CRYSTAL BALL: Could Malzahn’s magic fizzle late?

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Will anyone slow down Alabama’s reign at the top? Can Florida shake off preseason disrespect to challenge for the East? So begins @MrPalmettoSDS’s two-week, daily series with a look into the crystal ball on how each of the Southeastern Conference’s 14 programs will finish this season.

AT A GLANCE

Aug. 2: Kentucky
Aug. 3: Auburn
Aug. 4: Tennessee
Aug. 5: Mississippi State
Aug. 6: Mizzou
Aug. 7: Ole Miss
Aug. 8: Vandy
Aug. 9: Arkansas
Aug. 10: Florida
Aug. 11: LSU
Aug. 12: South Carolina
Aug. 13: Texas A&M
Aug. 14: Georgia
Aug. 15: Alabama

AUBURN TIGERS (3-9, 0-8 in 2012)

Related: Will Auburn have the biggest revival in 2013?

THE 2013 BATTLEFIELD

Aug. 31 vs. Washington St. (W) = Pause and take a look at one of college football’s most exciting unranked opening weekend matchups — offensive genius Mike Leach vs. uptempo master Gus Malzahn. The first team to manage 85 plays wins this one and it’s not clear whether or not Wazzu’s defense can keep up with SEC speed after giving up 33.7 PPG last season.
Sept. 7 vs. Arkansas St. (W) = This storyline’s obvious as Malzahn squares off against his former team. Funny how these things always work out the ensuing season after a sideline departure.
Sept. 14 vs. Miss St. (L) = With a 3-0 start hanging in the balance, the Tigers end a three-game home stand with a thud in their conference opener in a game Miss. St. coach Dan Mullen can’t afford to lose. Is this Malzahn’s most important game? I think so.
Sept. 21 at LSU (L) = Out-manned with too many athletes, LSU takes advantage of Auburn’s youth in weak areas and pounds the football throughout in the Bayou at Tiger Stadium.
Oct. 5 vs. Ole Miss (L) = Another swing game, Ole Miss appears to be on better footing offensively heading into 2013 and by Week 6, should have established some sort of rthythm with returning quarterback Bo Wallace.
Oct. 12 vs. Western Carolina (W) = Could this be a nail-biting Louisiana-Monroe repeat? The Tigers will handle the Catamounts by halftime, but anything less than a two-touchdown win would be disappointing.
Oct. 19 at Texas A&M (L) = Coming into this season, Auburn has lost nine straight games against ranked opponents. A date with Johnny Football in October isn’t exactly an “upsert alert” Saturday the Tigers have in mind.
Oct. 26 vs. Florida Atl. (W) = One week to lick wounds at home before a road trip to Fayetteville, Ark.
Nov. 2 at Arkansas (W) = So begins November and a four-game stretch that will dictate whether or not the Tigers become bowl eligible in Malzahn’s first season and avoid the West cellar. Does Arkansas have the edge in terms of first-year talent?
Nov. 9 at Tennessee (W) = Butch Jones and the Volunteers will struggle, but here’s a late-season East vs. West battle that’ll be close if not important. This is a late season swing game.
Nov. 16 vs. Georgia (L) = Remember what happened last time Aaron Murray had all day to throw against this secondary? It wasn’t pretty.
Nov. 30 vs. Alabama (L) = The Iron Bowl won’t be much of a game other than the Crimson Tide avoiding a letdown before a possible trip to Atlanta and then some.

PROJECTED FINISH: 6-6, 2-6 (6th or 7th in West)

Related: Watch Auburn’s offensive scheme change for 2013

THE SKINNY: While Malzhan’s offense will certainly perform better overall than the Tigers’ 2012 unit, a treacherous road schedule and two home games against Top 5-ranked Georgia and Alabama spells trouble for the other side of the ball in his return to the Plains. To avoid another winless SEC season, matchups with Miss. St. and Ole Miss at Jordan-Hare Stadium are vital early on, as well as two late road games against Arkansas and Tennessee.

Photo Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

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