Power Ranking Auburn's 2014 Schedule from Easiest to Toughest
Much has been made of Auburn's 2014 schedule, since it was officially confirmed—the two Mississippi road trips, the visit to Kansas State for a nationally televised Thursday night clash and the pickup of South Carolina in the rotating cross-divisional schedule.
And who could forget the history-making pair of road games at bitter rivals Georgia and Alabama?
The defending SEC champions have plenty of talent returning from last season and will most likely be a top-five team heading into the 2014 schedule. With starting quarterback Nick Marshall returning to lead Gus Malzahn's high-octane offense and a reloaded defense eager to push itself to new heights, Auburn is projected to be in the battle for the four spots in the first College Football Playoff.
But, like most schedules in the nation's toughest conference, Auburn's 2014 schedule will be a grind through some of the top teams in college football. If the Tigers are going to get back to the sport's biggest stage, they will have to run the gauntlet once again.
Here is a look at the 12 regular-season opponents Auburn has in its crosshairs for 2014, ranked from easiest to toughest.
2013 Record: 8-5 (6-2 SOCON)
Returning Starters: 13 (5 offense, 8 defense)
Opening Line: N/A
Auburn has played a "paycheck game" with a FCS school each year since 2007, and the Tigers will welcome a familiar foe, with strong Auburn ties, to break up the road trips to Georgia and Alabama.
Samford, coached by legendary Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan, finished the 2013 season with a share of the SOCON Championship, a first-round exit to in-state rival Jacksonville State in the FCS playoffs and a No. 18 ranking in the division's final coaches poll. The Bulldogs return most of their offensive line and defensive playmakers, but new starters will have to step up to put points on the board.
While Samford played closer to Auburn in 2011 than most expected, that particular SEC Championship squad did not have the returning talent that the 2014 squad will have. This should be a blow-them-out, rest-your-starters victory for the Tigers.
11. Louisiana Tech
2013 Record: 4-8 (3-5 C-USA)
Returning Starters: 13 (6 offense, 7 defense)
Opening Line: N/A
Auburn's early homecoming—the fourth game of the 2014 season—should be another easy victory at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Louisiana Tech is coming off a bad 4-8 season marked by a late offensive collapse. The Bulldogs' pass-heavy offense only averaged 206 yards per game for the season and averaged 13 points in their last three games, ending any hopes of a postseason appearance. Defensively, Louisiana Tech struggled mightily against the run, which could lead to an incredibly long day on the Plains for the visitors.
The Tigers have never lost to Louisiana Tech in their 12 meetings all time. You can bank on that streak extending to 13 this season.
10. San Jose State
2013 Record: 6-6 (5-3 MWC)
Returning Starters: 14 (5 offense, 9 defense)
Opening Line: N/A
Before their highly anticipated Thursday night visit to Kansas State, the Tigers will take on a San Jose State squad that is coming off an average campaign in the Mountain West Conference.
The Spartans are looking to replace star quarterback David Fales, who threw for 33 touchdowns last season in the nation's No. 6 passing offense. San Jose State's offensive style led to several crazy shootouts last season against non-power-conference opponents, but they were held in check by bigger teams Stanford and Minnesota.
Even with a new quarterback, San Jose State will be an early test of Auburn's pass defense, which was ranked No. 102 nationally in 2013. If the Spartans can jump on the Tigers early, things could get interesting on the Plains. However, Auburn's strength on offense should lead to another multi-score win.
2013 Record: 3-9 (0-8 SEC)
Returning Starters: 15 (7 offense, 8 defense)
Opening Line: Auburn (-24)
Auburn will shake things up to start 2014, opening the season with an SEC opponent for the first time since 1995. Fortunately for the Tigers, they will be facing the weakest team in the division at their own stadium.
Bret Bielema's squad will be on a nine-game losing streak heading into Jordan-Hare Stadium, and the former Wisconsin head coach would probably love nothing more than ending the slide against the face of modern up-tempo football, Gus Malzahn. If the Razorbacks are to pull off the stunning upset, they will have to show remarkable improvement from 2013's No. 102 total offense and No. 76 total defense.
An inspired Arkansas could hang with Auburn in the first half, but the defending SEC champions have more talent and top-level speed on both sides of the ball.Of the SEC games, the visit from Arkansas should be the easiest on the schedule.
8. Texas A&M
2013 Record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC)
Returning Starters: 15 (6 offense, 9 defense)
Opening Line: Auburn (-14)
After back-to-back offensive explosions against the Tigers, thanks to the magic of Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M will make their second trip to Auburn as an underdog.
The Aggies have an experienced offensive line to go along with their young talent at the skill positions, including former 5-star quarterback Kyle Allen. Texas A&M's biggest weakness now and in the Manziel Era was its defense, which finished last in the SEC in total defense and No. 111 in the nation in rushing yards allowed.
Auburn's defense will likely focus on rattling Allen early, while its offense attempts to put the Aggies in an early hole on the road. There are a lot of question marks surrounding the caliber of this season's Texas A&M squad, but Auburn will definitely be the stronger team heading into this matchup.
7. Kansas State
2013 Record: 8-5 (5-4 SEC)
Returning Starters: 10 (6 offense, 4 defense)
Opening Line: Auburn (-13)
The seven-year wait for the second half of a home-and-home series with Kansas State is finally over, and Auburn will invade the Little Apple of Manhattan, Kansas, as defending SEC champions looking for a quality nonconference victory.
The Wildcats will be replacing most of its 2013 defense that finished No. 26 in the country in total yards allowed and No. 31 in points per game. The battle to watch will be Auburn's veteran offensive line and Kansas State's veteran defensive line—a matchup that could determine how this Thursday night showdown will play out at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
Kansas State's offense was not spectacular last season, but it returns several key players, including quarterback Jake Waters. This game is turning out to be a trendy preseason upset pick as the Tigers will face a tough road test against what is usually one of the nation's most disciplined teams.
