AUBURN, Ala. — The college football offseason has hit peak schedule-scrutinizing season. Between preview magazines and online outlets, fans can find plenty of recent breakdowns of 2017’s best matchups, trap games and toughest schedules.
With that in mind, let’s turn some early attention toward Auburn football’s 2017 schedule, which starts in fewer than 80 days. As an SEC West member, the Tigers always draw tough conference matchups — and there’s a mandate to play a Power 5 nonconference opponent these days.
While Auburn gets its two biggest rivals at home this season, it has to play three straight SEC games on the road. It’s a mixed bag of advantages and challenges, which should set up an intriguing fall on the Plains.
Here’s a preview of Auburn’s 12-game slate for the 2017 regular season, ranked from the easiest (12) game to the toughest (1). These rankings are based mostly on opponent strength, but timing and location play key roles as well.
12. vs. Mercer (Sept. 16)
The revival of Mercer football has only been around for four seasons. This FCS program from Macon, Ga., has made tremendous strides since coming back from a 72-year hiatus, but Auburn should breeze through this one. Don’t expect anything close to a 2015 Jacksonville State-like test from the Bears, who have only played one FBS team.
11. vs. UL-Monroe (Nov. 18)
Auburn smacked ULM to the tune of 55 points last season, and the Warhawks will be the tune-up game before the Iron Bowl this time. UL-Monroe has a decent rushing attack by Sun Belt standards, but it doesn’t show much promise in improving upon the nation’s worst run defense from a season ago. This should be another blowout win for the Tigers at an important time of the season.
10. vs. Georgia Southern (Sept. 2)
Georgia Southern normally presents several challenges to bigger foes with its option offense and tradition of punching well above its weight. But the Eagles lost a lot to graduation from an offense that underwhelmed in a 5-7 season — and one that has a new coordinator for 2017. The front seven will be overhauled as well. Auburn gets extra time to get ready for the option with this being the season opener, making this another blowout possibility.
9. at Missouri (Sept. 23)
Auburn opens its SEC schedule with its first-ever trip to Missouri. The book on the Tigers is simple. They return almost every starter from their offense that led the league in total yards last fall, but they also had one of the nation’s worst defenses. If Auburn can take care of the ball and force a fun yet inconsistent Air Raid attack to make mistakes, this should be a highly favorable matchup coming off a breezy Mercer win.
8. vs. Ole Miss (Oct. 7)
Auburn gets the Mississippi schools back-to-back this season, and the second one gets bumped down in the rankings here. The Rebels are the wild card of all wild cards in 2017 — they have two new coordinators, a highly talented sophomore quarterback and the shadow of the NCAA looming over it. The Rebels will test the Tigers through the air. But former Auburn assistant Wesley McGriff has some serious work to do on defense for the Rebels.
7. vs. Mississippi State (Sept. 30)
A popular dark horse in the SEC West this season, Mississippi State has a great quarterback in Nick Fitzgerald and an experienced cast of weapons around him. However, the defense needs to show improvement from a tough 2016 campaign — especially against the pass. Auburn gets Mississippi State right after the road game against Missouri, and Fitzgerald will be one of its toughest QB matchups of the year.
6. at Texas A&M (Nov. 4)
Since Texas A&M joined the SEC, the road team has won every meeting between the Tigers and the Aggies. Jarrett Stidham will return to his home state against a team that backed off of his recruitment last year. Texas A&M’s usually dangerous passing game will be a work-in-progress with a lot of new starters, and its defensive line must rebuild post-Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. It’s a road game at a hostile environment, but Auburn gets it off a bye week.
5. at Arkansas (Oct. 21)
Although Auburn hammered Arkansas in Jordan-Hare Stadium last season, the Razorbacks could be sneaky surprises this fall. Austin Allen is an experienced quarterback, and the offensive line should be a strength. The Hogs should be solid in the secondary and dangerous in the running game as well. But what makes this matchup extra-difficult is that it comes right after a trip to LSU for Auburn. The Tigers will hope Alabama roughs Arkansas up enough on Oct. 14, too.
4. vs. Georgia (Nov. 11)
Auburn should’ve ended its recent woes against Georgia last season, but a hurting offense couldn’t get the job done. While this season should be different, the Bulldogs should be much-improved in Kirby Smart’s second season. The Bulldogs return most of the playmakers from a strong defense, and the offense has plenty of potential if the line does its job. Georgia could be fighting for its SEC title hopes at this point in the year, making this a tough matchup — even at home.
3. at LSU (Oct. 14)
Auburn hasn’t won in Baton Rouge since 1999. LSU still has to find a respectable passing game, but new offensive coordinator Matt Canada worked wonders at Pitt. While Derrius Guice isn’t Leonard Fournette, he could be just as devastating to a defense. Dave Aranda will enter what could be a massive second year as LSU’s defensive coordinator, and he still has Arden Key rushing the passer. This will be another hard-hitting matchup in one of the most intimidating venues in America.
2. at Clemson (Sept. 9)
Auburn will feel like it should’ve taken down the eventual national champion last year, and it’ll look for revenge against a team that has to replace a lot of stars. However, Clemson should be strong on both lines with plenty of championship-proven talent, and Brent Venables doesn’t have to completely overhaul his defense again. This should be more of a defense-led team in 2017, which is a difficult draw for the likes of Jarrett Stidham and Chip Lindsey in their second game together.
1. vs. Alabama (Nov. 25)
While Auburn has to face a defending national champion on the road this season, Alabama is still the toughest matchup it’ll have. The Crimson Tide consistently boast the nation’s most talented roster, and they return a dynamic backfield led by Jalen Hurts and Bo Scarbrough. Alabama’s defense has to reload again, but there’s a lot of skill for Jeremy Pruitt to work with in his second season. Until further notice, the Iron Bowl will be the biggest and by far the toughest matchup on any Auburn schedule.