CFB GAME PREVIEW: (11) Oregon @ (16) Auburn
By Joshua Edwards
The marquee matchup of week one will be played on a neutral site. 11th ranked Oregon face 16th ranked Auburn at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Josh Edwards previews the action here:
THE TWO TEAMS:
Oregon come into the 2019 campaign off the back of a rollercoaster 2018 season in which they finished 9-4 (5-4 in the Pac-12). The Ducks rose to 12th in the AP Poll having beaten 24th ranked California and 7th ranked Washington to reach 5-1 at the midpoint, however three losses in their last four games scuppered any post-season opportunities. The season culminated in a tight, 7-6 Redbox Bowl win against Michigan State. There is plenty of hope for this year, with Heisman candidate Justin Herbert tipped for further development in Head Coach Mario Cristobal’s second season.
Auburn finished 8-5 last season but were a disappointing 3-5 in the SEC. They lost the Iron Bowl to Alabama (52-21), their 4th in five seasons, and despite being ranked as a top ten team pre-season the Tigers finished the year unranked. The season finished on a high note, with a record breaking Music City Bowl win over Purdue; at halftime the score was 56–7, Auburn setting the NCAA FBS record for points scored in any half of a bowl game.
This is only the second time in history that the Ducks and Tigers face off. The first and only meeting between the teams thus far was Auburn’s 22-19 win in the BCS National Championship game in 2011.
After a 2017 which saw Auburn make the SEC Championship game but lose to Georgia, head coach Gus Malzahn signed a 7 year, $49m contract extension. His first year under new terms, and his 8th overall, was a disappointment, and he’ll be keen to get back on track in 2019. His hurry up, no huddle offense was run by Jarett Stidham last season, but Stidham is in New England with the Patriots now, and all eyes will be on freshman starter Bo Nix.
Malzahn will likely lean on the run more than usual to lessen the pressure on Nix. Sophomore Jatarvious Whitlow ran for 787 rushing yards at 5.2ypc last year. Whitlow is an intriguing case; previously a QB at LaFayette High, down the road from Auburn, he signed with the Tigers as a WR before switching to running back during his redshirt year. Malzahn will hope he can improve in his second year at the position to improve their 68th rushing rank. Defensively the Tigers are stout and their defensive line is one of the best in football. With such a difficult schedule, including LSU, Florida and Texas A&M on the road, any bowl eligibility likely rests on just how dominant the defense can be.
This is Oregon HC Mario Cristobal’s second season in charge. The ex-Florida International HC was hired initially as offensive line coach for the Ducks in 2017 before being swiftly promoted to head coach after the departure of Willie Taggart to Florida State. Cristobal helped develop the stellar offensive line which now protects one of the better inheritance packages in college football: Justin Herbert.
Offensive co-ordinator Marcus Arroyo will likely be more aggressive this season with play-calling, especially given the influx of talent at wide receiver (Juwan Johnson transferred from Penn State in February). However, if Oregon is to live up to Pac-12 favouritism, the defense will have to take strides under first year DC Andy Avalos. Avalos comes from Boise State and has an impressive track record in his young career thus far. If he can have an immediate impact in Eugene, the Ducks might surprise a few people this season and live up to, or surpass, expectations.
THE KEY MATCHUP:
This one will be won in the trenches.
Oregon return all 5 offensive line starters from last season. Left guard Shane Lemieux has started 38 straight games and the group has a special bond, highlighted by their legendary weekly dinners as a group. The Oregon line will certainly need the experience and togetherness, as they go against one of the best defensive fronts in football, headed up by Nick Coe, Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson. Last season the three standouts combined for 121 tackles, 28 tackles for loss, 15 sacks and three forced fumbles. Auburn ranked 16th in sacks with 38 in total. Oregon’s ability to keep Justin Herbert upright, and Herbert’s ability to freestyle when called upon, will be instrumental as to which team gets the upper hand in Texas.
THE DRAFT PROSPECTS:
Justin Herbert, QB: My selection for the Heisman, Herbert has all the traits to succeed at the next level for a long time. If the 6’4 QB can improve his downfield accuracy in his senior year, he could top many NFL team’s draft boards come April next year.
Jordan Scott, DT: The 6’1, 329lb junior had 29 tackles last season, 3.5 of which were for a loss. Scott is a natural run stuffer; broad, with good leverage and instincts to fill the right gaps. Developing into a three down player will be the key to unlocking a pro career.
Calvin Throckmorton, OT: A stalwart on the right side of Oregon’s vaunted offensive line, Throckmorton is a terrific run blocker with the versatility to play tackle or guard. A decent enough athlete with day 2 potential (as a guard) in the draft.
Troy Dye, LB: At 6’4 and 224lbs Dye is already a proven playmaker at college level. In his junior year in 2018 he was all over the field for the Ducks, registering 109 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 sack and 1 pick. He is relatively lightweight for his frame and may look to add bulk throughout the season, but is a great all-round linebacker prospect.
Thomas Graham, DB: Graham is undersized at 5’11 and 191lbs but plays physically and has fantastic ball skills (he registered 57 tackles, 3 interceptions and 18 PBUs last season). Has drawn comparisons to Josh Norman and some scouts consider him a pro prospect at safety rather than corner.
Derrick Brown, DT: Brown surprised many by returning for his senior year. He is widely considered Auburn’s best player, with 10.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks last year. If he dominates again in 2019 he will probably be a top 10 pick and Auburn’s first player off the board.
Nick Coe, DE/LB: The 6’4, 290lb junior got 7 sacks last year and will surely build on that in 2019. He played at Buck (hybrid LB/DE) last season but has seen time at all defensive line spots this off-season, highlighting the versatility which will make him an intriguing pro prospect.
Prince Tega Wanogho JR., LT: Another player who decided to play his senior year, Wanogho JR is an athletic, raw tackle prospect who could probably do with another season’s worth of refinement but definitely has potential as a day 1 or day 2 selection.
I like Oregon to win the opener. Auburn will operate a rush heavy attack but Oregon’s defense, for all its frailties, has the ability to stuff the run, allowing fewer than 4 yards per carry last year. Bo Nix has some buzz around him but it’ll be tough for the true freshman QB to carry the Tigers offense if the Ducks handle the ground game. For Oregon much rests on Justin Herbert, my pick for the Heisman/first overall draft selection; against a stout Auburn defensive front I predict a stellar opening performance for the Eugene native, catapulting his stock even higher and getting the Ducks off to a winning start.
Score prediction: Oregon 28 – 24 Auburn