For a second consecutive year Auburn will open a football season against an opponent projected to be one of the top teams in the Pac-12. Last year the Tigers took a hard-fought 21-16 victory at Atlanta over the Washington Huskies, the team forecast to finish as the runner-up in the Pac-12’s northern division this season.
When Auburn meets 11th-ranked Oregon for the 2019 opener, the Tigers will be taking on the team picked to win the Pac-12 north. One of the reasons why is the Ducks will field a very experienced team. Almost all of the starters return from last year, including the most important player on the roster, quarterback Justin Herbert.
At six-foot-six, 237 pounds, Herbert is considered a pro prospect and if reports from the Ducks’ preseason practices are on target the senior has been throwing the football exceptionally well in recent weeks.
Oregon also returns five starters on the offensive line along with its top running backs, two more items that have gotten the attention of the Tigers as they prepare for the first of six games on the regular season schedule against teams ranked higher than Auburn in the preseason AP Top 25 poll that lists the Tigers at No. 16.
Defensively, the Ducks return many of their key players, but I will be surprised if that group is as talented as the defensive bunch Auburn will take into this contest that will be played in AT&T Stadium at Arlington, Tex., home of the Dallas Cowboys.
Gus Malzahn is a strong believer in a physical running attack. With Auburn’s head coach back in the saddle again as the full-time play caller working with a deep group of backs and an experienced line, the opportunity is there to try to win the opener the old-fashioned way using a strong defense combined with a ball-hogging ground game.
Considering the Tigers are breaking in a freshman quarterback in his first college start, it makes sense to rely on running backs to try to pound the Ducks into submission with the help of five redshirt seniors leading the way on the offensive line. The Tigers have an interesting group of backs to attack with that includes Boobee Whitlow, Shaun Shivers, D.J. Williams, Kam Martin, Malik Miller and Harold Joiner.
Overall, looking at who the Tigers have to run the football combined with a healthier and more experienced offensive front than the one they opened the season with in 2018, running the football early and often looks to be the best option for Malzahn unless Oregon’s defenders stack the line of scrimmage and dare Auburn to beat them through the air.
SEC teams are involved in interesting early season matchups that can enhance the league’s power rating like this weekend’s Florida vs. Miami contest and September games with Texas A&M at Clemson, LSU at Texas and Notre Dame visiting Georgia. Auburn vs. Oregon on a neutral site is one of this year’s best non-conference matchups and a game that will be closely watched by college football fans from coast to coast.
Mark Murphy is the editor of Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine and newsletter