AUBURN, Ala. — “Luck” and “fate” are two of the least likely words you’ll hear to describe the 2014 edition of the Auburn Tigers. This is the height of irony, of course. Those two terms — along with “destiny” — were so firmly affixed to last year’s Tigers that a casual viewer wouldn’t have been out of line in thinking the words were part of Auburn’s official team name.
But that’s the thing: The only people who made those remarks about the Tigers last year were, by and large, those who didn’t follow the team all that closely in the first place.
Well, that is, until the final two games of Auburn’s regular season rolled around.
Then Ricardo Louis’ tip-to-himself-off-a-Georgia-deflection catch to top the Bulldogs and Chris Davis’ unforgettable field goal return to win the Iron Bowl happened. Out came the so-called “experts”—critics who likely hadn’t seen much of Auburn prior to that point, anyway. Suddenly, they were able to speak with great authority about Auburn’s games versus Mississippi State and Ole Miss, Arkansas and Arkansas State.
The Tigers, the doubters proclaimed, were merely living a charmed existence. Their string of good fortune in close games — which saw them go 6-0 in contests decided by eight points or less in the regular season — had to end at some point, right?
Indeed, that came to pass, as Auburn wasn’t able to hold off Florida State in the BCS championship game, falling 34-31.
“Luck,” “fate” and “destiny” will have to hit the road this year, though. They certainly won’t be residing on the Plains. Just look at Auburn’s schedule.
Seven — repeat, seven — of the Tigers’ 12 games this fall involve teams ranked inside the Associated Press’ top 25. Oh, by the way, four of those (No. 20 Kansas State, No. 18 Ole Miss, No. 12 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama) are on the road. And oh by the way, those seven contests featuring ranked opponents is something no other ranked team can match. (In case you’re wondering, Auburn begins the season No. 6 in the AP poll.)
Even the games without a ranked foe won’t be cake walks — especially those versus conference brethren. As it is, Auburn has no time to “work its way into the season,” as the old adage goes. This isn’t Ball State (2001) or Louisiana-Monroe (2004 and 2008) or Utah State (2011). No disrespect to any of those teams, but … they don’t reside in the SEC.
Arkansas does, making this fall the first time has Auburn kicked off a season against a league foe since 1995, when it trounced Ole Miss 46-13 at home.
Consider Reese Dismukes a fan.
“Obviously it’s make-or-break Week 1 right there. I’ve never been in this situation,” the Tigers’ senior center said during an interview on SiriusXM’s College Sports Nation earlier this week. “We’ve always played some joke of a team the first game. Usually you want to play someone you can just win right off the bat, get things rolling.”
After what should be an easy win versus San Jose State on Sept. 6, Auburn heads on the road to Manhattan, Kan., to square off against Kansas State — far from a “gimme” for the Tigers.
And the list goes on.
LSU (a team Auburn has lost to three straight times), South Carolina (the preseason favorite to win the Eastern Division) and Texas A&M (which decimated the Tigers 63-21 the last time it played in Jordan-Hare Stadium) at home. Both the Mississippi schools and Auburn’s two most bitter rivals (Georgia and Alabama) on the road.
Successfully navigate that minefield, somehow, and a date in the SEC championship game might loom. And that’s not even considering the College Football Playoff, where the Tigers would have to face two of the top four teams in the country — according to the selection committee, anyway — to capture the national championship and avenge last year’s defeat. (If nothing else, that would mean the Tigers achieved their objective of being “13 seconds better” in 2014.)
Chew on this: When the Tigers went 10-0 and won the national championship in 1957, they beat three ranked teams. Tommy Bowden’s 11-0 squad in 1993 beat two. When Auburn went 13-0 in 2004, it topped five ranked teams, while the Cam Newton-led 2010 Plainsmen beat six.
Remember: If the rankings hold — which is about as easy to predict as the weather a month from now — the Tigers will play seven ranked teams in the regular season. So winning the national title this year — with that schedule — would immediately catapult near the top of the list of “best seasons in school history.” It calls to mind one of Gus Malzahn’s favorite sayings: To excel in 2014, the Tigers are going to have to “earn it.” If the end result has Auburn lifting the national championship trophy, who could possibly argue about the team’s worthiness?
You could say critics would be plum out of luck.