The first week of the 2018 college football season features its share of intriguing matchups, but none are bigger than the showdown in Atlanta, Ga. between Washington and Auburn. These two teams have CFB Playoff aspirations and rank inside of the top 10 in most preseason polls. It’s only Week 1, but it’s clear this matchup could mean a lot in the national landscape for playoff positioning or rankings at the end of the year.
After a Pac-12 title and a playoff berth in 2016, Washington slipped to 10-3 last fall. The Huskies still earned a trip to a New Year’s Six Bowl (Fiesta), but coach Chris Petersen’s team certainly had their eyes on a bigger prize. Washington is poised to rebound back into the mix for a spot in the top four in 2018. The senior combination of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin leads the way on offense, and the defense ranks among the best in college football with nine starters back from last season.
Saturday’s matchup in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game marks the third consecutive matchup for Auburn in Atlanta. Coach Gus Malzahn’s team hopes the third time will be a charm, as the Tigers fell to Georgia 28-7 in the SEC Championship and lost 34-27 to UCF in the Peach Bowl. While 2017 ended on a down note, Malzahn had Auburn on the doorstep of a bid to the College Football Playoff and returns most of the core for ’18. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham is back after a solid debut, and six returning starters anchor a defense that allowed only 18.5 points a game last fall.
This will be the first meeting on the gridiron between Auburn and Washington.
Washington vs. Auburn (Atlanta, Ga.)
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Auburn - 2
Three Things to Watch
1. Auburn’s Rebuilt Offensive Line and the Washington Secondary
The biggest question mark surrounding Auburn this preseason revolved around its offensive line. The Tigers gave up 36 sacks last year and had to replace a couple of key cogs, including All-SEC guard Braden Smith. New line coach J.B. Grimes worked with a couple of combinations over the offseason, but eventually settled on a starting five that features Prince Tega Wanogho at left tackle, Marquel Harrell at left guard, Kaleb Kim at center, Mike Horton at right guard and UMass graduate transfer Jack Driscoll at right tackle.
Just how important is the development of this unit? Consider this, of the 36 sacks allowed by Auburn last season, 23 came in the four losses. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham is primed to push for All-SEC honors in his second year as the starter, and the Tigers have plenty of capable targets on the outside, including Ryan Davis and Darius Slayton.
Washington lost All-America tackle Vita Vea to the NFL, but coach Chris Petersen’s defense still boats one of the top front sevens in the nation. At 316 pounds, tackle Greg Gaines dominates the middle, with Shane Bowman and Jaylen Johnson filling the end spots. The Huskies are experienced and talented at linebacker, with Ryan Bowman (5.5) one of the team’s top pass rushers, and Ben Burr-Kirven pacing the defense with 84 stops last fall. When Stidham has time to throw, he’s going against one of the top defensive backfields in the nation. Washington allowed only 10 passing scores in 2017 and features two All-America candidates in cornerback Byron Murphy and safety Taylor Rapp.
Will Auburn’s rebuilt offensive line hold up on Saturday afternoon against a tough Washington defensive front? And if Stidham has time to throw, will he find open targets against the Huskies’ standout secondary?
2. Washington’s Passing Attack
Washington quarterback Jake Browning enters his fourth year as the starter entrenched as one of the top signal-callers in the nation. However, Browning’s numbers saw a significant decline last fall. After throwing for 3,430 yards and 43 touchdowns to just nine picks in 2016, those totals fell to 2,719 yards and 19 scores in ’17.
The reason for the dip in production was due to a variety of factors, but it’s notable Browning lost tackle Trey Adams to a season-ending knee injury midway through 2017. Additionally, the Huskies never found a big-play threat on the outside to replicate John Ross’ production from 2016.
With another offseason to develop options at receiver, will Browning’s targets step up and allow the offense more big-play-ability in 2018? This unit is already dealing with a setback after tight end Hunter Bryant was lost indefinitely due to an offseason knee injury. Aaron Fuller, Ty Jones and Andre Baccellia are listed as the starters at receiver for this matchup, but Chico McClatcher and freshmen Marquis Spiker and Austin Osborne are a couple of other names to watch.
Even if Washington’s receivers improve this fall, the opener against Auburn is a tough matchup. The Tigers feature one of the SEC’s top cornerbacks in Jamel Dean, along with junior Javaris Davis anchoring the nickel or other corner spot. Sophomore Noah Igbinoghene is a converted receiver slated to make his first career start opposite of Dean. Can the Huskies take advantage of this matchup?
Just as we mentioned above with Auburn’s offense, Washington has to protect Browning to give him an opportunity to make plays downfield. Adams is listed on the depth chart as a starter, but there’s no official announcement on his status. A healthy Adams at left tackle would make a big difference against an Auburn defensive front that ranks among the best in college football. A deep line that features tackles Derrick Brown and Dontavius Russell, along with Marlon Davidson off the edge will be tough to contain.
3. The Ground Game
The pregame focus for this matchup on Saturday seems to be on quarterback play and how the defenses perform. While both areas are certainly important, the ground attacks for Washington and Auburn shouldn’t be overlooked. Last season, the Tigers averaged 218.3 rushing yards a game, and the Huskies recorded 183.2.
Auburn will have a new-look backfield on Saturday afternoon, as Kerryon Johnson left for the NFL after rushing for 1,391 yards and 18 touchdowns last fall. The Tigers rarely have trouble finding running backs, so there’s not a ton of concern over this position for Malzahn. Kam Martin rushed for 453 yards last season and is slated to take over the No. 1 role. However, redshirt freshman JaTarvious Whitlow will be a factor. Martin has never recorded more than 13 carries in a game against a Power 5 opponent. That’s likely to change on Saturday against Washington. But the going against the Huskies’ defense isn’t going to be easy after this unit finished fourth nationally versus the run in 2017.
Washington senior Myles Gaskin ranks as one of the top returning running backs in college football for 2018. Gaskin has reached the 1,000-yard mark in all three years on campus and is also a nice safety valve out of the backfield for Browning. Sophomore Salvon Ahmed averaged 6.4 yards a rush on limited action last fall and will be more involved after Lavon Coleman expired his eligibility. Similar to Auburn’s backfield, Washington isn’t likely to find a ton of running room on Saturday. However, Gaskin ranked third in the Pac-12 by recording seven rushes of 30 yards or more last season. In a tight game, Gaskin’s experience and big-play ability is a valuable asset for Petersen to utilize.
All signs point to a low-scoring game in Atlanta. Both Washington and Auburn rank among the best in the nation on defense and feature a few question marks on offense going into the opener. The Huskies need their receivers to step up and help Browning stretch the field more in 2018. For the Tigers, a revamped offensive line will be tested right away against a standout Washington front. Expect a tight contest that’s undecided deep into the fourth quarter. The guess here is Auburn’s defense does just enough, and Stidham makes a few plays in the final 15 minutes to swing this game in favor of the Tigers.