Matt Ryerson-US PRESSWIRE
A weak out-of-conference schedule could allow the Tigers to boost their non-SEC record, but can they make some headway in the league?
Last Year: Auburn actually ended the year just a touch above .500 -- 31-28 after a three-and-out showing in the SEC tournament -- but was left out of the NCAA bracket along with more qualified bubble teams. The Tigers were uneven almost all year, doing things like winning back-to-back-to-back SEC series against Ole Miss, LSU and Mississippi State -- all NCAA teams -- before getting swept by Alabama. In fact, Auburn's 8-10 record against teams that were ranked when they played them is nothing to write home about, but it could have been a tournament-worthy resume if they'd done better than 23-18 against everyone else.
What's Changed: The rotation. Auburn returns a single save from 2012 and just half of its 22 quality starts. Most of those come from Daniel Koger, who also happens to be the only player with double-digit starts of any kind to come back. Koger was 4-5 with a 3.19 ERA last season, striking out 33 but walking 28. The entire pitching staff was essentially halved in the offseason; seven of the players who took the mound for the Tigers are out, and seven are back.
What's the Same: The offense. The top four Auburn batters from 2012 in terms of on-base percentage return, including superstar Ryan Tella, who hit .360/.448/.508 and Cullen Wacker, who batted .350/.441/.503. They do lose Creede Simpson and Jay Gonzalez, the next two-highest batters and by far the most prolific base-stealers for Auburn. But when you return two thirds of the players who hit .300 or above the season before, there's not much room to complain.
The Schedule: The degree of difficulty in the nonconference schedule is almost nonexistent; there are one-shot games against the College of Charleston and No. 23 Southern Miss (Baseball America), but that's about the extent of it. The interdivision is about down the middle. The Tigers do face Vanderbilt at home, but also host expected SEC East also-ran Georgia. Similarly, a road trip to Florida is offset by a visit to Missouri, which is expected to struggle in its inaugural season in the conference. But LSU, Mississippi State and Texas A&M are all away games, with the major home series against division rivals being match-ups with Ole Miss and Arkansas.
Prognosis: It wouldn't be shocking for Auburn to match or even fall short of its 13-17 SEC record of 2012. But it also wouldn't be completely stunning if the Tigers did a touch better than that this year. The major room for improvement would be in the out-of-conference schedule, but the weakness there is going to make it hard to impress the selection committee if Auburn doesn't succeed in the league. If the new pitchers can pull their weight, there's an outside chance here for the Tigers to make the NCAAs for the first time since 2010.