By John L. Pitts/NEMS Daily Journal
Whether you’re a fan of Mississippi State or Ole Miss, let me suggest that you keep a close eye on Auburn, which will visit both Starkville (Sept. 8) and Oxford (Oct. 13) this fall.
You can get a closer look at Auburn tonight on ESPN as it kicks off the season in Atlanta against No. 14 Clemson. Maybe you’ll want to DVR that game.
Phil Steele thinks MSU will finish ahead of Auburn this fall, while USA Today and the SEC’s preseason poll voters projected that the Tigers will be the fourth-place team in the SEC West behind the Big Three of LSU, Alabama and Arkansas.
If Mississippi State can beat Auburn – the Bulldogs have lost four straight in the series – there’s a chance for a 7-0 start before an Oct. 27 visit to Alabama. More likely, there’s a loss in there, but to leave Tuscaloosa with a 6-2 record would set the stage for a strong finish.
Auburn will be the homecoming opponent for Ole Miss, and that follows by a week an Oxford visit by new SEC member Texas A&M. That’s a two-game stretch that can tell the tale of 2012 for the Rebels. Ole Miss should enter the A&M game with a 3-2 record – and an unlikely sweep of those two games would put the team’s first bowl game since 2009 within reach.
For a program that’s lost 14 conference games in a row, though, the key thing is to beat somebody. And the back half of the Ole Miss schedule is going to be tough – three SEC road trips and home games against Vandy and MSU.
Auburn is seeking a new identity after an improbable national championship in 2010. In the past 10 seasons, the Tigers have won either 8 or 9 games six times. But it was just six seasons between a 13-0 campaign in ’04 and the Cam Newton champs.
Getting there required a coaching change, though – how quickly can Gene Chizik reload for another title run?
And which is the real Auburn program under Chizik – 14-0 or 8-5? Most likely the latter.
A generous reading of the Auburn schedule suggests an 8-win season, but an 0-2 start with losses to Clemson and MSU would leave an uphill battle.
Yet Georgia got off to an 0-2 start last season and rallied for a 10-win campaign and a trip to the SEC championship game. The challenge for these Tigers will be to avoid letting the season slip away at the very start.
John L. Pitts (firstname.lastname@example.org) is sports editor of the Journal.