The Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta is once again host to one of the opening weekend’s best matchups, as Louisville and Auburn meet in a huge non-conference game. This ACC-SEC matchup is the second meeting between these two leagues in Week 1, with South Carolina edging North Carolina 17-13 on Thursday night.
The Cardinals finished 9-4 in coach Bobby Petrino’s return to Louisville and open 2015 looking to push Florida State and Clemson for the ACC Atlantic title. On the other sideline, Auburn hopes to rebound into playoff contention after an 8-5 mark last season. Fixing the defense was a priority for coach Gus Malzahn, and new coordinator Will Muschamp should help this unit take a significant step forward in 2015.
Louisville and Auburn have played only one previous time. The Cardinals and Tigers met in 1974 in Birmingham, with Auburn winning 16-3 at Legion Field.
Louisville vs. Auburn (Atlanta)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Auburn -10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Louisville’s Quarterback Battle
Louisville coach Bobby Petrino isn’t tipping his hand at quarterback, as four players – Reggie Bonnafon, Kyle Bolin, Will Gardner and Lamar Jackson – were separated by an or on the first depth chart. While Petrino isn’t giving Auburn any clues to his starter, all signs point to Bonnafon or Gardner taking the first snap. Bonnafon showed promise as a true freshman in 2014, completing 61 of 120 passes for 864 yards and five scores. He also added 164 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. Bonnafon’s mobility should be a valuable asset for Louisville, as its offensive line is the biggest question mark, and the sophomore is facing an improved Auburn pass rush with the return of end Carl Lawson from a torn ACL. Assuming Bonnafon gets help from his offensive line, big plays could be there against the Tigers’ secondary. In 13 games last season, Auburn surrendered nine plays of 40 yards or more. Can the Cardinals find a new big-play threat to replace DeVante Parker? That’s just another subplot to the intrigue surrounding Louisville’s offense on Saturday. The guess here is Bonnafon takes the first snap, but will he play the entire game if the offense sputters?
2. Auburn QB Jeremy Johnson
Jeremy Johnson has just two career starts under his belt, but the hype machine for the junior wasn’t tempered in the offseason. Johnson has been mentioned as a Heisman candidate, and the limited sample size suggests why the junior could lead Auburn to a playoff spot. In seven appearances last season, Johnson threw for 436 yards and three scores. The Montgomery native is a physically impressive quarterback at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds with a huge arm. Coach Gus Malzahn’s offense is also one of the nation’s most explosive attacks, which should give Johnson plenty of opportunities to shine this year. Of course, it doesn’t hurt his cause All-America candidate Duke Williams is back at receiver. Will Johnson live up to the hype this season? Saturday’s matchup against a good Louisville defense is a huge barometer test.
3. Louisville’s Defense
The matchup between Johnson and Louisville’s secondary is among Week 1’s most intriguing battles. The Cardinals have four new starters in the defensive backfield, including Georgia transfers Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins. Will this secondary pickup where last year’s group ended? Having a stout front seven should take some of the pressure off of Louisville’s pass defense. The Cardinals own one of the top defensive lines in the ACC, and the linebacking corps is arguably the league’s best with Keith Kelsey and James Burgess leading the way. Can this unit carry the team in this game? With Louisville’s offense breaking in new starters up front and at receiver, the defense has to lead the way and keep Petrino’s team in this game. While Johnson and the passing attack will receive most of the pregame attention, Auburn’s offensive line and rushing attack is also among the SEC’s best. If the Cardinals win the battle up front and force Johnson into obvious passing situations, the pass rush will have opportunities to disrupt the Tigers’ attack. Junior college recruit (and former TCU) defender Devonte Fields is a name to watch in pass-rush situations.
Louisville’s defense versus Auburn’s offense is the matchup to watch on Saturday afternoon. The Cardinals have more than enough on defense to hang around, but can they force a turnover or two to give their building offense a chance? Regardless of whether Bonnafon or Gardner starts, Louisville has to take pressure off its quarterbacks with a successful ground attack. Will the offensive line hold up against Auburn’s defensive front? That’s a key question to be answered on Saturday. Johnson and the Tigers’ offense is held in check in the first half against the Cardinals’ salty defense, but Auburn has too much firepower and wins in the fourth quarter.