The pressure is on for No. 11 Oregon and No. 16 Auburn as they square off in the Advocare Classic in Arlington, Texas this Saturday. For Oregon, the wounds are not fully healed after Auburn knocked them off with a field goal in the final seconds of the 2011 BCS National Championship, and Auburn has its own bitter memory, having lost on the final play of the 2013 National Championship. Adding to the hype will be ESPN’s College GameDay, with Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit calling the action.
Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal has imported an SEC mentality to Eugene in regard to recruiting and off-season training. A win against Auburn would validate his vision and strengthen recruiting. Meanwhile, the Auburn faithful are growing impatient after starting last season ranked ninth and spiraling to an 8-5 record. Each team has elite talent returning, and while the media experts have Oregon ranked higher in the AP Poll, the betting experts favor Auburn by 3.5 at a nominally neutral site.
An Oregon win could give the Pac-12 momentum for a return to the College Football Playoff after a two-year drought. On the flip side, Gus Malzahn is taking over the offensive play-calling duties with the hope of reigniting the Auburn offense that accounted for three divisional titles, two conference championships and a national championship in 2010. The re-match of the 2011 BCS National Championship has high stakes for two programs desperate to regain national prominence. Let’s examine the key players that will determine the immediate and long-term trajectory of both programs.
It’s safe to assume the Ducks will have the best quarterback each week in Justin Herbert, who skipped the NFL draft to return for his senior season and is listed alongside Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa as the top quarterback for the 2020 NFL Draft. The 6-6, 237 lb signal caller ranks third in school history for career touchdown passes (62), third in completion percentage (62.7) and sixth in passing yards (6,904).
The showdown with Auburn is an opportunity for Herbert to escape his career struggles outside of Autzen Stadium, where he has only five wins since becoming the starter in Week 6 of the 2016 season. Herbert’s best road wins came against No. 11 Utah (2016) and No. 24 Cal (2018). A win against Auburn would be the best road win of Herbert’s career.
Auburn has named true freshman Bo Nix the starter. Nix is not your typical freshman. The five-star recruit and No. 1 dual-threat prospect was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Alabama while earning back-to-back state titles. His high school stats were off the chart, with over 10,000 passing yards and 127 touchdowns. He is also a legacy player, as his father Patrick Nix played quarterback for Auburn from 1992-1995 and, ironically, holds the record for the most passing yards in a season opener with 372.
An intriguing aspect of this rematch is that, although the teams are very different schematically, they are equally matched in talent. Both teams bring experienced offensive lines into the upcoming season. 247Sports ranks Auburn’s offensive line the fifth best in the country while giving Oregon the two spot. Both teams return all five offensive line starters from from last year in addition to their respective leading rusher.
Auburn gets the edge in this category, and it’s not even close. 247Sports ranked them the best defensive line unit in the country. Nick Coe, Derrick Brown, and Marlon Davidson are expected to be NFL draft selections. Coe is an elite pass rusher with 7 sacks, while Brown has 10 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Oregon’s defensive line counters with returning starters Jordon Scott, Austin Faoliu and 5-star recruit Kayvon Thibodeaux.
Oregon will field the more experienced group, as Auburn graduated three starting linebackers from last year’s squad. Oregon’s all PAC-12 performer Troy Dye will be the best linebacker on the field. La’Mar Winston and Isaac Slade-Matautia also return for first-year defensive coordinator Andy Avalos. Despite the advantage, Avalos will face a tough task against the veteran Auburn offensive line.
The Ducks will have the advantage at running back after CJ Verdell and Travis Dye combined for 16 touchdowns and over 2,100 yards from scrimmage last season. Auburn returns leading rusher JaTarvious Whitlow (787 yards and 6 TD’s), a dynamic runner looking to build off a solid freshman season.
The wide receiver corps are the biggest question mark for both teams, with both the Tigers and Ducks losing their top receivers to the NFL draft. The injury bug has bitten both teams, with Oregon losing expected starters Brenden Schooler (right foot) and breakout freshman Mycah Pittman (right shoulder). Auburn does return speedster Anthony Schwartz (568 total yards/7 TD’s), but Schwartz broke a bone in his hand early in fall camp and will be a game-time decision.
Auburn will rely on junior Seth Williams (534 yards/5 TD’s), while Oregon will look to grad transfer Juwan Johnson (1,223 yards/2 TD’s at Penn State), speedy Jaylon Redd (443 yards/5 TD’s) and the resurgent Johnny Johnson III (215 yards/4 TD’s).
This type of game demonstrates the importance of the quarterback position. Auburn will use the experience of their offensive line to help its first year starter, while Oregon hopes to benefit from the experience of Herbert. Expect the Tigers to run the ball early and often as the QB gets comfortable. If they get into a rhythm, it could spell trouble for the Ducks.
Geneseo, Illinois Top Photo Credit by Kevin Cline
Phil Anderson, the FishDuck.com Volunteer editor for this article, is a trial lawyer in Bend Oregon.
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