Projected Record: 3-0 (1-0 SEC)
Louisiana Tech vs. Auburn
Homecoming will come early on the Plains this season as Louisiana Tech faces Auburn for the fourth game of the 2014 campaign.
Louisiana Tech is coming off a rough 4-8 season that started miserably and ended even worse, with three consecutive games with offensive productions of 14 points, 14 points, and 10 points. Although the Bulldogs were a pass-first offense—36th in attempts through the air—they only averaged 206 yards without a true go-to target for quarterbacks Ryan Higgins and Scotty Young.
Defensively, Louisiana Tech is replacing a few starters and a few position coaches from a unit that struggled for most of 2014. The Bulldogs finished 31st nationally in passing yards allowed, but that is because opposing offenses were content to just run the ball against the country's 91st-ranked rush defense.
The up-and-down Louisiana Tech program still has a lot of work to do before it becomes a real mid-major player in the world of college football. Auburn should be in line for another blowout victory before starting the real grind of the SEC schedule.
Projected Record: 4-0 (1-0 SEC)
LSU vs. Auburn
Auburn's second SEC test of the 2014 season will be one in which it will look for revenge.
LSU defeated a slow-starting Auburn last year for its only regular-season loss, but the orange and blue Tigers were able to rebound and claim the SEC crown. While LSU has been favored in the last three Tiger Bowls—all three LSU wins—Auburn should have the upper hand this time.
The Bayou Bengals have talent on offense, but it will be young and inexperienced, from whoever LSU starts at quarterback to former No. 1 high school recruit Leonard Fournette to the under-the-radar receiving corps. LSU's strength, as it usually has been under head coach Les Miles, is its defense, especially a secondary that only had to replace one starter.
If Auburn gets out to another slow start against LSU like it did in rainy Baton Rouge last season, this could be the fourth consecutive win in the series for Miles and Co. But with more experience and a home-field advantage, Auburn should be able to pull out another instant classic in this SEC West rivalry.
Projected Record: 5-0 (2-0 SEC)
Auburn vs. Mississippi State
The Mississippi State game used to be Auburn's first SEC game of the season and one the Tigers were usually favored to win.
But in the last few seasons, the Auburn-Mississippi State rivalry has led to some surprising moments—the tight 2010 victory for the future national champions, Auburn's goal-line stand in 2011, the beginning of the Tigers' 2012 downfall and Nick Marshall's late game-winning pass to C.J. Uzomah in 2013.
B/R's Barrett Sallee has this game being Auburn's biggest trap game for the 2014 season. Mississippi State returns a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, has a rising star in Dak Prescott at quarterback and has a veteran defense that will look to make the Bulldogs an SEC West dark horse for this season.
This will be a tough matchup for the Tigers after a physical home win against LSU. Mississippi State will make this a close game all the way to the fourth quarter, but I predict the Tigers' returning talent will have enough experience in late-game situations from last season to pull out the victory in Starkville.
Projected Record: 6-0 (3-0 SEC)
South Carolina vs. Auburn
The first half of Auburn's schedule is no cakewalk, but the second half will be a grind, and it starts with a home game against SEC East contender South Carolina.
Steve Spurrier will bring his veteran offense to Jordan-Hare Stadium, hoping that senior quarterback Dylan Thompson will have hit his stride by the midpoint of the season. A talented running back like All-SEC selection Mike Davis could give the Tigers defense fits, and Thompson has a couple of impressive targets out wide in Shaq Roland and Damiere Byrd.
Auburn's offense, however, will be able to attack the Gamecocks defense. South Carolina has to replace a defensive line once led by No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, and the visitors will also have two new starting cornerbacks for 2014.
This has the makings of a shootout, and the game will come down to which defense steps up in the second half. Home-field advantage and a more experienced front seven earn the defending SEC champions a tight win in what will probably be the season's toughest game at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Projected Record: 7-0 (4-0 SEC)
Auburn vs. Ole Miss
Ole Miss was another team Auburn had to pull out a late win against last season, and now the Tigers travel to Oxford for an interesting rematch.
The Rebels have experience on offense in the skill positions with veteran quarterback Bo Wallace, running back Jaylen Walton and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. Hugh Freeze has signed some talented offensive linemen in the last couple of seasons, and the young guys will have to step up this season after the Rebels lost three starters on the line.
