The days are getting a little shorter, and that is a bummer, but the trade off is that we get football. Real football. Put on your big boy pants, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, let me hear the marching band play the fight song, football.
Thankfully, there is no preseason for College Football, so we go live right away this week, and the best game on the opening slate has the Oregon Ducks heading to JerryWorld to take on the Auburn Tigers. The Ducks enter as the 13th ranked team in the preseason AP poll, with the Tigers at 16th, and the teams are back-to-back in the Sagarin ratings, so everything suggests this will be a very close contest. Auburn opened up as a 6 point favorite, but the line has moved quite a bit with Oregon now listed as just a 3.5 point dog. The over/under total for the game is in the 56.5 to 58 point range. The game kicks off at 7:30pm ET on Saturday, August 31st, and will be broadcast on ABC.
This is a probably a make or break season for Head Coach Gus Malzahn. Entering his seventh year, Malzahn has a 53-27 overall record with the Tigers, but he is just 2-4 in bowl games, and 2-4 against ‘Bama in the Iron Bowl to leave Auburn fans wanting that little bit more. An 8-5 record was the result last season and eight wins might be on tap again, as Auburn is scheduled to face at least six ranked opponents this year. I’m sure Gus wants to keep his job, and starting with a quality win this week would be a good start.
Auburn lost QB Jarrett Stidham to graduation, and in steps true freshman Bo Nix. Malzahn recently named Nix the starter based on his quick progression through camp, but Joey Gatewood is reported to have a role, and the team at least feels good about having two options under center. Nix is a legacy recruit as his father, Nick, was the the Tiger signal caller in the mid-nineties. Bo threw for 10,000 yards in high school, ran for another 2,000, and accounted for 161 touchdowns. The learning curve can be steep for true freshman, but Nix does have a very experienced offensive line to help keep him upright. Malzahn has run the ball at least 63% of the time in each of his years at Auburn, so the game plan will also help the young QB from shouldering too much of a burden.
Auburn averaged 168 rushing yards per game last season, adding 222 passing yards, to come in 79th in total offense. They were rather efficient in scoring 30.9 points per game with that modest yardage total, and a solid group of playmakers return to give the offense a good chance to improve on many numbers this season. JaTarvious Whitlow will be the bell cow back. He logged 787 rushing yards last season with six touchdowns, and was alive in the passing game with 173 receiving yards and two more scores. Kam Martin averaged just 4.4 yards per carry in 2018, but brings senior leadership, and has amassed over 1,200 rushing yards in his time at Auburn. Shawn Shivers is the change-of-pace back and there is surely a package of plays for him to take advantage of his sprinters speed. The pass catching group is a little light on experience as they exit camp, but Seth Williams had 534 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman, while averaging 20.5 yards per catch. He is poised to lead the receiver group while the speedy Anthony Schwartz chips in as a receiver and ball carrier. Schwartz had 22 receptions and 27 carries last year for 568 total yards and seven scores. His role is almost guaranteed to grow in 2019, but he is dealing with a broken hand and may not be available for the opener.
Defensively, Auburn is led by superstar DT Derrick Brown. He is the anchor of a defensive line that allowed just 136 rushing yards per game last season, and the defense as a whole ranked 14th in points allowed at 19.2 per game. Oregon was a top-25 scoring offense last season so they will have their work cut out for them.
Mario Cristobal enters his second year as the Ducks head man, and looks to build on a 9-4 campaign. Cristobal spent four years as the offensive line coach at Alabama, and it did not take him long to mold Oregon’s line into one of the best in the nation. His time with the Tide also gave him a high degree of familiarity with the SEC, and Auburn. We will see just how much that experience counts for when they hit the field Saturday.
After a lukewarm defensive effort in 2018, Oregon moved on from Jim Leavitt, hiring Andy Avalos as Defensive Coordinator. Avalos comes over from the same position at Boise State, and his Broncos allowed 20 points in just 10 of the last 27 games. Boise ranked 10th in sacks last season and finished in the Top 25 in turnovers in six of seven season under Avalos. Oregon ranked 83rd in pass defense last year and barely cracked the Top 50 in points allowed. Any improvement on defense will be meaningful to the win-loss record, as the Ducks offense is scheduled to be among the best in the Pac-12, if not the nation.
Justin Herbert leads the offense that averaged 34.8 points per game in 2018. The senior quarterback is long on experience with 885 career attempts, and is coming off his best year after posting 3,151 passing yards and 28 touchdowns. Herbert proved he can take care of the ball with just nine interceptions last season, but his completion percentage dropped to a career low 59.4%. He does have one of the best lines with three different three year starters ready to protect him. Preseason All-American OL Calvin Throckmorton may be forced to miss Saturday with an ankle injury, although his status has not been determined ahead of the game.
C.J. Verdell leads a capable Oregon rushing attack that accounted for 29 team rushing touchdowns, and averaged 180 yards per game last year. Verdell notched 10 rushing touchdowns while going for 1,018 yards, and also proved versatile with 315 receiving yards on 27 catches. A 1,500 total yard season seems a lock for Verdell, and he is joined in the backfield by Travis Dye, who is also looking to expand on his 740 rushing yards as a freshman. Cyrus Habibi-Likio managed seven touchdowns on just eighteen carries last year, and should see the field again in short yardage and goal line situations.
The Ducks receiving group will miss the departed Dillon Mitchell (75-1184-10), but they did get a boost in the form of Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson. In the last two seasons with the Nittany Lions, Johnson caught 79 balls and immediately vaults to the top of the Oregon depth chart. Jaylon Redd is the leading returning receiver with 433 yards and five touchdowns in 2018, and Jacob Breeland gives Herbert a reliable presence at the tight end position.
Betting Trend Watch
Both teams are trying to reverse negative trends when it comes to non-conference games. Oregon is 1-4 against the spread in their last five non-conference games, while Auburn has just three ATS wins in their last eleven games outside of the SEC. Opposing trends meet when it comes to the over/under, as the over has hit in four of the last six Oregon games against the SEC, but the under has paid in four of the last five when Auburn takes on a Pac-12 foe.
This is a great contest on paper, with big implications for both teams. Both teams have monster offensive lines, and that alone gives you the chance to win a game at the college level. Each team also returns about the same amount of key contributors from last season, with no major injuries looming over the game.
I think Oregon gets a big edge in the quarterbacking game, with Herbert the clear choice over the freshman Nix at this time. The Ducks likely also have the second best offensive player on the field in C.J. Verdell, and his performance against that stout Tigers defensive line is probably the biggest single matchup in this game. Anything around 100 rushing yards for Verdell means Oregon’s offensive line is dictating the pace. I think he will get close to that, finds the end-zone on the ground, and also chips in with a few reception as well.
I am not willing to go with Oregon in an outright upset, as the Ducks are just 4-8 in their last twelve games away from home, losing five of those contests by double digit margins. Auburn will play keep away with their run game, and stop Herbert from truly dominating the game. Oregon averaged just 28 minutes of possession last season so they are used to doing work with limited play call volume. I am willing to take Oregon and the 3.5 points, with an eye on the under as I am predicting a 27-24 Auburn win.