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 “tougher” opponents on the Tigers’ schedule.
Auburn’s 2016 schedule is considered the toughest in the country, according to the FEI ratings. Our third tier in the rankings are opponents Auburn will likely be underdogs — at least on paper this preseason. These are games that could change the outlook of the season for the Tigers if they look the part of a program ready to knock these programs down a peg on the road.
2. at Ole Miss
Ole Miss returns the best quarterback in the conference after Chad Kelly’s 4,000-yard passing season (he also ran for 500 yards) but the continued weak spot and question remains at running back, where the Rebels never seem to have a downhill, every-down ‘back to punish defenses in the red zone. Five starters return on offense, but the top two receivers (Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core) and top running back (Jaylen Walton) are gone. Oh, and the defense loses Robert Nkemdiche.
Auburn and Ole Miss fought to a stalemate until Treadwell’s heartbreaking injury at the goal line in 2014 in what was then billed as the first playoff-elimination game of the playoff era. The Rebels recently expanded their stadium, so expect a louder atmosphere when the Tigers arrive in Oxford, Miss., on Oct. 29.
Gus Malzahn has won two of the last three against his friend Hugh Freeze, but this one will be an even tougher draw considering the placement on the schedule as the Tigers approach the last month of the season with three of their final four SEC games on the road.
1. at Georgia
The sleeper pick to win the SEC East in former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s first season as head coach. Tennessee is the popular selection for prognosticators in the SEC East, but don’t coutnt out Georgia, which returns eight offensive starters and six more on defense. Plus, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb are back at running back. The Bulldogs also get Tennessee at home in Athens, Ga., this season, so don’t be surprised if it’s the Bulldogs heading to Atlanta for the SEC Championship this season.
Auburn’s brutal stretch of games gets tougher with Georgia in the second-to-last SEC game of the season. Thanks to SEC expansion in 2012, this and the Alabama game both remain on the road in the odd years, making it even more difficult for the Tigers to get through the month of November unscathed. This is a crucial game for Malzahn, especially if the Tigers are already struggling, and a third straight loss to the Bulldogs, who have already won eight of the last 10 in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, would not set well with the Auburn faithful.
This game came close to being in our “toughest” opponents tier, but we’ll go with “tougher” because of the unknowns a first-year coach carries.
Coming Friday: The toughest opponents