Auburn Squares Off Against the Ducks in Arlington: Previewing Auburn’s Season-Opening Matchup Against the Oregon Ducks
I would imagine this costume will not be comfortable in Dallas in late August!
(Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for the first Auburn game preview of the year! On August 31st, Auburn will travel to Arlington, Texas to take on Oregon in the season opener. These are a pair of dangerous, yet underachieving, teams that were close last year but did not crack the major bowl picture. Auburn exploded offensively in the Music City Bowl, while Oregon managed to hack out a 7–6 win over Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara.
Head coach Mario Cristobal has had an interesting career, becoming the first Cuban-American head coach in the FBS at Florida International, and delivered the team a Sun Belt title, before being fired a couple of years later. He was snapped up as the offensive line coach by Nick Saban at Alabama and produced some dominating lines. Cristobal left Alabama to take a co-offensive-coordinator spot at Oregon under coach Willie Taggart and coached in one bowl game. Taggart left to take the Florida State job, and Cristobal was elevated to head coach after just 1 game as an assistant.
Last season, Oregon had some issues on defense and allowed over 20 points in every FBS game except in the season ending game against woeful Oregon State. The Ducks lost 4 games last season, and gave up over 30 in every one of the losses. Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt left, and Coach Cristobal hired defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, who did a good job at Boise State. Avalos is installing a 3-3-5 defense. Oregon is loaded with veteran upper class defensive players, but sometimes the transition to that defense takes time.
Oregon’s offense was good for much of the season behind an offensive line that mostly dominated Pac-12 defensive lines. The last time Auburn played Oregon, the story was a wide-open hurryup offense. Current Oregon offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo is much more deliberate, running a mix of pistol and shotgun sets with some jet motion. Oregon’s offense last season was an attempt at balance, handing off to a committee of running backs, and trying to get the ball to star receiver Dillon Mitchell. Unfortunately for Oregon, Mitchell is gone, and it will have to try and replace his 75 catches last season. Big quarterback Justin Herbert decided to return for his senior year, and he’s the prototypical tall, strong-armed quarterback NFL scouts are looking for. Dillon’s numbers could have been higher, but the offense was plagued at times by dropped passes.
Oregon has a good punter in Blake Maimone, with a strong leg and good placement. Kicking was a bit more dicey with rising junior Adam Stack as he hit on only 6 of 10 field goal attempts. Like Auburn’s Anders Carlson, Stack tended to miss from long range. Oregon was average on kick coverage and pretty good on punt coverage last season.
As of yet, neither team has decided on a punt returner, both having to replace departed seniors. Auburn has the edge in terms of kick returns as teams were deliberately kicking the ball away from Noah Igbinoghene by midseason.
Last season, I pointed out that West Coast spring games tend to be rather lightly attended. Oregon is an exception. Over 35,000 fans turned up for the Duckfest this spring. The most notable thing about the spring game was the oft-maligned receiver corps did not drop a pass.
Unit matchups after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Oregon offensive line: Many folks believe this is the money matchup of the game. Auburn brings back a big, athletic defensive line. Likely starters at tackle are senior Derrick Brown and junior Tyrone Truesdell. Senior strong-side end Marlon Davidson will be a 4-year starter. The buck side is a rotation between juniors Nick Coe and Big Kat Bryant. Auburn can play monster sophomore Nick Coe at any position on the line with great results. Auburn has serious depth all across the line as well. Some pundits claim that Oregon will have the best offensive line in the country. From left to right, that is sophomore Penei Sewell, senior Shane Lemeieux, senior Jake Hanson, senior Dallas Warmack, and senior Calvin Throckmorton. This is a veteran line that allowed just 22 sacks last season, despite the Ducks putting the ball in the air 418 times. Advantage: Even.
Auburn linebackers vs. Oregon backs: Auburn will be breaking in a new starting linebacker rotation, but there is a good bit of playing experience as these guys have been rotating for a couple of years. Auburn will go with junior K. J. Britt in the middle and some combination of junior Chandler Wooten and sophomore Zakoby McClain on the outsides. I would also expect true freshman Owen Pappoe to play early and often. Oregon rotates a couple of good backs. Sophomore C. J. Verdell rushed for 1,018 yards last season as a redshirt freshman. Sophomore Travis Dye added another 739 yards. Verdell caught 27 balls out of the backfield last season as well. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. Oregon receivers: Auburn has a fairly good combination of starting corners in senior Javaris Davis and junior Noah Igbinoghene . Auburn has depth and experience behind the starters. Oregon has loads of talent in the receiving corps, but they will have to step up this season. I look for sophomore Daewood Davis and junior Johnny Johnson III to start on the outside for the Ducks. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. Oregon secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s starting unit features Seniors Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas at safety. This is a veteran crew with experienced backups. I think Auburn would like to start sophomore Christian Tutt at the nickel spot. Senior Duck quarterback Justin Herbert is a good one and can make every throw. Behind a good offensive line, Herbert can really throw the ball around, throwing for 29 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions last season. Junior Jalen Redd Jones is expected to be the starting slot receiver, and senior Jacob Breeland should start at tight end. Advantage: Even.
