SEC Country takes a look at each of Auburn’s 12 opponents and ranks them on the Tough Enough scale, from easy enough to the toughest opponents on the schedule. The four-part series continues with the “tough enough” opponents on the Tigers’ schedule.
Auburn’s 2016 schedule is considered the toughest in the country, according to the FEI ratings. Even the “bottom tier” opponents are teams with winning records last season, including two teams that beat the Tigers. Simply put, being labeled “tough enough” in SEC Country’s four-tier Tough Enough scale is nothing to be ashamed of these days.
This is our largest group, too, with opponents ranging from non-conference foe Arkansas State to Texas A&M. The Aggies never lose road games at Jordan-Hare Stadium under coach Kevin Sumlin.
Our list consists of five opponents, so let’s rank them from the easiest to the toughest in the “tough enough” category, which is the second-tier of our four-tier system. We’ll start with the “easiest” opponent.
5. Arkansas State
The quarterback position will get the most attention, especially with transfers Justice Hansen of Oklahoma and Chad Voytik of Pittsburgh. The quarterback battle — which included up to five players in the spring — should come down to those two transfers and Hansen’s duality could prove fruitful, though it appears Voytik is receiving much of the chatter heading into preseason camp.
Arkansas State also gets a new offensive coordinator in former Middle Tennessee State play caller Buster Faulkner, whose offense averaged 34 points per game last season. He has quite the show to follow after Arkansas State set the record for touchdowns last season in the Sun Belt.
The Red Wolves return 13 starters from a 9-4 team, which won the Sun Belt with an 8-0 record in the conference last season.
Fifteen starters return from a 4-8 team, but this simply is not a team reflective of previous years under James Franklin. Head coach Derek Mason took over as the defensive coordinator last season and the defense improved by 12 points per game (21 ppg) but they still only won two games in the SEC and fell to Western Kentucky.
The bad news for Auburn? Vanderbilt will be one of the more experienced teams in the SEC, so you never know what could happen.
Fourteen starters return from an eight-win team, but the Hogs lose their top running back (Alex Collins, 1,577 yards) and an amazingly underrated quarterback (Brandon Allen, who threw for 3,440 yards and 30 touchdowns while completing 65.9 percent of his passes). It appears Allen’s little brother, Austin, will take over the starting job after attempting only three passes last season by offensive coordinator Dan Enos will get that offense rolling.
What could be scary good is Arkansas’ defense, which allowed only 19.2 points per game last season and returns nine starters.
The good news for Auburn? The Hogs have to travel to Jordan-Hare Stadium and that four-overtime loss in Fayetteville last season is sure to serve as motivation for the Tigers.
2. at Mississippi State
This is a rebuilding year in Starkville, but Dan Mullen seems to have Auburn’s number in recent years, winning three of the last four games against the Tigers. Dak Prescott, the greatest quarterback in Mississippi State history, is gone and who starts in his place is still a mystery. The Bulldogs also lose receivers De’Runnya Wilson and Fred Brown, but return 1,000-yard receiver Fred Ross.
The offense is not the only unit in transition. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz left for Miami, forcing Mullen to make a change at coordinator for the second straight season. Mississippi State’s schedule sets up for a seventh straight trip to a bowl game, and jumping into the top half of the SEC West would require a victory against Auburn in Starkville, where the cowbells deafen and beat down opponents at Davis Wade Stadium.
1. Texas A&M
The team everyone wants to compare to Auburn, and for good reason: there are questions at quarterback in a hurry-up system and the defense always seems to be a work in progress.
Thirteen starters return to this unit and the defense should be better under second-year coordinator John Chavis, a master technician during his days coaching Tennessee and LSU’s defensive units over the years. The Aggies have won both games inside Jordan-Hare Stadium since joining the SEC and Auburn has won both games at Kyle Field during that time. History shows us a Kevin Sumlin-coached Texas A&M team will prove difficult for Auburn, which place this team at the top of our list in the “tough enough” category. Then again, there are way too many unknowns for this team heading into the season, even if Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight is a capable leader and will start at quarteback.
Coming Thursday: The tougher opponents