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 top tier of opponents in the “tough enough scale” features three national title contenders, though that could change with Auburn upsetting one of these powers. It’s happened before and it will happen again, so why not in 2016?
LSU is the team many should have considered picking as the SEC champion this season. The Tigers return 17 (!) starters on an already-experienced roster. Brandon Harris returns at quarterback looking to take the next step, but the offense surely will live and die with running back Leonard Fournette. He ran for 1,953 yards last season and got his early-season Heisman campaign going in 2015 with a 228-yard performance against Auburn last season in the Bayou.
As good as LSU should be on offense this season, the defense may be at its best in several seasons thanks to the arrival of former Wisconsin coordinator Dave Aranda. His defenses ranked in the top three nationally in each of the last two seasons, so don’t be surprised if he has LSU playing at a top-10 level on defense early in the season. The good news for Auburn is it gets LSU at Jordan-Hare Stadium, where Auburn has won two out of the last three — Auburn won the SEC title and advanced to the BCS national championship after each win. A victory against LSU on Sept. 24 would provide a much-needed boost (and hope for a winning season) against a potential national title contender.
Speaking of national title contenders, the national runner-up from last season opens the season Sept. 3 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn already is an underdog by 7.5-points, even before naming its starting quarterback. Clemson is stacked on offense and Heisman favorite Deshaun Watson has been described by one rival coach (Nick Saban) as the best quarterback he has seen since Cam Newton. That’s high praise, of course, and Auburn is going to need one of its best defensive performances of the last decade to knock off Clemson.
This game is extra tough because of its spot on the schedule. Auburn could be breaking in a new quarterback (John Franklin III) — and at the very least several new receivers. Many have said Auburn will need to rely on its defense early in the season, and we think that will have to be the recipe for success against Clemson. We get the feeling Auburn will be able to score some points against Clemson’s defense, which is rebuilding following the loss of its two top pass rushers, so if the defense can get some stops, this game could be much closer than many expect.
1. at Alabama
Auburn is the only team in the country facing the playoff finalists from last season, and with it comes the honor of owning the nation’s top schedule. The season begins with national runner-up Clemson and it ends with national champion Alabama. It doesn’t get much tougher than that.
Alabama enters familiar territory this season as it must replace the starting quarterback yet again, but the roster is not short on talent and the backfield will be especially strong. Auburn has lost two straight to Alabama — by double digits — since the Kick Six in 2013, and fans will not like suffering through a third straight loss to the Tide, even if they are the favorites to win the SEC and possibly repeat as national champions.
Add in the fact that Auburn must travel to Tuscaloosa, the Tide could be too much to overcome.