Schedule analysis: Auburn Tigers

Gus Malzahn's team faces a difficult start to the season. Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY Sports

As we inch closer to the start of the season, it’s time to review the schedules of every SEC team. Whether it’s home vs. road, nonconference matchups or potential trap games, there’s a lot to get into.

We continue the series with the Auburn Tigers.

Nonconference opponents (with 2015 record)

Sept. 3: vs. Clemson (14-1)

Sept. 10: vs. Arkansas State (9-4)

Oct. 1: vs. Louisiana-Monroe (2-11)

Nov. 19: vs. Alabama A&M (3-8)

SEC home games

Sept. 17: Texas A&M

Sept 24: LSU

Oct. 22: Arkansas

Nov. 5: Vanderbilt

SEC road games

Oct. 8: Mississippi State

Oct. 29: Ole Miss

Nov. 12: Georgia

Nov. 26: Alabama

Gut-check time: Typically, the “gut-check” game comes toward the end of the season, maybe in November. But typically, teams don’t have the type of gauntlet that Auburn faces to open the season. In September alone, the Tigers will play Clemson, Texas A&M and LSU – three teams ranked in the latest Way-Too-Early Top 25. The most important game might be against Texas A&M, but the “gut-check” game will come the following week against LSU, Auburn’s fourth game in four weeks to open the season. Auburn has beaten LSU in two of the last three meetings in Jordan-Hare Stadium, but LSU has won seven of the last nine overall. And after watching what Leonard Fournette did to Auburn a year ago, it will be a serious gut-check for the defense to try and slow down the Heisman Trophy front-runner. If Auburn loses to both Clemson and Texas A&M, the LSU game could be a must-win for Gus Malzahn.

Trap game: In recent years, teams from the West would be ecstatic to see Vanderbilt on the schedule as one of their cross-division opponents. And maybe they still are; after all, the Commodores haven’t proven anything yet under Derek Mason. But this team took a huge step forward last year, and if nothing else, they’re going to make you earn it. For Auburn, the Vanderbilt game is sandwiched in between trips to Ole Miss and Georgia, which makes it the ultimate trap game. Win or lose against the Rebels, it won’t be easy to bounce back the next week. And how do you keep your team from thinking ahead to Georgia? It’s also one of those games where the Tigers are expected to win on stature alone. So a win doesn’t do all that much, but a loss would look really bad – even if the teams aren’t that far apart from a talent standpoint.

Final analysis: Auburn fans might be hoping for a repeat of the 2013 season, when Nick Marshall came in and led them to the national championship game. The biggest difference between this year and 2013? The schedule. The 2013 Tigers opened the season with three unranked opponents, whereas this year they open against a top-five team and will play likely three top-25 opponents in the first month. And that’s just the beginning. Auburn still has trips to Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama looming on the schedule. In 2013, all three of those games were played at home. Ultimately, the first month will be the stretch that's critical to the rest of the season. If Auburn can somehow start 3-1, then it might have some staying power in the SEC West. However, a 1-3 start could doom the Tigers and put Malzahn’s future in jeopardy.