The Iron Bowl means everything for both Auburn and Alabama, but is it a true make-or-break game for both teams if "make-or-break" is defined as a game a team can't afford to lose? Find out in this evaluation of the SEC West's most urgent (but not necessarily the most culturally important) games of 2017.
OLE MISS: VANDERBILT, WEEK 7
The Rebels, in their diminished and depleted state, can't expect to lay a glove on Alabama, Auburn or LSU. Yet, the Rebels must play those three teams in a four-week span in the middle third of the season. The one game against a team removed from the SEC West's expected top three? Vanderbilt. Ole Miss is not eligible for a bowl, but if the Rebels want to win six games, Vanderbilt has to be part of the equation. It's very hard to see a path to six wins which does not include the Commodores. Avenging last year's loss to VU would be very satisfying... but can Ole Miss pull it off?
MISSISSIPPI STATE: AT LOUISIANA TECH, WEEK 2
Only two of the 14 SEC teams have a make-or-break game which exists outside the conference. This is one of them. It's true that Mississippi State made a bowl last year despite a 5-7 regular season, but no one in Starkville wants another 5-7 bowl bid in 2017. This team ought to expect a seven-win season and shoot for eight. Getting there means taking care of business against a Group of 5 team. Last year, MSU lost its Group of 5 game to South Alabama, which is why the Bulldogs suffered a losing record. Louisiana Tech lost a lot of skill-position production from last year's team. Mississippi State can and should win a shootout in Ruston, La. Doing so would pave the road to a 7-5 campaign. If there is a league game MSU needs to win: Kentucky. The Bulldogs lost to Big Blue last year.
TEXAS A&M: AT UCLA, WEEK 1
This is the Week 1 Hot Seat Extravaganza, a delicious if unfortunate event in the theater of drama that is college football. Kevin Sumlin and Jim Mora both occupy flaming-hot chairs. A loss in Week 1 will immediately have the wolves howling and will also lower the ceilings of what these teams can achieve. This is a non-league game, but with Auburn, Bama, and LSU all looming on the slate, Sumlin has to win this clash in California on Labor Day weekend. An A&M team chronically unable to win more than eight regular season games since 2012 would immediately lose all hope of being able to break the chains of mediocrity once again.
ARKANSAS: TEXAS A&M, WEEK 4
Hog fans can forgive Bret Bielema for failing to beat the Bama-Auburn-LSU trio (as long as the games are competitive), so in many ways the strength and success of the 2017 season depend on being able to handle the Aggies in the neutral-site game in JerryWorld. Arkansas let A&M slip through its fingers last year, and that stinging loss set the tone for the following two months. A loss to A&M this year could mean that Bielema will be roast pork, cooked over an open fire and sent out of town in a wrapped package.
LSU: AT MISSISSIPPI STATE, WEEK 3
Yes, the Florida-Auburn back-to-backer in Weeks 6 and 7 will be extremely important for LSU, but the Tigers could lose one of those games, win the other, and still remain firmly in the SEC West conversation...
... as long as they don't stumble in Starkville in Week 3.
This is the toughest game LSU has in its first five contests. Cream-puffy pigskin presentations precede and follow this game. Yet, given the SEC West gauntlet which awaits in October and November, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that if LSU is 4-1 entering Gainesville, with that loss being to Hail State, the doubts about Ed Orgeron's head-coaching chops will fly fast and furious across the SEC. LSU is a genuine exception to this "make-or-break" concept in the sense that its chosen game is not against a member of its weight class. LSU's big game generally is Auburn or Alabama, and on a separate level, the biggest game for a mid-level SEC East team is not Florida, but South Carolina or Kentucky.
LSU fans would not be wrong to say that their team should beat Mississippi State and that the Florida-Auburn sequence is bigger. Remember, though, that for the purposes of this concept, "make-or-break" places more emphasis on the value of avoiding a loss, as opposed to the riches which could be produced by a win. LSU could play Auburn and Bama for the SEC West, yes... but a loss to Mississippi State will shatter that possibility.
AUBURN: AT LSU, WEEK 7
Auburn will probably lose to Clemson. It will be extremely hard to beat Alabama. The LSU game is the game which will likely make the difference between a 9-3 season and a 10-2 campaign, and that difference is often the difference between a decent bowl (Citrus) and a New Year's Six bowl. Sure, the Iron Bowl always owns supreme cultural and emotional importance for Auburn and its fans, but in terms of achieving high-end goals, the LSU game is the one most likely to represent the difference between a merely tolerable season and a very good one. Auburn could play Alabama for division, conference and national titles in the Iron Bowl, but beating LSU might be necessary to give Auburn everything to play for in late November.
ALABAMA: AUBURN, WEEK 13
Alabama's schedule is fascinating in that the two biggest games -- the ones most laden with College Football Playoff implications -- are the first one and the last one. Only the LSU game MIGHT come close, and that's no sure thing. The reason Auburn gets the nod over Florida State is simple (though it might not pan out if the Tigers, like their Tiger brethren at LSU, stumble along the way): Alabama has shown it can overcome September losses to win the SEC West, the SEC outright, and the natty.
The game at Auburn -- if AU enters it with a 10-1 record -- would recall the 2013 Kick-Six Game, one of Nick Saban's most crushing defeats and a game in which the Crimson Tide blew a chance to win three straight national championships. Also realize this: Even if Auburn is "only" 9-2 entering this game -- with one of its losses being to Clemson -- the Tigers could still win the SEC West and knock Bama out of the national title picture. Auburn might not be able to play its way into the field at 10-2 (11-2 following an SEC title game win -- it could get very interesting, to say the least), but it could surely ruin Bama's season.
The Tide must stand tall against the Auburn threat.