AUBURN, Ala. — In 2016, Auburn was the only team in college football that had to face the two teams that played in the previous season’s national championship game.
The Tigers won’t get away from that in 2017, either.
In 2017, Gus Malzahn’s Auburn team will look to build on the positives from its 8-5 campaign with a roster that returns plenty of talent. The Tigers finished the regular season as the SEC’s second-best team, and they have a great chance to start the upcoming season in the exact same spot.
While Auburn’s two biggest rivals — Georgia and potential back-to-back defending national champion Alabama — both have to come to Jordan-Hare Stadium, they have quite a hefty road schedule in 2017. That includes a trip to a Clemson team that will play for the national title Monday night and three consecutive away games in the SEC West.
A lot will change between now and September with each of Auburn’s 12 regular-season opponents for 2017. But with those on the Plains already looking ahead to next fall, here’s an early glance at what the Tigers will face when football season kicks off again.
Sept. 2: vs. Georgia Southern
2016 record: 5-7 (4-4 Sun Belt)
After a strong run to start life as an FBS program, Georgia Southern fell off last year under new head coach Tyson Summers. The Eagles dropped seven of their final nine games, many of them winnable. The senior-laden option attack fell to 29th nationally in yards per game and scored just 24 touchdowns after notching 54 in 2015.
Georgia Southern had seniors at all but two of its skill positions on offense, and its underwhelming defense is set to lose six starters. Option-running teams notoriously are tough to plan for defensively, but this will be a new-look squad hitting Jordan-Hare Stadium for the season opener. Auburn should get a decent tune-up game here without it being a complete rout.
Sept. 9: at Clemson
2016 record: 13-1* (7-1 ACC)
The recent SEC vs. ACC rivalry between these two programs continues with the half of the home-and-home agreement that started in 2016. Clemson is in danger of losing most of its high-powered offense to the NFL after this season, including quarterback Deshaun Watson, running back Wayne Gallman and receiver Mike Williams. Defensively, tackle Carlos Watkins, linebacker Ben Boulware and corner Cordrea Tankersley will be gone.
However, Clemson is one of the most consistent programs in college football for a reason, and plenty high-level line talent — think defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, defensive end Christian Wilkins and offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt — returns. Winning in Death Valley is a tough task. Dabo Swinney’s teams are some of the best outside of Alabama at reloading year in and year out. Auburn should have an experience advantage and the confidence from taking the Tigers to the wire in 2016.
Sept. 16: vs. Mercer
2016 record: 6-5 (4-4 SoCon — FCS)
Auburn gets to cool off from the Clemson trip with Mercer, a program that made its return to the FCS from a 60-year hiatus in 2013. The Bears have made steady progress in the Southern Conference since joining in 2014, and they lost 35-10 at Georgia Tech last season in their first taste of Power 5 football.
Mercer is an easy paycheck game, but it’ll be against a program on the rise. Auburn will get its easiest matchup out of the way early, and the Bears will leave with a sizable amount of cash for building toward the future.
Sept. 23: at Missouri
2016 record: 4-8 (2-6 SEC)
Missouri could’ve hit a giant wall in the second half of the 2016 season. The Tigers took some lopsided losses after hanging tight with Georgia in Week 3, and they missed a couple of opportunities to knock off Kentucky and South Carolina in SEC East play. But Missouri, armed with a strong spread offense led by quarterback Drew Lock, bounced back to beat Vanderbilt and Arkansas late in the year.
Barry Odom’s team had one of the worst defenses in the SEC last season, but it should return a lot of pieces in his second season. An older Lock will return with most of his skill talent intact, so this is a team that will test Auburn on the scoreboard. This is a first-time road trip for Auburn. It should provide a decent challenge to start SEC play.
Sept. 30: vs. Mississippi State
2016 record: 6-7 (3-5 SEC)
Mississippi State finished the season with a narrow win over Miami-Ohio in a bowl that it normally wouldn’t have qualified for thanks to its 5-7 record. But the Bulldogs grabbed some late momentum, and they have a fantastic young quarterback in Nick Fitzgerald, who got better as the season continued.
Dan Mullen’s team has some rebuilding to do on both fronts, which were pushed around by Auburn in its trip to Starkville. Fitzgerald has several interesting weapons coming back, and there’s a lot of potential for its secondary to grow this offseason. Auburn should take care of business, but this is a program that is fond of making things way too close for the Tigers.
Oct. 7: vs. Ole Miss
2016 record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
Well, what to think of Ole Miss? The Rebels collapsed in the second half of the season, with some of that being aided by an injury to quarterback Chad Kelly. His replacement, Shea Patterson, looks like the real deal. But former Auburn defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff has some rebuilding to do on what was a bad defense in 2016, especially against the run.
The threat of NCAA punishment will loom over Oxford this offseason, and there’s a sense of uneasiness around Hugh Freeze’s program. The talent is there on offense. However, Auburn should have the edge at home against a program that is going backwards after several of its best seasons in decades.