Ole Miss returns a lot of its talent from a defense that was middle of the road both nationally and in the SEC last season. The Nkemdiche brothers, Robert and Denzel, might be the biggest stars of the Rebels defense, but an experienced secondary will most likely be its biggest strength with players such as Mike Hilton, Senquez Golson and Trae Elston.
Any road game in the SEC West is a tough matchup, and Auburn could be in for another tight one when it heads to Oxford. The Tigers will look to exploit that young offensive line for a big game of pressure on Wallace, and I see this one being a two-score victory for Auburn.
Projected Record: 8-0 (5-0 SEC)
Texas A&M vs. Auburn
Last season's trip to Texas A&M turned Auburn from an interesting comeback story to a major contender in the SEC West. This season, Auburn will host the Aggies hoping to further solidify its position as a national title contender.
Fortunately for Auburn fans, Johnny Manziel is no longer in College Station. The electrifying quarterback had two monster games against Auburn in his short career, even though his second start against the Tigers was an injury-affected loss. All signs point to former 5-star Kyle Allen as the next Aggie quarterback, and the freshman will benefit from playing with an experience offensive line.
While Texas A&M has young yet considerable talent on offense, the newest SEC West foe returns most of its starters from a dreadful defense. The Aggies finished last in the SEC in yards allowed by a wide margin, as they gave up 475 per game in 2013. When these two teams face off in 2014, it will be a rematch of the nation's No. 1 rushing offense versus the nation's No. 111 rushing defense.
Although Texas A&M will still have a talented offense in 2014, there are still a lot of question marks on a team that finished .500 in the SEC with a special talent like Manziel running the show. If Auburn can rattle Allen and make a few early stops on defense, this could be a solid conference victory heading into the team's next game.
Projected Record: 9-0 (6-0 SEC)
Auburn vs. Georgia
Auburn has lost four of its last five trips to Athens, Georgia, in the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry. After back-to-back home games in the series, the Tigers will head back to Sanford Stadium for a tough contest against their old foes.
Georgia's offense will be without four-year starter Aaron Murray, but Hutson Mason proved he could be a worthy replacement with his two impressive starts to cap the 2013 season. Todd Gurley is a touchdown threat every time he touches the ball, and a corps of veteran wide receivers looks to stay healthy and hungry alongside a young offensive line.
On defense, the Bulldogs return key players in every position. Even with the departures of Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins, this defense has a ton of experience and should be one of the league's strongest in 2014.
This game has the makings of an instant classic after Auburn's miraculous 2013 victory against Georgia. If the Bulldogs can avoid another injury-filled season, they look to be the favorites in the SEC East. Looking at the team's depth chart and its home-field advantage, I can see the Bulldogs grabbing a tight upset win against Auburn as the Tigers' recent woes between the hedges continues.
Projected Record: 9-1 (6-1 SEC)
Samford vs. Auburn
Between games in the first all-road "Amen Corner" for the program, the Tigers will take on an in-state FCS opponent with several Auburn ties.
Auburn legend and former Heisman winner Pat Sullivan will bring his Bulldogs back to Jordan-Hare Stadium. Current Tigers offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee was once on Samford's staff, and his offense could be looking for a bounce-back performance after the trip to Georgia.
With one eye looking toward Tuscaloosa for another massive Iron Bowl matchup, this final 2014 home game for Auburn should be nothing more complicated than an easy rout for the Tigers.
Projected Record: 10-1 (6-1 SEC)
Auburn vs. Alabama
Even with Auburn's predicted loss to Georgia, this Iron Bowl matchup will determine, once again, who heads to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
Offensively for Alabama, it all starts with the quarterback. Former Florida State backup Jacob Coker will have an entire season to live up to his preseason hype with a talented stable of running backs and wide receiver. But two starters on the Crimson Tide's offensive line will have to be replaced, and the field-goal game will still be a huge question mark after both a disappointing 2013 and 2014 spring game.
Alabama will have a lot of talent on defense again, but not as much starting experience. Several stars are off to the NFL from a unit that struggled to slow down Auburn on the ground in last year's Iron Bowl classic. Auburn's offensive experience and momentum could be huge factors in the 2014 meeting in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban will have his squad determined to avoid the mistakes of last season's loss in Jordan-Hare Stadium. This will be another close game, but Auburn's experience on defense and its no-huddle offense will continue to give Saban and Co. fits, even in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The Tigers will grab another divisional title from the hands of the Crimson Tide and set up a rematch against Georgia for the SEC title—and a spot in the first College Football Playoff.
Projected Record: 11-1 (7-1 SEC)