First it was the Georgia Bulldogs, then it was the Alabama Crimson Tide, then it was the Bulldogs again, then it was the UCF Knights and in a few weeks it will be the Washington Huskies for the Auburn Tigers. The first two games, the Tigers took care of business and earned their way into the SEC Championship game in Atlanta to face --- the Georgia Bulldogs. Beating Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs and Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide in succession was impressive, but to then take down the former again on a neutral site to guarantee a spot in the College Football Playoff? It was hard to imagine in the moment that even a team as talented as Auburn on both sides of the ball could survive that sort of murder’s row. We know how the rest of this story goes, the Tigers lose and the College Football National Championship pitted two teams the Tigers beat earlier in the year. Unlike the Kick Six season, another year where Auburn defeated a good Georgia and Alabama team late in the season, the Tigers played the Missouri Tigers in the SEC Title game, dropped 59 on them, and lost to the Florida State Seminoles in heartbreaking fashion. Would Auburn have taken down Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl like the Bulldogs? Would Auburn have survived Tua Time in the College Football National Championship? Who knows? What we do know is that the Tigers’ schedule remains their biggest enemy.
Just by playing in the SEC West, not the L(East), the mountain is steeper for Gus Malzahn’s team. The SEC West is a bloodbath, and this fall will be no different. Mississippi State hired an offensive genius to pick up where Dan Mullen left on, Jimbo Fisher arrived at College Station, LSU may have their first competent quarterback since Zach Mettenberger, Arkansas remains a wild card, and Ole Miss has too much talent on both sides of the ball to not be win at least six games. In the West, there are no Commodores or Tigers -- of the Missouri variety -- or Wildcats. The schedule will always be difficult for teams in the SEC West, so the need or interest in scheduling a team CFB Playoff contender like the Washington Huskies in Week 1 is indefensible. If Auburn wins the SEC West without playing anyone of note in the out-of-conference schedule, Malzahn’s team is still going to make it into the playoff. They don’t need to play Washington in Atlanta like the Boise State Broncos needed to play Georgia in Atlanta. The Tigers recruit, Kevin Steele will churn out top-5 defenses until he retires, and whenever the team has competent quarterback play they belong in the conversation. They don’t need to go to visit a juggernaut like Clemson to start the season to strut their stuff. They should schedule Liberty -- twice in the same season if they can.
Just look the 2018 Georgia Bulldogs’ schedule. Anything short of 11-1 would be an objective disaster for the team. There is no Notre Dame or Clemson or Washington or Oregon or Boise or whoever on their schedule this year. You could argue the toughest game on their schedule is World’s Largest Cocktail Party in Jacksonville against the Florida Gators who have a new head coach and serious questions at the quarterback position. This isn’t a critique, it’s a compliment. Schools obviously craft their schedules years and years in advance, but if the goal is to win national championships and you already play in the toughest conference in the country, why would you not schedule as many Patriot League schools as possible? Georgia can sleepwalk their way to the SEC championship game against Alabama in December, Auburn will be lucky to only have two losses under their belt by that point.
It starts, of course, with a reshuffling for when and where the Tigers play the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide. In March, Malzahn didn’t shy away from ending this disastrous gauntlet for Auburn of seasons ending in Athens and Tuscaloosa. Malzahn remembers the 2010 championship season where the Georgia and Alabama games were split. Sure, playing both the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide at home worked out for the Tigers in 2017 and 2014, but is it worth the dark cloud that hovers over the following season? Last year, the Tigers had a realistic shot at a national title, this year that is no longer the case.
It’s a sad ending to what should be Jarrett Stidham’s last year at Auburn. Like his rival Jake Fromm at Georgia, Stidham has come into his own as the leader of a SEC behemoth. Fromm’s Bulldogs average 35.4 points per game in 2017 with Stidham’s Tigers right there at 33.9 points per game. Stidham will find himself in the Heisman conversation this fall -- he even opens the season against another potential Heisman hopeful in Jake Browning -- but Stidham is in a brutal spot. Auburn has to travel Mississippi State, Georgia, Alabama, Atlanta for Washington, and dance with Jimbo’s Aggies and Oregon’s pesky Tigers at home. Auburn is too talented and too well-coached to go 7-5, but 8-4 isn’t out of the question. (It’s easy to forget this team did finish 9-4 last year.) They have to replace four starters on the offensive line, the dynamic backfield combination of Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway, and pray Stidham can survive the full season.
The best-case scenario for the Tigers is 9-3, maybe 10-2, and it will be fine. With the kind of schedule in front of them, that’s perfectly acceptable. Everything is about perspective, though, as the Tigers would be favored in every single game this fall were they playing Georgia’s schedule. Then 9-3 or 10-2 looks like a disaster. Georgia is replacing essentially their entire secondary, one of the best running back combos in the school’s history, and it won’t be an issue for Kirby and the Bulldogs. If Georgia were opening with Washington and playing out Auburn’s schedule would the expectation still be 11-1 or 12-0? Maybe, but a record similar to what Auburn will likely finish with in 2018 wouldn’t be surprising. So it goes. 11-1 or 12-0, with Auburn’s schedule, and you just have to give Gus Malzahn a lifetime contract and the opportunity for Mrs. Malzahn to have a 45-minute spot on the Paul Finebaum Show the Monday after they stun Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Maybe that will happen. Probably not. I’d happily settle for a Mizzou-for-Auburn divisional trade. Who says no? Hey, Mizzou, where are you going?