Punting: Aaron Siposs had a good rookie campaign punting the football (averaging 44.2 yards per punt) and is expected to be one of the better punters in the SEC this season. Likewise, Oregon returns senior punter Blake Maimone, who averaged 42.5 yards per punt last season. Auburn improved dramatically in coverage last season (3.36 yards per return), and Oregon was good, allowing 7.4. Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Auburn sophomore Anders Carlson had a great year kicking off, last season, hitting 51 touchbacks on 70 kickoffs. When Carlson didn’t kick it to the end zone, Auburn gave up only 19.44 yards per return. Junior Oregon kicker Adam Stack takes over as the kickoff man this season. Last year, he had 4 kickoffs and zero touchbacks. Oregon gave up 22.7 yards per kick return. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn sophomore Daniel Carlson hit on just 15 of 25 field goal attempts and was 5 of 14 from 40 yards or more. Adam Stack hit on 6 of 10 field goal attempts last season and was 0 for 2 from long range. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Oregon defensive line: Auburn has 5 veteran seniors returning on the offensive line, and they looked very good in the Music City Bowl and on A-Day. From left to right, it will be Prince Tega Wanogho, Marquel Harrell, Kaleb Kim, Mike Horton and Jack Driscoll. Oregon will use a 3-man line with junior Jordan Scott anchoring the middle. Junior Austin Faoliu and senior Gary Baker will handle the end spots. Oregon will rotate seniors Gus Cumberlander and Drayton Carlberg extensively. The book on beating the 3-3-5 defense is to run right at the 3-man line and get offensive linemen to the second level, creating mismatches against defensive backs and linebackers. The key to Auburn’s success on offense will be whether these Oregon guys can force Auburn to have to double-team block them. I don’t think they can. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Oregon linebackers: Auburn lost H-back Chandler Cox, a 4-year starter who blew open holes. The real question is who will replace Cox. Right now, senior Spencer Nigh is the only fullback/H-back listed on the roster. Sophomore John Samuel Schenker is likely to get work here as well. Senior Kam Martin is blazing fast but has had durability issues in the past. Sophomore JaTarvious Whitlow took over the top spot last year and is said to be much improved this spring. Senior Malik Miller has size, power, and a few carries here and there but hasn’t been used much. Auburn will face a good, well-coached linebacking corps. Projected to start on the inside are senior Troy Dye and junior Samson Niu. On the outside edges, expect to see senior Lamar Winston, Jr. and sophomore Adrian Jackson. This is a tough matchup for Oregon as linebackers typically have the most trouble converting to this sort of defensive system. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Oregon corners: Auburn is moving sophomore Seth Williams to the boundary (X) side of the offense, and the likely starter in the flanker spot is either redshirt freshman Matthew Hill or junior Marquis McClain. While Auburn is young here, Oregon is veteran and capable at cornerback. Juniors Thomas Graham, Jr. and Deommodore Lenior have been there, done that. Advantage: Oregon.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Oregon safeties: All eyes will be on a new Auburn starting freshman quarterback. Whether that will be Joey Gatewood or Bo Nix has yet to be determined. I would expect Oregon to try to go after these guys and cause confusion in the backfield. Auburn has a very speedy and dangerous group of secondary receivers, including junior Eli Stove, senior Will Hastings, and sophomore Anthony Schwartz. Auburn can put big senior receiver Sal Cannella in and get a size mismatch. Oregon’s safeties return from last season, sophomore Jevon Holland and junior Nick Pickett. I think Auburn can create some mismatches in space, but can freshmen quarterbacks take advantage? Advantage: Oregon.
I believe that Auburn must keep this a low-scoring game to have a chance on the fast track in the domed stadium. Offensively, Auburn has so many questions at this point. There is talent across the board, but will it be a polished product on September 1st? History says no. Only once in 6 years has the Gus Malzahn offense come out of the gate firing on all cylinders, and that was in 2014 with a 45–21 pasting of Arkansas. In 2013, Auburn struggled to move on a bad Wazzu defense. In 2015 against Louisville, Jeremy Johnson led the nation in interceptions. In 2016, Auburn tried to run the single wing against Clemson’s 8-man fronts. In 2017, Auburn struggled with sacks and hamstrings against Georgia Southern, which turned out to be a really bad team that year. Auburn sputtered against Washington last season in Atlanta. There’s not enough sunshine for me to pump on this subject. I’d love to be proven wrong by the Auburn players and coaches!
On the other hand, there is a great deal of criticism on the Oregon side about the play calling of Oregon offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo, who is said to be too predictable. I’m not sure I buy it. Footage of the Redbox Bowl was pretty dreadful, but I had more issues with execution than with play calling. Michigan State also showed a good defense in that game. I saw dropped passes. The Spartans would blitz, and the Ducks couldn’t pick it up in the backfield. Sometimes the Ducks had good play calls to take advantage of alignments, and a missed block or two would kill it.
Prediction: Auburn had a virtual home game against Washington last season in Atlanta. The Ducks travel well, and I expect the crowd in Texas to be much more evenly split. It is hard to pick Auburn to win with a freshman quarterback in this game. Auburn falls, 31–27.