Auburn Football: Final Game-by-Game Schedule Predictions
On Sunday night, the Auburn Tigers officially ended fall camp.
Following an off day Monday, the defending SEC champions will be in full preparation mode for their upcoming schedule—and what a tough schedule it will be.
Auburn will play seven teams that are ranked in both the preseason coaches and The Associated Press polls, more than any other team in the country. For the first time in program history, the Tigers will have to travel to both rivals Georgia and Alabama.
Even with the brutal 2014 schedule, preseason expectations are extremely high for Auburn, which returns most of its starters from its impressive offense and its steadily improving defense.
After all the off-the-field drama and on-the-field action of the summer on the Plains, I've revisited my May predictions. Has anything changed in my opinion of head coach Gus Malzahn's Tigers and their upcoming season? Let's take a game-by-game look.
Aug. 30 vs. Arkansas
Auburn's long-awaited season opener should have plenty of fireworks this season, either from its own offense or the opposing team's sideline.
Even if the Arkansas Razorbacks do not show remarkable improvement from their 3-9 season, the growing rivalry between Bret Bielema and Arkansas native Gus Malzahn will provide drama from the first kickoff of the campaign.
Arkansas should be better as a whole this season, and Bielema's squad has some positives to highlight, including a trio of talented running backs and several defensive stars with All-SEC potential. If these players can stay healthy and improve from week to week, the Razorbacks might contend for a bowl game this season.
Unfortunately, Arkansas plays Auburn on the road on the first weekend of the season. The talent gap looks to be too great for the Razorbacks to pull off the upset, no matter how much Bielema has circled this matchup to his team, which would love nothing more than to start an Auburn-like turnaround with a stunning win.
The indefinite suspensions of Nick Marshall and Jonathon Mincy should not have a drastic effect on this game. I stand behind my earlier prediction: the Razorbacks might hang with the Tigers in the first half, but Auburn's overall quality on both sides of the ball will win out for a double-digit, season-opening win.
Projected Record: 1-0 (1-0 SEC)
Sept. 6 vs. San Jose State
This isn't a FCS paycheck game, but it still will provide the tuneup Auburn needs for the weeks ahead.
San Jose State is a middle-of-the-road Mountain West school that has to replace several starters, including a star quarterback. The Spartans did not fare well against big-time opponents last season, and that doesn't look like it will change this season.
The offense simply won't have the horses to compete with what Auburn will be able to put up against a smaller team like San Jose State. If Auburn's defense forces some turnovers, this could be one of its few chances this season to hold a team to single digits on the scoreboard.
Projected Record: 2-0 (1-0 SEC)
Sept. 18 vs. Kansas State
A Thursday night game on the road against a power-conference team is definitely unknown territory for the Auburn program, but the Tigers should be favored by a couple of scores heading into their matchup against Kansas State.
The Wildcats have been solid at their worst over the last few seasons with a couple of recent ventures into the Top 10. Last season, Bill Snyder's team overcame an early-season loss to FCS powerhouse North Dakota State and three straight defeats to conference opponents to post an 8-5 record.
Kansas State has to replace several starters on both offense and defense, but they still have star wide receiver Tyler Lockett, quarterback Jake Waters and a veteran defensive line. Auburn will look to attack a rebuilding offensive line in Manhattan, while Nick Marshall will try to test a secondary that only returns one starter.
Even with those question marks, Kansas State still is a ranked team and a road opponent for Auburn. I said earlier this offseason that this should be a hard-fought win for the Tigers, and I still believe that it will be close until it's late in the second half.
If Auburn can lock down Lockett and get to Waters, the offense should have enough firepower to jump on Kansas State early and tone down the home-field advantage. But I still see these Wildcats hanging around for a while, and Auburn will notch a 10- or 14-point win in this one.
Projected Record: 3-0 (1-0 SEC)
Sept. 27 vs. Louisiana Tech
After the Kansas State trip, Auburn will be able to look forward to an early homecoming game against a Louisiana Tech squad that has a long way to go before it can hang with the big teams.
Louisiana Tech throws the ball a lot, but the team's two quarterbacks, Ryan Higgins and Scotty Young, were toward the bottom nationally in passing yards last season. That inefficient offense is tacked to a defense that was one of the nation's worst at stopping the run.
Auburn will be able to move the ball easily against Louisiana Tech, which doesn't have the look of a giant-killer at this point. This will be a chance for some early rest for the starters and some important snaps for the young guys.
Projected Record: 4-0 (1-0 SEC)
Oct. 4 vs. LSU
Auburn's second game of the SEC slate is a shot at revenge—and it's on the Plains.
