Auburn Football: 5 Games That Could Ruin the Tigers' 2014 Season
Life in the SEC West is a constant grind of tough opponents, but Auburn will take that to another level in 2014.
Head coach Gus Malzahn and his Tigers will look to repeat as SEC champions with one of the toughest, if not the toughest, schedules in all of college football.
This year's slate includes a rare Thursday night road trip to an unfamiliar foe, a pair of home games against tough conference title contenders, trips to both under-the-radar Mississippi schools and the first all-road edition of Auburn's "Amen Corner."
When you are hoping to finish your season back at the biggest stage of them all, the national championship game, each loss could be fatal to your hopes. But all losses are not created equal in college football, and that rings true for Auburn's 2014 schedule.
Here is a look at five games that could effectively ruin the Tigers' dreams of repeating as SEC champions and grabbing a spot in the first College Football Playoff. Let me know in the comments section which one of these losses you think would be the worst for Auburn's 2014 season.
Sept. 18 at Kansas State
After a home opener against SEC cellar-dweller Arkansas, a tune-up game against San Jose State and a bye week, Auburn will head to "The Little Apple" of Manhattan, Kansas for what Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer called a potential "Game of the Year" for 2014.
The Kansas State Wildcats opened as 13-point underdogs against the defending SEC champions, but they have enough experience and offensive firepower to give their visitors cause for concern early in the season.
The Wildcats' senior connection between quarterback Jake Waters and receiver Tyler Lockett, one of the nation's top pass targets, could be a problem for an Auburn secondary that struggled against premier wideouts last season. Lockett missed two games last season and still had more than 1,200 receiving yards in a system that split snaps between Waters and the departed Daniel Sams.
Auburn is not used to Thursday night road games, much less one against a power-conference opponent outside the SEC. While the Tigers will be under pressure to get a convincing road win and keep their early playoff hopes alive, the Wildcats will have nothing to lose and everything to gain from a season-defining upset of a national title contender.
Kansas State's defense, which returns six starters, finished 26th nationally in points allowed per game— and that mark came in a conference known for its prolific offenses. If the Wildcats are able to attack Auburn's defense through the air and come up with a few big stops in front of their fans, the Tigers' national title hopes could take a monstrous hit early in the season.
Oct. 4 vs. LSU
Alabama and Auburn are by far the SEC West favorites for the 2014 season, but what about LSU, which has been a constant thorn in Auburn's side?
Sure, the Bayou Bengals only return 12 starters from a team that lost three conference games last season. However, LSU has a lot of experience in what have been its positions of power recently, the offensive line and the secondary.
No matter how many playmakers the team has to replace, LSU under Les Miles consistently takes teams to the final quarter in big road games.
LSU was the only regular-season opponent to beat Auburn last season, yet Auburn will most likely be favored against a program that has won seven of the last nine meetings. Even if the orange and blue Tigers pull off the home victory, recent history suggests it will be a close one—Auburn's last three wins have come by a combined 12 points.
Les Miles' Tigers know a win against the defending SEC champions will make them an instant contender in the Western Division. Auburn could recover and win the conference again, but another loss to LSU would leave no room for error in the race to get back to Atlanta.
Oct. 11 at Mississippi State
One week after it gets through what will most likely be an extremely hard-fought game against LSU, Auburn travels to Starkville for a matchup against the SEC's most popular sleeper pick of 2014.
The Bulldogs took Auburn to the final minute in the SEC opener last year, and they return more starters than anyone else in the conference this season with 20, according to the Opelika-Auburn News' Alex Byington.
Quarterback Dak Prescott compiled 346 offensive yards at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2013 as a constant dual threat against the Auburn defense. A Heisman dark horse, Prescott has several playmakers around him who can cause fits for whoever is lined up against them.
While Dan Mullen is known for putting together strong offenses, the Mississippi State defense that held the Tigers to their second-lowest point total of the season has experienced talent coming back all across the field.
Since 2010, the Tigers' largest margin of victory against the Bulldogs came in a seven-point thriller early in the 2011 season, so another close matchup is not out of the question. Auburn's last trip to Starkville was not pretty, and Mississippi State will want to grab that major upset, which would most likely put an end to Auburn's SEC title hopes.
Nov. 15 at Georgia
Auburn's dream season almost died at the hands of Georgia last season.
A miracle play kept those championship hopes alive, but they could be smashed once again in a venue that has not been kind to the Tigers in recent years.
Georgia has won four of its last five home games in the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry, and after a rare two-year absence due to a scheduling shuffle, the heated contest returns to Athens.
Like LSU, Georgia has important players to replace on both sides of the ball, but talent is never far for Mark Richt's teams. The Bulldogs probably will not be as banged up as they were when they faced Auburn last season, and new quarterback Hutson Mason will not be an inexperienced starter when he and his talented group of skill players take on the Tigers.
If Auburn enters Sanford Stadium undefeated this season, a road loss to Georgia would not be the end of its title chances. But if the Bulldogs hand Auburn its second loss of the season, a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff would most likely vanish.
Nov. 29 at Alabama
A loss to Alabama is always devastating for Auburn and its fans.
But if this is another winner-take-all Iron Bowl, there is no doubt what the most crushing defeat would be.
This game could determine a spot in the SEC Championship Game and a playoff berth, as most analysts believe the conference will only get one national semifinalist this season.
Unless the Crimson Tide have lost a couple of games by this point, they will be favored as the home team and preseason favorite to win the SEC. Quarterback Jacob Coker will already have 11 games of experience throwing to top playmakers T.J. Yeldon, Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard, while the Alabama defense figures to be another tough matchup for any team this late in the season.
The home-field advantage will loom as large for Alabama as it did for Auburn in the 2013 Iron Bowl. Imagine if the Tigers are on the losing side of a divisional title game like last season. Malzahn's team could have steamrolled the rest of its schedule, but a loss to the rival title contenders would end another storybook season.
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.