With the 2016 season over, it's time to turn our attention to 2017. There is still recruiting to cover somewhat, but it's always fun to do that "way too early" look at the schedule. Other sites have done the same thing already. I haven't really looked at theirs, yet, but I imagine much of it is done the same way.
So, here's a look at the teams we play, their 2016 records, and quick thoughts on those games.
1) Georgia Southern (5-7). After winning the Sun Belt in their first season of FBS and winning their first bowl game in 2015, 2016 was a huge step backward for the Eagles. They had a new coach who attempted to run an option offense for a short amount of time with coaches who had never run that type of offense, and the results were awful. The Co-OCs were fired and they've brought in actual triple option coaches. I'll have more on this game, later. This is the type of game that should always be a win for Auburn (particularly with the opponent breaking in a new offensive staff and a new QB), but the triple option can always be a devilishly tough thing to play against if you don't see it much.
2) Clemson (13-1 At the moment). Auburn will either be facing the runner-up or the national champion and the game will be at their place. They'll also be replacing their QB most likely and will have other offensive weapons to replace. Their defense likely won't miss a beat, but it's to be hoped that Auburn's doesn't, either, and that could help the Auburn Tigers get out to a great start to 2017. Given that it's at their place, this is a game I may pencil in as a loss, but with what happened this year and how I suspect Auburn will look on offense next year in this game (no musical QBs), I think it's very winnable.
3) Mercer Bears (FCS, 6-5). Auburn will win this easily and it provides a nice rest between Clemson and the first trip to Columbia, Missouri.
4) Missouri Tigers (4-8). I don't know what to think about Mizzou, yet. They're going to want revenge for the 2013 SEC title game, but I don't know if their team is quite ready to handle things in Year 2 of the Barry Odom era. They did finish the season with two home wins against Vanderbilt and Arkansas, so it could be a tougher game than that 4-8 record shows. Especially since it's at home. We'll know much more about them after their games against South Carolina and Purdue in the early part of the season.
5) Mississippi State Bulldogs (6-7). Mississippi State struggled during 2016 but still made a bowl game and finished the year off with a shellacking of Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. That was an Ole Miss without Chad Kelly and that was starting a true freshman with only 1-2 games under his belt, though. Nick Fitzgerald is a scary good QB who could get the Bulldogs back on track in 2017 and back to where Dan Mullen has had them the last few seasons: maybe not a true SEC West competitor, but someone who can ruin your season and have a decent to good year themselves. Thankfully, this one is at home.
6) Ole Miss Rebels (5-7). We get the Mississippi schools at home in back-to-back weeks next year. That should be interesting. Shea Patterson will have much more time in Hugh Freeze's system and if the Rebels can find a running game (which has been the story of their last few seasons), they could once again be very dangerous. Again, thankfully, this one is at home.
7) LSU Tigers (7-4). This game begins Auburn's 3-game road stretch. We don't know what LSU's offense will look like under Matt Canada, but we know they're not going to drop off at the running back slot even with Fournette gone. Guice gained a ton of yards on Auburn in just a very few carries in 2016. They may be relying on a true freshman QB, but at Week 7, he may be ready to roll under the offense and going strong. It's also in Baton Rouge, which has been a penciled in loss since 1999.
8) Arkansas Razorbacks (7-6). I'm glad we get this one in October. OctoBERT is much better than NovemBERT. Bert is going to be on the hot seat in Fayetteville next season I suspect, and you can bet this is going to be a game he REALLY wants. That's particularly true after what happened in the game this season. I'm not real sure what the Razorbacks are going to have coming back because I haven't delved too much into that level of detail just yet, but I still think this is one Auburn should win.
9) Texas A&M Aggies (8-4). It's in College Station, so we can just call this one a win, right? Lucky for Auburn, this is a late-season game against the Aggies. This year we faced them during their annual "start the year like world-beaters" stage. Next year we get them in November, where they're typically sliding off. They'll also likely have a freshman QB at the reigns, but it could be a very slippery one whom Auburn really wanted in Kellen Mond.
10) Georgia Bulldogs (8-5). Jacob Eason is going to be a very good quarterback, and by this point next year, he's going to be very experienced. That could spell a lot of trouble for Auburn. If Auburn goes into this game healthy, though, I think it's one the Tigers should win. They're going to be hungry for it, it's in front of the home fans, and Auburn wants and needs revenge. Hopefully, Gus can shake whatever curse has resulted in having his worst offensive performances against the Bulldogs every year since the Miracle at Jordan-Hare.
11) Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks (4-8). This is a win. We all know it. If it's not, then Gus is gone.
12) Alabama (14-0 at the moment). It's in Auburn, so there's that. This is a game that I just don't know about. It will depend on how Sark changes things with play calling, whether Hurts develops as a down-field passer. Whether Sark can play to his advantages like Kiffin did, if Auburn's offense is healthy and rolling like it hasn't been able to be for the last two Iron Bowls, and plenty of other factors. Could Auburn win? Absolutely, they could. There are still a lot of questions surrounding what Alabama will look like in 2017, though.
So, with that schedule, what type of record could Auburn end 2017 with?
Best case scenario (offense clicks, stays healthy, etc), it could be a championship run. Worst case, to me, is a year just like this season or 2015. There are possible losses to teams like Ole Miss, Mississippi State, or Texas A&M, but as long as the team stays healthy, I think there's a ton of potential to look like Auburn at their 2016 best throughout the year. The offense could be much stronger, and the defense could be just as strong. With that, it's not hard to believe 10-11+ wins are on the table.
Other than that 3-game road trip (which is broken up by an off week), the way the schedule is laid out works in Auburn's favor. It's set up for a good run.
If things go wrong, though, as they have the last two years, then 6-6 or worse is out there. Things going wrong include injuries, play-calling funks, red-zone struggles, etc.
I think 2017 will be a good year. I definitely think it's a make-or-break year for Gus Malzahn. I hate the "hot seat" moniker in this case, but it's definitely the truth. 2017 is Year 5. Yes, there have been issues that led to the 2015 &16 struggles, but those were issues (QBs in particular) that the coach should have been better prepared for.
I said at the beginning of 2016 that 8-4 with a win over LSU, Georgia, or Alabama was necessary to last until 2017. That's exactly what happened. I don't think Gus can survive 8-4 in 2017 if that includes losses to Georgia and Alabama again. LSU is a bit more of a toss-up because it's in Baton Rouge and that's almost always a guaranteed loss. Georgia and Alabama, though, are the key.
This is only the beginning of what we'll do looking forward to next year. It was a basic down-and-dirty without much real analysis. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the schedule in the comments!