The 2019 college football season kicks off in earnest on Aug. 31. One of Week 1’s more intriguing matchups is a neutral-site tilt between the Auburn Tigers and Oregon Ducks at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Auburn currently is a 3-point favorite, according to BetOnline.
Fans of the SEC and the much-maligned Pac-12 have seen this movie before. A team from the Pac-12 traverses a good portion of the United States to play a “neutral-site” game against an SEC opponent with a campus typically located closer to the venue. These games seemingly never end well for the Pac-12.
For all the bashing it endures, its 15-19 record against SEC foes compares favorably against the three other Power 5 conferences. Granted, the Pac-12 is the SEC’s least common non-conference opponent in that group, but the Pac-12 has been decent, relatively speaking, against the SEC.
Auburn has played Pac-12 opponents six times, going 4-2 in those games, including a 21-16 win over Washington last year in a neutral-site game played in Atlanta.
Crucial game for the entire Pac-12
As was the case with Washington heading into its 2018 tilt with Auburn, Oregon needs to beat Auburn to bolster the Pac-12’s credibility. These games are crucial for the conference, as it tries to break a multi-year College Football Playoff drought.
Oregon will be favored to win the Pac-12 North, while Auburn is probably looking at a projected finish of fourth in the SEC West. The Pac-12 cannot afford to have one of its best teams lose to what is potentially a middling team from another major conference.
Oddsmakers currently list Oregon at 33/1 to win the College Football Playoff. No, that’s not Alabama or Clemson territory, but Oregon’s odds are the same as Florida and LSU. That is pretty good company.
For the Ducks, 2019 is Year 2 under Mario Cristobal. Last year, Oregon finished 9-4, including a less-than-inspiring 7-6 bowl victory over Michigan State. Against the spread, Oregon was just 5-8, and for all the talk about a supposedly dynamic offense, the Ducks torched over bettors last year, going just 5-8 there as well.
Auburn finished 8-5 straight up last year and comes off a 63-14 bowl dismantling of Purdue. The Tigers were 6-7 against the spread (ATS) while also going 5-8 to the over in 2018.
Mario Cristobal familiar with Auburn
Gus Malzahn is 5-1 straight up in Week 1 games at Auburn, with the only loss coming in 2016 to eventual national champion Clemson. That includes two wins over Pac-12 foes (Washington State and Washington).
Cristobal was the head coach at Florida International before getting his second head coaching job at Oregon, so his body of work as a head coach in a major conference is not extensive. The Ducks’ 34-point destruction of Bowling Green in Week 1 2018, an ATS loss, is not a large enough sample size to talk about Cristobal’s impact on bettors early in the season.
Physicality and defensive line play often makes the difference in Pac-12/SEC tilts. SEC teams always have it, but physical football is not as prominent in the Pac-12. That would seem to make Auburn an easy bet to beat and probably cover against Oregon, but upon closer examination, betting the Ducks becomes more compelling. Last year, Oregon played four teams that can legitimately be described as “physical” – Stanford, Washington, Utah and Michigan State. The Ducks went 2-2 SU and 2-2 ATS in those four games.
Additionally, Cristobal’s pedigree is worth noting in a conversation about Oregon’s physicality. From 2013 to 2016, Cristobal was an assistant head coach, offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator at Alabama. Put simply, plenty of Alabama players currently in the NFL, including several offensive linemen, are former Cristobal recruits. The coach also is familiar with Malzahn’s Auburn teams.
That’s good news for Oregon, which recently signed its top recruiting class in program history. Cristobal’s commitment to building Oregon from the trenches is a welcome change for quarterback Justin Herbert. NFL teams salivated over Herbert last year. A strong showing in Eugene this year could not only elevate Herbert’s Heisman status, but elevate him to the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL draft. As Herbert’s abilities pertain to the match-up with Auburn, he is no worse than the second-best QB the Tigers will face this year behind Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.
Both Auburn and Oregon like to run the ball. In 2018, the teams combined for about 4,500 rushing yards. Oregon ranked ahead of Auburn in rushing yards per game (No. 54 vs. No. 66). Malzhan is one of the godfathers of the hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
While the Ducks do not play with the pace they did under Chip Kelly, this game likely will be played at a brisk pace, particularly if Oregon discovers it can run against Auburn’s defense. Oregon’s top two running backs, CJ Verdell and Travis Dye, combined for almost 1,800 yards and 14 touchdowns last year.
With Dillon Mitchell, the Ducks’ leading receiver in 2018, off to the NFL, Oregon could opt to pound the rock against Auburn until Herbert develops a rapport with some newer receivers. Still, heading into this game, Oregon has a distinct advantage at QB. Jarrett Stidham declared for the NFL draft and it is not yet clear whom Malzhan will pick as Stidham’s successor. Conversely, Oregon’s Herbert is an experienced starter with the potential to be the top overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Defense is often the calling card for SEC teams. Consider this: Auburn had the 42nd-ranked total defense last year, but that was good for just ninth-best in the SEC. Oregon ranked 61st nationally and seventh in the Pac-12 in total defense. Oregon has a strong secondary, something to consider with Auburn breaking in a new QB for this game. Last year, the Ducks intercepted 17 passes, tying with LSU for 11th nationally in that category.
Linebacker Troy Dye opted to forego the NFL draft and return to Eugene for his senior season. Largely due to the fact that the Pac-12 is not known for defense, Dye’s status as one of the best linebackers in the country often goes overlooked. The Ducks also added defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, the No. 2 recruit in the country. While Oregon is breaking in a new defensive coordinator this year, the Ducks defense should be one of the Pac-12’s best and more physical than a team from the SEC may realize.
Bottom line: Oregon should be favored
There’s a chasm of a difference at quarterback between Herbert and whomever Auburn starts. While Auburn likely keeps it close, the talent gap at QB coupled with Oregon’s just-good-enough defense helps the Ducks deliver the marquee win the Pac-12 so desperately needs. Take Oregon +3, or grab the Ducks on the moneyline.