- Who will win Week 1's premiere matchup? These storylines will dominate Auburn and Oregon's opening clash in Arlington.
Saturday’s AdvoCare Classic primetime showdown between Auburn and Oregon from Jerry’s World in Arlington, Texas, has a chance to be one those remakes that could turn into either a blockbuster or a downright flop, and it’s the Pac-12 that is once again in the spotlight. A year ago, the opening scene took place in Atlanta, where a top-10 ranked Washington team took the conference’s playoffs hopes right out the door in a loss to Auburn. While the Tigers are returning to the limelight, it’s Oregon that is getting A-list attention this time around in a clash that could have playoff implications.
Here are some of the top storylines to go over before Saturday’s game.
What's at Stake
The first playoff rankings are still three months away, but putting an early statement in the minds of the committee members could go a long way should either of these teams be fighting for a playoff berth. Oregon needs this game more than Auburn in terms of tone-setting and perception. For that matter, the Pac-12 desperately needs an infusion of good news or good teams that can compete with the nation’s best. A win over Auburn would do just that, and it could take an undefeated run for the Ducks to eventually land among college football's final four. The Tigers have plenty of opportunity to make up ground even with a loss, thanks to a schedule that is stacked with pitfalls and bordering on absurd. Auburn must visit Texas A&M, Florida and LSU all before November, with Georgia and Alabama closing out conference play.
Hot Seat or Cooling Off?
The end of August means that the hot seat/pink slip watch is alive and well down in the Plains. Gus Malzahn knows he must win and win now, because eight wins just isn’t going to cut it anymore among the Auburn faithful. There is no doubt the Tigers are talented and could compete for a conference title, even with the obstacles that stand in their way. Game 1, against a quality opponent, is a nice measuring stick, but as was the case last year, it will mean absolutely nothing if they can’t capitalize on the cache that comes with a big win. Besides, there will be no problem for the powers that be to come up with $27 million to get rid of Malzahn should Auburn have another disappointing season.
Youth vs. Experience
Oregon quarterback and Heisman candidate Justin Herbert has 30 games of experience under his belt. Auburn’s Bo Nix has a grand total of zero starts, as he is the first true freshman SEC quarterback to start a team’s opening game in 15 years. Herbert has thrown a touchdown in a nation-leading 28 straight games. While Oregon will have no problem testing Auburn’s secondary, Malzahn could play it by ear with Nix and let his running game try to get cranked up, but the five-star recruit does have serious arm talent and can push the ball down the field. Both quarterbacks must not be careless with the ball, but especially Nix, because mistakes will have him sitting on the sideline next to Malzahn.
Who Is Going to Catch the Ball?
Auburn’s top receivers have been banged up for most of fall camp, but should be available come game time. Eli Stove and Will Hastings are each coming back from ACL tears, while Anthony Schwartz is recovering from hand surgery and would be a big blow for the Tigers if he can’t play. While depth and inconsistency are an issue, Auburn coaches don’t seem all that concerned about it.
At times last season, Oregon’s receivers couldn’t catch the ball if their life depended on it, dropping eight potential touchdowns and more than 40 other catchable balls when they were targeted. Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson comes in for much needed help, and as with Auburn, depth at the position is a serious issue. Brenden Schooler and Jaylon Redd, who showed up on campus as defensive backs, are expected to be big-time contributors dependent on their health, but it may just be trial and error until a go-to guy emerges.
Keep an eye on Oregon offensive line against Auburn’s much-hyped defensive front. The Ducks have the nation’s most experience line, with 153 starts entering 2019, and are among 10 starters brought back from the offensive side of the ball. Keeping Herbert upright with clean pockets and time to throw is job one, but allowing CJ Verdell and Travis Dye decent lanes to run through is also imperative from at least a balance standpoint. Throwing it 45 to 50 times in the Pac-12 may be good for some wins, but will get Oregon beat in this game.
Auburn is loaded on the front with Nick Coe, Derrick Brown, Big Kat Bryant and Marlon Davidson in the rotation, and simply slowing them down is a handful for even the most talented offensive lines. Even though the defense had 38 sacks and 96 tackles for loss in 2018 (both ranked in the top 20 nationally), improvement on those numbers will be the key to any title aspirations the Tigers have.