6. Mississippi State
2013 Record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC)
Returning Starters: 16 (8 offense, 8 defense)
Opening Line: Auburn (-9.5)
Over the last few decades, the Mississippi State game has served as Auburn's SEC opener and a game the Tigers were usually expected to win.
However, thanks to some late drama in recent seasons and a 28-10 loss to the Bulldogs in their last road trip to Starkville, the Tigers will not be overwhelming favorites for this midseason matchup. Mississippi State returns most of its offensive and defensive starters from a squad that played in several close SEC games last season.
The experts in Las Vegas believe Auburn should have a slightly easier time with the Bulldogs than with the rival Rebels in the 2014 tour of the Magnolia State. Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee called the trip to Starkville the "biggest trap game" for Auburn's schedule, so do not be surprised if the Tigers play another nail-biter with the experienced Bulldogs.
5. Ole Miss
2013 Record: 8-5 (3-5 SEC)
Returning Starters: 15 (6 offense, 9 defense)
Opening Line: Auburn (-7)
Vaught-Hemingway Stadium was one of the toughest venues in the SEC last season, as the Ole Miss Rebels posted a 5-2 record—only losing by 3 to Johnny Manziel's Texas A&M and by 14 to Eastern Division champions Missouri.
Hugh Freeze's Rebel offense returns Bo Wallace, Jaylen Walton and Laquon Treadwell but will have to replace the bulk of its starting five up front. The defense will look to improve from an average 2013 season by returning all but two starters.
Freeze's recent recruiting classes have been filled with impressive talent, and the Rebels will want to fill the gaps in their depth chart with those highly touted young stars.
A trip to Oxford will come in the middle of a tough SEC grind for Auburn, while Ole Miss will be fresh off a trip to Death Valley to play LSU. Auburn's offense will have to lead the way again in this game, which looks to be a tougher task than its earlier game in Starkville.
2013 Record: 10-3 (5-3 SEC)
Returning Starters: 12 (5 offense, 7 defense)
Opening Line: Auburn (-6.5)
The Tiger Bowl has not been kind to the Orange and Blue in recent seasons, with LSU taking seven of the last nine meetings against Auburn. Auburn was able to make it to the BCS National Championship Game last season as conference champions, but its only regular-season blemish came against LSU after a rainy night in Baton Rouge.
This season, Auburn will be favored to claim its spot at the season's top Tigers in the SEC West. Several of the starting skill players on LSU's offense will be young and relatively inexperienced, and the trip to the Plains will be their first true road game of the season.
Les Miles' Tigers will always have talent on defense, which will come as a huge help against one of the nation's top offenses. Auburn's senior class will be itching to get its first win against the Bayou Bengals, but, as always, the hosts will be in for a major fight in the grueling Western Division.
3. South Carolina
2013 Record: 11-2 (6-2 SEC)
Returning Starters: 14 (8 offense, 6 defense)
Opening Line: Auburn (-7)
Although the all-time Auburn-South Carolina series has been dominated by the Tigers, history may not matter much when Steve Spurrier brings it what could be one of his best Gamecock teams to the Plains this season.
Like Auburn, South Carolina will return most of its studs on offense—Dylan Thompson, Mike Davis and Shaq Roland, to name a few—while looking to answer some questions on defense. The Gamecocks will have to replace more than just Jadeveon Clowney, as they will also debut two new starting cornerbacks on what was one of the nation's stingiest pass defenses last season.
Home-field advantage will be important to Auburn in this one as a legitimate SEC East contender will come knocking in midseason form. While the oddsmakers believe LSU will be a tougher matchup for Auburn than South Carolina, I see the Gamecocks giving the Tigers a harder time at Jordan-Hare Stadium this season.
2013 Record: 8-5 (5-3 SEC)
Returning Starters: 14 (5 offense, 9* defense)
Opening Line: Auburn (-1)
Having both games of "Amen Corner" at home last season was a huge boost for Auburn in its run to the SEC title, but now the unfortunate flipside will kick in this season.
Auburn has lost four of its last five trips to Sanford Stadium in Athens, where a Georgia team determined to get its revenge from "The Miracle at Jordan-Hare" will be there to welcome them.
Quarterback Hutson Mason will have had almost an entire season to get into top form, and star running back Todd Gurley will look to continue terrorizing defenses when Auburn rolls into town. Defensively, the Bulldogs return every starter, except for the dismissed Josh Harvey-Clemons and recent Auburn transfer Tray Matthews.
While the Tigers boast more offensive firepower, the Bulldogs will have the edge defensively. Depending on the results of the first three-quarters of the season, either team could be a favorite here.
*Tray Matthews still on Georgia's roster at the time on Steele's list.
2013 Record: 11-2 (7-1 SEC)
Returning Starters: 12 (7 offense, 5 defense)
Opening Line: Alabama (-6)
Auburn's in-state rival has been favored in its last 54 straight games. Barring a couple of jarring losses from the Crimson Tide, that streak is likely to continue, even into this season's Iron Bowl.
Alabama will not have as much starting experience on a defense that struggled to slow down Auburn's high-powered offense, but it will be stacked with former blue-chippers. On offense, Alabama will have a new quarterback, Jacob Coker, to lead an offense with a deep rotation of running backs and wide receivers.
The Crimson Tide have been the toughest regular-season opponent for the Tigers since 2008, Nick Saban's second season in Tuscaloosa. This year should be no different, as fans in the state of Alabama anxiously await what could be another instant classic in one of the best rivalries in sports.
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. All stats taken from CFBStats.com. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports.