Auburn has a number of question marks surrounding the football program going into this season: How quickly will the young offensive line grow up? Will the defense show drastic improvement under first-year coordinator Brian VanGorder? Is it possible for head coach Gene Chizik's wardrobe to get any worse? Auburn fans yearn for the answers to each of those questions. One thing that's certain is that 2012 is an even year, which means the football schedule is supposedly manageable. While it's better than playing most of the big conference games on the road, a schedule that features home games against Arkansas, LSU and Georgia, road games at Mississippi State and Alabama, and a neutral-site game against Clemson is no picnic. How those opponents handle themselves against Auburn will have as much say in this season's final record as how good the Tigers are.
It's easy to break the schedule down into groups based on the amount of a challenge they will likely provide Auburn. It's not necessarily wise to attempt game-by-game predictions before the season begins -- that will be saved for game week -- but if we can take an educated guess at Auburn's record against each group, we can get an idea of what the Tigers' record may look like at the end of the season.
Louisiana-Monroe, at Ole Miss, New Mexico State, Alabama A&M
With all due respect to these teams, the Warhawks, Aggies and Bulldogs will simply be glorified scrimmages to give Auburn a chance to rest up and get younger players some snaps. It wouldn't be a shock if the Tigers started slow in any of these games since they're all sandwiched between huge conference tilts, but if Auburn fans have any reason to be nervous after halftime in Week 3, 10 or 12, things will have gone severely off track.
Ole Miss, we're sorry, but there's no way Auburn should lose to you. It doesn't matter that this game is at Oxford. Hugh Freeze is trying to completely rebuild a program that went 2-10 last season and is 1-15 against SEC opponents over the last two years. The Rebel defense was astonishingly bad last year, even compared to the abomination Ted Roof put on the field week in and week out. There's just no way this team will be able to matchup Auburn. Ole Miss may keep it close for a while, but if the Tigers lose, it would be an absolute disaster. Predicted record against the gimmes: 4-0
Clemson, at Mississippi State, at Vanderbilt, Texas A&M
If you aren't nervous about every single one of these games, you should be. It's pretty obvious that Clemson will provide Auburn a tough test in the season opener, and most people realize that Mississippi State will be tough to beat on the road, especially when it is so many key players' first true road game. However, we get the impression that a lot of folks are taking Vanderbilt and A&M for granted. That is not wise. Just because the Commodores are traditional doormats and the Aggies have been promoted from the Triple-A-level Big 12 does not mean they won't be difficult games for Auburn
Kicking off the season with a neutral-site game against Clemson and an away game against Mississippi State is about as difficult a start as Auburn could get. Both games are winnable, but if the Tigers aren't careful, they could very easily start the season 0-2. Clemson will bring plenty of offensive firepower and a defense looking to prove a point into the Georgia Dome. Mississippi State has played Auburn close in each of their last two matchups, and while Auburn should have an overall talent advantage, the Tigers will be giving a sophomore quarterback and two freshmen offensive linemen their first road starts. There's nothing easy about that.
Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin has done an incredible job of recruiting and coaching up the current Commodore roster of two- and three-star athletes. Franklin will have his team playing well in mid-October, and if Auburn doesn't give the 'Dores the credit they deserve, it could lead to an unhappy ending in Nashville. Texas A&M will bring its air-raid offense into Jordan-Hare, which will give the Tigers' secondary fits. Auburn's defensive backs should be improved this season, but they'll have to be playing incredibly well to keep the Aggie offense at bay.
One of the major disappointments of the Tommy Tuberville era was his inability to get his players ready for games that weren't against the SEC's elite. While Tubby was good for a couple of huge wins each season, he was also good for a couple of awful losses. Thankfully, Chizik doesn't seem to have that problem. With next season's roster, Auburn would run this gauntlet without any stumbles. This year, it's likely that the younger Tigers' will have at least one meltdown, but Chizik will keep the damage limited. Predicted record against the toss-ups: 3-1.
THE UPSET OPPORTUNITIES
LSU, Arkansas, Georgia, at Alabama
It's hard to imagine four games where Auburn would have more to prove. Against these teams last season, the Tigers were outscored 170-45 in four ugly, embarrassing losses. If Auburn had lost to these four teams in close games, the season wouldn't have left such a bad taste in our mouths. Instead, we had to come to the realization that our beloved Tigers were nowhere near the SEC's elite. This season, Auburn could lose to all four teams again, but Chizik's team must keep the games close to show that it is on the road to being a contender.
With this year's Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa against an Alabama team that is still on the elite level, trying to rationally hope for an upset is not really possible. The Tide will have an advantage in almost every possible way, and Bryant-Denny Stadium will provide the toughest atmosphere Auburn faces all year. Stranger things have happened, but an Auburn victory in T-Town would be truly stunning.
Home games against LSU, Arkansas and Georgia are Auburn's best shots at a statement-making upset. No one knows how the Hogs will react this year under the leadership of interim head coach John L. Smith, but one would assume that missing the ousted Bobby Petrino will lead to some sort of drop-off. LSU is one of the best teams in the country, but the Auburn game will be the Bayou Bengals' first real test of the year, and it will be on the road. If Auburn's defensive ends can rattle new quarterback Zach Mettenberger, LSU's offense will have trouble. Georgia has talent, but the Dawgs can't seem to take it to the next level under Mark Richt. This game may very well be the game that Auburn's players want to win the most.
We can dream of winning two or three of these games, but that probably isn't realistic. However, the Tigers should be much more competitive than they were last season. Predicted record against the upset opportunities: 1-3
If our prognosticating is accurate, that will give Auburn an 8-4 record at the end of the season. Again, we're not going to pick any individual games at this point, but 8-4 seems about right for this team. If that is indeed Auburn's record in 2012, and the Tigers are competitive against LSU, Arky, Georgia and 'Bama, it should be a good sign going into 2013.