The Tigers will come off a tuneup game against Louisiana Tech with the most notable team from the Bulldogs' home state, the LSU Tigers. Les Miles' Bayou Bengals jumped on Auburn from the opening kickoff last year, capitalized on a few early mistakes and etched a great divisional win on a rainy night in Baton Rouge.
This season, LSU has a lot of question marks, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. are off to the NFL. While the young playmakers at LSU—Brandon Harris (who is not officially the starting quarterback yet), Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupre—have a lot of talent, they just don't have experience.
Still, it's hard to count out a Les Miles team that has a veteran offensive line and a veteran secondary. If LSU's athletic defense forces a slow start for the Auburn offense again, the newcomers could put the hosts in a hole they might not escape. But if Auburn can throw punches early, the extra experience and home-field advantage should win out in the end.
The national pollsters might be down somewhat on LSU this year, but I'm not. I still expect this one to be another close game in the famous Tiger Bowl series, with the orange and blue ones pulling out a tight victory.
Projected Record: 5-0 (2-0 SEC)
Oct. 11 at Mississippi State
Remember when Mississippi State was a surefire win each season for Auburn?
Since head coach Dan Mullen's second season in Starkville, the Bulldogs have been a tough matchup for the Tigers in the SEC West. A couple of games have been shootouts, and, on paper, the 2014 game has all the makings of being another high-scoring affair.
Mississippi State returns most of its receivers and offensive linemen, but it all starts with quarterback Dak Prescott, who had 346 all-purpose yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns against the Auburn defense last season. The dual-threat Prescott has the potential to be one of the conference's best quarterbacks and a dark-horse Heisman candidate with the talent around him. Simply put, Auburn's defense has to do a better job handling dual-threat passers than it did in 2014.
The Bulldogs also have a ton of experience defensively with as many as 18 contributors coming back this season. The interior defensive line will be a good test for Auburn's offensive line, and the secondary could cause problems for Nick Marshall through the air.
While the Tigers will be coming off of a physical game against LSU when they head to Davis-Wade Stadium in mid-October, I think they have what it takes to get a two-score win against a tough Bulldog team. Auburn's overall talent far and away outweighs Mississippi State's, no matter the amount of experience Mullen's team brings, and that fact will show this season thanks to a better Tiger offense.
Projected Record: 6-0 (3-0 SEC)
Oct. 25 vs. South Carolina
Make no mistake: This is the toughest home game on Auburn's 2014 schedule.
South Carolina is a preseason Top 10 team that will have played in a couple of big games before coming to Jordan-Hare Stadium. Since this is a midseason showdown, any questions about quarterback Dylan Thompson's ability to be a full-time starter for this offense will probably already be answered, and the senior is surrounded by fantastic playmakers such as running back Mike Davis and wide receiver Shaq Roland.
The issues for the Gamecocks will be on the defense. Not only does Steve Spurrier and staff have to replace the elite talents of Jadeveon Clowney, they also have to find answers all across the defensive line and the secondary. That South Carolina defense will be led by its returning starters at linebacker, but they cannot solely be relied on to stop an offense as explosive as Auburn's.
This will be another game where home-field advantage, as well as the previous bye week, will be a big deal for Auburn. Although Spurrier has led South Carolina to new heights in his tenure, this team does not usually win big games on the road—the obvious exception being last season's double-overtime victory at eventual SEC East champion Missouri.
If Auburn's defense can slow down Davis and cause problems for Thompson, the Tigers will have plenty of chances to attack the inexperienced parts of the Gamecocks defense. I originally called this one a shootout, but the more I study this matchup, the more I see a close, lower-scoring SEC slugfest—one that Auburn wins late.
Projected Record: 7-0 (4-0 SEC)
Nov. 1 at Ole Miss
The first day of November presents another dangerous road trip for Auburn this season as Malzahn squares off against his good friend Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss.
If he stays completely healthy, senior quarterback Bo Wallace could have an outstanding season in Oxford. He will be able to test Auburn's defense through the air with the likes of Jaylen Walton out of the backfield and Laquon Treadwell out wide.
The Rebels' strength lies in their defense, which returns nine starters from a decent 2013 campaign. There is experience all across the board, not only from star players like Robert Nkemdiche and Cody Prewitt, but underrated defensive backs such as Senquez Golson and Trae Elston.
Where Auburn will be able to take advantage on the road will be the Ole Miss offensive line. The Tigers had their biggest sack performance at home against Ole Miss as they took Wallace down in the backfield six different times. Now the Rebels replace three starters from that line, and a few highly rated recruits from recent recruiting classes will have to prove their worth early against a hungry Auburn defense.