Oct. 14: at LSU
2016 record: 8-4 (5-3 SEC)
Auburn’s last-second win over LSU last year sent Les Miles out the door and gave Ed Orgeron an opportunity to become the head man in his beloved home state. The Tigers will have to travel to their second Death Valley to face an LSU team with a new offensive style under Matt Canada and a lot of new defensive talent under Dave Aranda.
Derrius Guice has the potential to be just as good as Leonard Fournette in the LSU backfield, and Aranda will always have a tough defense on his hands. LSU has to figure out its quarterback situation and a lot of replacements on the other side of the ball. We’re more than nine months from this matchup, but it’s looking like the most intriguing one on the schedule for Auburn.
Oct. 21: at Arkansas
2016 record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC)
Nothing ever seemed to stay consistent for Arkansas in 2016. The Razorbacks had high points in wins over TCU, Ole Miss and Florida. But Auburn delivered a crushing 56-3 loss to them, and they blew a 24-0 lead in a bowl game loss to Virginia Tech. Bret Bielema’s defense was extremely soft against the run, and Arkansas’ own rushing attack didn’t have the same amount of pop as we’re used to seeing.
Arkansas needs to retool its defense, but it can take some pride in the fact that it was explosive in the passing game this season. The pieces are there for a strong offense in 2017 thanks to Austin Allen and several returning starters up front. Auburn will be coming off a tough matchup against LSU, and this has the makings of a dangerous trip to Fayetteville. If Arkansas can stiffen on defense this offseason and find some new playmakers at receiver, watch out.
Nov. 4: at Texas A&M
2016 record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)
After a much-needed off week, Auburn wraps up three straight away from home with Texas A&M, another team that will be in an interesting spot come 2017. The Aggies lose a lot of talent this offseason — including quarterback Trevor Knight, almost every key receiver except for Christian Kirk, defensive ends Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. A&M had a second-half swoon in 2016, and head coach Kevin Sumlin will be on the hot seat this upcoming fall.
Texas A&M always makes for an intimidating road atmosphere, but there’s a lot of question marks that have to be answered by the Aggies over the next several months. Auburn will get A&M toward the end of the season. Whether it’ll be a new-look contender or yet another Aggie team in another late-season slide is unknown. But the Aggies have home-field advantage and several top playmakers returning.
Nov. 11: vs. Georgia
2016 record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)
Auburn’s biggest regret from the 2016 season has to be not beating Georgia in Athens. When Sean White tried to play through his shoulder injury, the Tigers couldn’t do anything against one of the worst Georgia teams in recent memory. Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs will return a lot of stars — including running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel — and they’ve been recruiting at a ridiculous level this year.
Georgia’s passing game needs to take a step forward with young quarterback Jacob Eason in order to be a contender in the SEC. Auburn will get to host the Bulldogs in hopes of its first win in the series since the 2013 “Miracle at Jordan-Hare.” With the returning talent on both sides, this matchup could have huge implications in the SEC race once again.
Nov. 18: vs. Louisiana-Monroe
2016 record: 4-8 (3-5 Sun Belt)
Louisiana-Monroe slapped together a few wins after Auburn routed it in 2016, but this was still one of the worst FBS teams in the country. The Warhawks weren’t competitive against many of the bowl teams they played, allowing a ton of big plays week in and week out.
The Warhawks will be the 2017 tune-up before the Iron Bowl, as Auburn plays an FCS team earlier in the season. They’ll theoretically be tougher than Mercer, but Auburn should have zero problems knocking off a team that just doesn’t have the resources to be a dangerous mid-major at the moment.
Nov. 25: vs. Alabama
2016 record: 14-0* (8-0 SEC)
The Iron Bowl comes back to Jordan-Hare Stadium, and Auburn hopes it can hold onto the SEC West title plans it had before the Georgia loss in 2016. If the Tigers would’ve won there, this matchup would’ve been for a trip to Atlanta. On paper, Auburn and Alabama will be the two best teams in the SEC West.
The Crimson Tide will lose a lot on their dominant front four, but it could easily return the majority of its offensive starters in 2017. Reloading up front shouldn’t be a problem for a program that gets the No. 1 recruiting class each year, and Alabama will be toward the end of its second full season with dynamic dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts. Alabama is the toughest matchup of 2017 for Auburn, but you already knew that before you clicked on this article.
The bottom line
There’s a lot of middle-of-the-road or worse teams on the schedule for Auburn in 2017 thanks to what was a down year for most of the SEC. Auburn has a chance to return more starters than all of them. A trip to Clemson won’t be easy, but the Tigers should be favored in five of their first six games of the season.
Navigating through three straight SEC West road trips will be tough, but they’ll all look winnable if Auburn can stay healthy and get the right players plugged into its few gaps on the depth chart. Having “Amen Corner” at home in 2017 should help Malzahn snap his three-year 0-for run against Auburn’s biggest rivals. The schedule sets up well for 9 or 10 wins — and there’s potential for a title run if the Tigers can get their quarterbacks firing on all cylinders.