7:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Auburn -3.5, Over/Under: 56
A pair of ranked teams from opposing conferences battle under the bright lights of AT&T Stadium, as the No. 11 Oregon Ducks face off against the No. 16 Auburn Tigers in Arlington, Texas. Representing a Pac-12 that would no doubt love to get an early jump on the rest of their competition across the country is Oregon (9-4 in 2018), who after winning nine games in what for all intents and purposes was supposed to be a rebuilding year under Mario Cristobal, looks primed to be the class of the league. Why the optimism behind the Ducks, you ask? After all, this is a program that feels like it’s ages removed from falling short in the first College Football Playoff Final, despite it taking place just five years ago. However, in that period of time, they’ve cycled through three different Head Coaches, and since that dismal showing against Ohio State, have gone just 29-22 (.568) in a relatively meager conference, a far cry from stringing together seven consecutive ten-win seasons. The reason that so many folks are so bullish on Oregon is due to what Cristobal is building out there in Eugene, where he ultimately decided to stay instead of following his former boss, Willie Taggart back to the sunshine state. All but one of last year’s eleven Starters returns on Offense alone, including what’s being billed as the best Offensive Line in the country, who are of course protecting what very may well be the op Quarterback in the country. Indeed, there were calls for Justin Herbert (59.4%, 3,151 YDS, 7.8 Y/A, 29 TD, 8 INT) to turn pro after last season, with the Junior likely to be the first Signal-Caller taken. With that said, he ultimately decided to remain on campus, which was a choice that was met with a round of applause, for there were certainly parts of his game that could definitely be worked on before eventually making the leap to the NFL. Consistency in making his reads and decision-making will be huge, but otherwise, this kid’s potential is as great as any Quarterback that has come out of college recently. He’ll have plenty of talent behind him in the Backfield, with returning Tailbacks, C.J. Verdell (202 CAR, 1,018 YDS, 5.0 Y/C, 10 TD) and Travis Dye (140 CAR, 739 YDS, 5.3 Y/C, 4 TD), looking to improve upon the 180.8 Rushing Yards that they churned out on a weekly basis. Both ‘Backs proved to be elusive, each averaging over 5.0 Yards per Carry, with the former also factoring into the Passing Game a good bit, reeling in Twenty-Seven receptions for 315 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns in 2018. Improvement will be needed on Defense for a unit that allowed 388.3 Total Yards, including 241.6 through the air, but managed to compensate with Twenty-Three Turnovers. The Ducks have lost some key playmakers here, but credit Cristobal for securing one of the better Recruiting Classes in the country, with the next wave of players set to make an impact. Tonight’s meeting with Auburn will represent a significant step-up in class in regards to Opening Weekend opponents; Oregon has faced a Non-Major to kick off their schedule in each of the past five seasons, with Arkansas State being the last opponent hailing from a major conference in an Opener. In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to 2011 when they faced No. 4 LSU on a neutral field, coincidentally also in Arlington, Texas, to find the last time that they met a ranked opponent in their Opener. For those wondering, they were rather unfortunate against the Tigers on that day, getting hammered 27-40.
Meanwhile, though this is certainly a crucial game for their opponent, let’s not downplay it’s importance for Auburn (8-5 in 2018), who would benefit greatly from a good start to the campaign. Slow starts have been something of an issue for the Tigers over the past four years, with Gus Malzahn’s charges going 7-5 overall through the first three outings of the season dating back to 2015. Granted, this is a familiar setup for War Eagle, who will be kicking off their schedule against a Pac-12 opponent for he second consecutive year; besting No. 6 Washington 21-16 in what was very much a glorified home game contested at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. On that day, the SEC denizens moved the football with ease against a stout Huskies’ Defense, racking up 420 Total Yards, including 147 Rushing Yards, but routinely shot themselves in the foot, committing a whopping Twelve Penalties for 111 Yards. Indeed, arguably the biggest difference between that affair and the one they’ll be a part of tonight, will be under Center where they won’t have the benefit of counting on Jarrett Stidham to lead the attack. While the Senior was far from prolific during his stay with the Program, failing to live up to the hype that he carried following his transfer from Baylor, he did manage to do perform a solid job in carving up Washington’s Defense in that Opener, completing 26-of-36 Passes for 273 Yards and a Touchdown, while rushing for another Twenty-Three Yards on Eleven Carries. Replacing him was an open question throughout Training Camp, though Malzahn ultimately settled upon the uber-heralded True Freshman, Bo Nix, a four-star recruit who should fit the scheme much better than Stidham ever did. The Gatorade Player of the year in the state of Alabama in 2018, Nix will be a second generation Tiger, for his father Pat, played on the Plaines from 1992 to 1995. Furthermore, he will become the first True Freshman to start for Auburn in Malzahn’s six years at the school. Like his counterpart tonight, he’ll have some solid help to rely upon, particularly at the shill positions, where JaTarvious Whitlow (150 CAR, 787 YDS, 5.2 Y/C, 6 TD) looks to stake his claim as the next great Auburn Tailback, building upon a sophomore season in which he rushed for 787 Yards and Six Touchdowns, while big-play Receiver, Seth Williams (26 REC, 534 YDS, 20.5 Y/R, 5 TD) returns after averaging a whopping 20.5 Yards per Catch. The Defense figures to be nasty, living up to it’s billing in the Southeast Conference; in 2018, the Tigers allowed just 19.2 Points (14th Overall) on 355.8 Total Yards per Game, Forcing Twenty-One Turnovers. The Defensive Line should be one of the better ones in the country, with Oregon’s lauded Offensive Line providing the perfect measuring stick for them moving forward. Senior Defensive Tackle, Derrick Brown (48 TKL, 10.5 TFL, 4.5 SK, 1, FF, 1 FR, 2 PD) and Junior Defensive End, Nick Coe (26 TKL, 13.5 TFL, 7.0 SK, 1 FF), form a vicious tandem in the trenches, which will in all likelihood be where this primetime matchup will be decided.