Auburn's experienced defensive line will have an opportunity for another big day against Ole Miss this season, and that will prove to be the difference against a veteran opponent. The Tigers' offensive talent will be able to follow up a few defensive stops with quick scores in what I still see as a two-score road win in Oxford.
Projected Record: 8-0 (5-0 SEC)
Nov. 8 vs. Texas A&M
Good news, Auburn fans. Johnny Manziel, the quarterback who tormented the Auburn defense each of the last two seasons, is no longer in College Station.
The Aggies recently tabbed sophomore Kenny Hill, who got a few snaps in some blowout wins last season, to replace the former Heisman winner at quarterback. Hill won't have fellow Auburn killer Mike Evans to throw to this season—just one of several issues facing a rebuilding Texas A&M squad this season.
Defensively, nine starters are back for an Aggie defense that was simply dreadful last season. An Auburn offense that hadn't quite hit its full stride was able to match Manziel and Co. punch for punch last season at Kyle Field because of those defensive woes. Texas A&M has experience on defense, but it will have to show vast improvement if it hopes to stop Auburn's attack in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin has created a recruiting machine in talent-rich Texas, and some of those young stars will have to step up this season in the SEC West gauntlet. All signs point to A&M continuing to be a force in the conference, but 2014 is looking rough for the Aggies.
Auburn should be able to move the ball at will against Texas A&M's defense, and the defense will want to rattle Hill and his fellow underclassmen in front of a hostile crowd. I think this won't be a close game against the Aggies—something that will be a rarity in the seasons to come.
Projected Record: 9-0 (6-0 SEC)
Nov. 15 at Georgia
After back-to-back home games against rival Georgia, Auburn will have to travel this season to Athens, a place that has not been kind to them in recent years.
The Bulldogs offense should be one of the best in the SEC thanks to the dangerous combination of running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Hutson Mason was impressive in Aaron Murray's place at the end of Georgia's tough season, and this attack couldn't possibly suffer the same injury woes it did last year—right?
Defensively, unless Mark Richt has to kick off several more players, Georgia will have a lot of experience and pure talent coming back this season. New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who was at national champion Florida State last season, knows what it takes to slow Auburn down.
I believe this Auburn team is in danger of losing to teams that have top-level offenses, and Georgia is going to be one of those this season. An already-experienced Mason will be toward the end of his season as the Bulldogs' starter, and he will have Gurley, Marshall and a hungry group of receivers ready for revenge.
In May, I predicted the Tigers would lose to Georgia between the hedges. Even with the dismissals since then, I still predict the Bulldogs—if they stay healthy—will pull out an extremely close victory in a rowdy Athens against Auburn. It won't keep the Tigers out of the national championship picture, but they will be in must-win mode from this point forward.
Projected Record: 9-1 (6-1 SEC)
Nov. 22 vs. Samford
Instead of a bye week before the Iron Bowl, Auburn will get an easy game against FCS opponent Samford, who is coached by former Auburn legend Pat Sullivan.
The coaching staff could use this final home game for a few different purposes. The Tigers might run all of their starters out for a few drives to get some rhythm back after what I think will be a tough loss to Georgia, or they could run reserves for the whole game and save their energy for the trip to Tuscaloosa.
Either way, this one shouldn't be close. Auburn will cruise to what it hopes will be an injury-free victory on the Plains.
Projected Record: 10-1 (6-1 SEC)
Nov. 29 at Alabama
Unless the Alabama Crimson Tide lose a pair of SEC games before they host Auburn, this one is going to decide the SEC West once again.
At this point, former Florida State backup Jacob Coker has not nailed down the starting job at quarterback in Tuscaloosa. No matter if Coker or longtime backup Blake Sims wins the job, there is still a question under center for the Crimson Tide. No one will know their true ability until a few games into the season.
However, there is no doubt Alabama has impressive talent on offense, with T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry, Amari Cooper, O.J. Howard and Christion Jones all headaches for opposing defenses this season. If the new quarterback can develop chemistry with the rest of these playmakers, Alabama will be dangerous once again.
Defensively, the Tide will have to tap into their star-studded reserves to replace seven starters. An experienced Auburn offense proved it could move the ball on the ground against the Crimson Tide in last season's Iron Bowl, and an in-form Marshall will go up against a secondary that had to reload again this offseason.
The Tide's home-field advantage and Saban's record in "revenge games" at Alabama will make this another instant classic, but I still think Auburn's no-huddle offense and experienced defense give the Tigers the slight edge. While this Alabama team will be one of the best in the country once again, there are enough question marks at this point for me to predict Auburn will be the better of the two by season's end.
Projected Record: 11-1 (7-1 SEC)