Ever so cliche' to discuss, every game in a college football season is a must-win. With the most meaningful regular season in all of sports, even the dropping of one key game can turn your season south in a hurry--unless you're Alabama last year, naturally, but they're working on that as we speak. And in the fiercest division in the fiercest conference in the nation, your chief rivals are never down for long. For Auburn, the road to Atlanta always involves the teams from Tuscaloosa, Athens, and Baton Rouge at a minimum. But they're not the only ones.
There are other games on the schedule that can have an equally important effect on your season that may not jump out at first. Think about our five losses last year. One extra win with any of those and it could have galvanized that team going into Amen Corner. It may have chain reacted into an additional win. Games such as these also influence recruiting and the conference pecking order for the next season. Sometimes there is more at stake than a simple win. Streaks and dominance must be extended or ended. As we mentioned here after the trip to Athens last year, Auburn now has a Georgia problem. They're one of the big three. Would it be better or worse if we found ourselves with a Mississippi State or Arkansas problem?
So with a slate of nine of the rest of our regular season games to choose from, I have compiled a list of the ones to have the most importance. See where we agree:
1) Clemson 9/1/12. Atlanta: I take breaking 50-something year old winning streaks as hard as the next guy. I'm tired of having seen so many of them go down the last few years--Vandy in 2008 and Kentucky in 2009. But the prospects of breaking a streak to a OOC opponent like Clemson and allowing them to start one of their own is simply unbearable. I know we've given them plenty of chances, with this year being the 4th match up since the 2007 Chick fil A bowl. I know I'd have chosen quite a few other ACC opponents in our first Chick fil A Kickoff game, but let's roll with it. There will be more orange in the Georgia Dome than even since the last time a big time college game was played in there.
2) Texas A&M 10/27/12 Auburn: Speaking of streaks, prior to the latest SEC teams joining, it could be said that Auburn had an all-time losing record to only two conference opponents, Alabama and LSU. Now that number has doubled. Granted, it's not by much, 0-2 all-time to the Aggies and 0-1 to Mizzou, but I can't think of a better welcome for our new West divisional mates than a loss in their first trip to Jordan-Hare. A&M starts out conference games at home, and Auburn is it's second road outing within the SEC after going to Oxford. I'll definitely be down on the Plains for this one. I'm looking forward to saying 'Howdy' when greeting Aggie fans. I hope they bring 'em in droves. Texas A&M the program is probably very similar to Auburn's. Let's get it started.
3) Arkansas 10/6/12 Auburn: While this game is a strategic stop if the Razorbacks are to compete for the west crown, a victory may hold the same implications for us and decide who has fallen into the bottom half of the conference for the time being. Couple that with revenge for a blow-out loss last year and stomping on Bobby Petrino's grave and this match up could easily top the list. We're 2-4 against the Hogs since 2006 and there's no debate, Auburn definitely has a porcine problem.
4) Mississippi State 9/8/12 Starkville: It can be said for Dan Mullen's Bulldogs that breaking through the glass ceiling of SEC west elites will start with conference opener Auburn, a team they've gone 1-10 against since early in the Tuberville years. While many Auburn fans will always think of this game as a gimme, the past two years under Mullen have been very close. The Bullies could be motivated by that heart-breaking goal line stand loss last year, or they simply could be good. A loss to State here could easily derail our season and send us spiraling off in the wrong direction.
5) Vanderbilt 10/20/12 Nashville: While Auburn may hold a losing record to precious few SEC teams, the all-time series is dead even with Vanderbilt after 120 years, the reason being a mix of few meetings except in the early part of the 20th century when the Commodores were a national power. We were supposed to finally stay ahead for good in that 2008 game, but we lost for the first time since 1950, lousing that up pretty good. It sucks majorly and invites ridicule and scorn saying that you have an all-time losing record to Vanderbilt, so let's don't do that this fall at Vanderbilt Stadium, where most visiting SEC teams have the crowd advantage.