College football’s best matchup of Week 1 takes place in Arlington, Texas, as Auburn and Oregon meet at AT&T Stadium for an anticipated non-conference showdown on Saturday night. The 2019 season is likely to have many twists and turns, so drawing sweeping conclusions based upon what happens in this game would be unwise. However, a win by Oregon would certainly quiet some of the criticism on the Pac-12 after a noisy offseason, while Auburn looks to rebound after a disappointing 8-5 mark last fall.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has experienced plenty of highs in his tenure on the Plains. The Tigers played for the 2013 national championship and went 10-4 in 2017. However, the other four seasons have been a mixed bag of results. Outside of the two double-digit win totals, Auburn is just 31-21 overall and 14-18 in SEC play in the other four years with Malzahn at the helm. The Tigers had high expectations in 2018 but slumped to 8-5 and just 3-5 in SEC play after beginning the year in the top 10 of preseason rankings. Malzahn’s seat is starting to warm, and the 2019 season will be critical to show the program is on track. In an effort to jumpstart the offense, Malzahn is taking over play-calling duties this fall. Talent certainly isn’t a problem for Auburn. However, this team will start a true freshman at quarterback (Bo Nix) and faces a brutal schedule.
Oregon was one of the big winners of the offseason. There’s stability at the top with coach Mario Cristobal back for his second year, the program landed a standout recruiting class, and quarterback Justin Herbert decided to stay in Eugene for his senior year. The Ducks are considered by some outlets to be the favorite to win the Pac-12 in 2019. Even if Oregon didn’t rank as the team to beat in the Pac-12, the Ducks weren’t far behind Utah or Washington for the top spot. In other words, Herbert’s return gives this program a chance to run the table and contend for the CFB Playoff or a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Auburn and Oregon have only one previous meeting on the gridiron. However, it was a memorable matchup. The Tigers edged the Ducks 22-19 in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game.
Auburn vs. Oregon (Arlington – AT&T Stadium)
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Auburn -3.5
When Auburn Has the Ball
Intrigue and mystery might be the best way to sum up Auburn’s offense going into Saturday night’s game. It’s no secret Malzahn likes to use tempo and RPO in his playbook, but how different will the 2019 version look compared to what this team utilized last season? This offense has not finished higher than sixth in the SEC in yards per play in each of the last four years. Malzahn taking over the play-calling duties should provide a boost to the offense in 2019.
As mentioned above, Bo Nix is slated to take the first snap after edging Joey Gatewood for the starting quarterback job this fall. Gatewood’s running ability and size could be a factor inside of the red zone or short-yardage situations. Seeing the redshirt freshman take a couple of snaps in this game wouldn’t be a surprise. Nix ranked as a five-star prospect in the 2019 signing class, and while he’s a better, more polished passer than Gatewood, the true freshman can also utilize his legs on the ground. Nix is likely to have his share of ups and downs this season, but there’s a lot to like about his dual-threat skill set in Auburn’s offense.
Helping Nix’s transition into the starting role will be a deep supporting cast. Sophomore JaTarvious Whitlow ran for 787 yards last season and could push for 1,000 if he has a little more help in the trenches. Speaking of the offensive line, Auburn should show big improvement in this area with five starters back. Despite losing Darius Slayton and Ryan Davis, Nix has plenty of weapons to throw to at receiver. Sophomore Seth Williams (20.5 ypc in 2018) is a big-play threat, while Eli Stove and Will Hastings are back after missing most of last year due to knee injuries. Anthony Schwartz (22 catches as a freshman last season) suffered a hand injury in fall practice and is questionable to play on Saturday.
Nix put up huge numbers in high school and isn’t likely to be overwhelmed by the big stage. However, Oregon’s defense will be a tough matchup. For starters, the Ducks have a new play-caller (Andy Avalos). The former Boise State defensive coordinator will make a few tweaks to last year’s unit that limited teams to 25.4 points a game. Jordon Scott and five-star freshman Kayvon Thibodeaux are two players to watch in the trenches, with senior Troy Dye back to anchor the linebacker unit. Avalos has a strong secondary in place, which is led by cornerback Thomas Graham and safety Jevon Holland.
When Oregon Has the Ball
While the chess match between Malzahn and Nix against Avalos and Oregon’s defense is going to be fascinating, the Ducks’ offense against Auburn’s defense is the must-see matchup on Saturday night.
Justin Herbert passed on the NFL for one more year at Oregon and this game provides him with a big-time showcase for scouts. The 6-foot-6 native of Eugene is coming off a strong junior campaign. In 13 starts, Herbert threw for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. He also added 166 yards and two scores on the ground. Herbert is an accurate passer (63 percent), and his mobility allows for opportunities to make plays outside of the pocket with his legs or finding ways to throw on the run.
Auburn’s defense boasts the best line in college football, and this unit is capable of wreaking havoc against Herbert on every snap. Tackle Derrick Brown was a first-team All-America selection by Athlon Sports for 2019, with Nick Coe and Marlon Davidson prepared to bring pressure off the edge. The Tigers registered 38 sacks and held teams to 135.9 rushing yards a game last fall. While the defensive line is an unquestioned strength, Oregon will counter with one of the nation’s best offensive lines. Tackles Calvin Throckmorton and Penei Sewell have garnered numerous preseason accolades, while guard Shane Lemieux has graded out well by Pro Football Focus for his efforts on the interior. Center Jake Hanson has 37 career starts over the last three years. In addition to protecting Herbert, Oregon’s offensive line has to find ways to clear running lanes for running backs CJ Verdell and Travis Dye. This duo combined for 1,757 yards and 14 scores last fall.
With Herbert, a talented backfield and one of the nation’s best offensive lines in place, Oregon has almost all of the necessary pieces needed to win the Pac-12 with its offense. However, a big question mark hangs over this team in the receiving corps. Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson should provide a nice boost, but freshman Mycah Pittman and Brenden Schooler were injured in this offseason and are out indefinitely. Will the Ducks have Johnson and another player emerge to help stretch the field on Saturday? Or will this receiving corps struggle to get open against a solid Auburn secondary?
College football’s Week 1 slate isn’t particularly deep with matchups featuring ranked teams, so this one needs to live up to the hype. Nix doesn’t have to have a huge statistical game in order to lead Auburn to a win, but the freshman can’t make any big-time mistakes. Herbert should be solid as always for the Ducks, and the offensive line should effectively battle Auburn’s defensive front. This one is a tossup, but the guess here is Nix hits on a few big plays in the second half to put the Tigers over the top.