SEC Week 1 Primer: All eyes on QBs, but Auburn's d-line vs. Oregon's o-line is marquee trench battle of the season
The least you need to know about this weekend’s SEC slate.
Game of the Century of the Week: Auburn (-3.5) vs. Oregon
The Stakes: Saturday’s primetime showcase (7:30 ET, ABC) is Auburn’s second consecutive opener in a bowl-like setting against a Pac-12 frontrunner, and just like last year’s clash with Washington it’s tempting to load it up with long-term significance. In Oregon’s case, that might be apt: This might be the only game all season that the Ducks will enter as the Vegas underdog, making it arguably the tallest hurdle on the path to an 11- or 12-win season and a potential Playoff bid. At the very least, an “upset” over a ranked SEC heavy would immediately cement their place at the top of the West Coast pecking order.
But, you know, it’s a long season. Auburn’s dramatic win over Washington last year briefly lifted the Tigers in the polls, but it didn’t portend greatness; they fell out of the rankings by midseason en route to a deflating, 8-5 finish. (Meanwhile, the Huskies went on to win the Pac-12 and play in the Rose Bowl.)
More than winning, Week 1 is about establishing a sustainable identity. Otherwise, unless it’s at the expense of a rival, winning only means that the really big goals are still intact. And for a team facing a schedule with as many land mines ahead as Auburn’s, avoiding the first one isn’t likely to change the odds when it comes to the rest.
The Stat: 28-0.
That’s the difference in career starts between Oregon’s Justin Herbert, who passed on an almost certain 1st-round grade in favor of returning for his senior season, and Auburn true freshman Bo Nix, who’ll be suiting up for his very first college game. The starting quarterbacks are opposites in other ways, too — height, recruiting hype, expertise in biology — but none is as obvious or as potentially decisive Saturday night as the chasm in experience.
Just a great play and throw from Justin Herbert. pic.twitter.com/0pgu3gu13H
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) October 13, 2018
If you haven’t watched him (and here’s guessing most Auburn fans have not) it’s possible to dismiss the 6-6, 237-pound Herbert as the type of “future 1st-rounder” whose most bankable attribute is that he’s tall. He is tall; he has not, as of yet, earned any higher accolades in any of his first 3 seasons than honorable mention All-Pac-12 from league coaches. His raw numbers and his record (17-11 as a starter) are just fine, topping out at pretty good at best. Before his decision to remain in Eugene, he was last seen accounting for 159 total yards in a 7-6 slog against Michigan State in the RedBox Bowl.
Athletically, though, it doesn’t take a scout’s eye to see that Herbert’s skill set is as advertised; consistency is an issue, but when he’s on he flashes next-level touch and accuracy in tight windows as well as impressive mobility for a quarterback his size. He had the best single-game performance of any Pac-12 quarterback last year according to ESPN’s Total QBR, posting a 98.7 in a Week 5 win over Cal — Cal’s defense is actually good now — and he’s 1 of only 5 qualifying players nationally to post a QBR of 75.0 or higher in each of the past 2 seasons. If Herbert remains a bit of a wild card, he’s also the No. 1 reason Oregon’s expectations are what they are. Saturday night could be the launching pad for a huge year.
At any rate, cards don’t come much wilder than a true freshman making his first start in front of 80,000 people in his first college game. We’ve seen repeatedly over the past few years that the learning curve for rookie quarterbacks isn’t nearly as steep as it used to be, and given the hype that preceded him, Nix has the makings of a future star. (Not to mention the fact that he beat out another former blue-chip recruit, Joey Gatewood, who had a full year under his belt in Auburn’s system; if Nix hadn’t earned Gus Malzahn’s trust there were better options than throwing him to the wolves on opening night.) But he has a lot to prove before the future becomes the present.
The Big Question: Can Oregon’s offensive line block Auburn’s defensive line?
The last time these teams got together, the answer was a definitive NO: Auburn’s Nick Fairley thoroughly terrorized the Ducks’ overmatched front in the 2010 BCS Championship Game, earning MVP of arguably the most important victory in school history. But this is not 2010, and Oregon’s offensive mindset under coach Mario Cristobal — a former lineman and OL coach himself, most recently at Alabama — is deliberately grittier than the warp-speed attack that defined the program in the Chip Kelly era. For trench-watchers, this might be the marquee matchup of the entire season.
Oregon’s o-line is widely regarded as the best in the nation, and even if it’s not that, it is without a doubt the longest in the tooth. The Ducks return 5 5h-year seniors (Brady Aiello, Jake Hanson, Shane Lemieux, Calvin Throckmorton, and Bama transfer Dallas Warmack) who have collectively logged 145 career starts, the most of any FBS front. Add to that group sophomore Penei Sewell, a natural-born mauler who immediately entrenched himself at left tackle in 2018 and started the first 7 games there before an ankle injury ended his season; he was tabbed as a Freshman All-American anyway, and at 6-6, 325 pounds, already looks like the type of rare specimen who makes the age limit to enter the NFL Draft seem unfair. Under Kelly and Mark Helfrich, Oregon had 4 offensive linemen drafted in 7 years. The 2019 line will likely equal or exceed that number by itself.
The immovable object to the Ducks’ irresistible force is Auburn’s defensive line, also widely regarded as the best in the nation. The main reason for that is senior DT Derrick Brown, a Fairley-esque presence on the interior who needs no introduction here. But the interchangeable pass-rushing quartet of Nick Coe, Marlon Davidson, Big Kat Bryant, and T.D. Moultrie is fully capable of leaving Herbert’s nascent Heisman campaign in a mangled heap, too. Aside from a breakout performance by Nix, a dominant effort from the defensive line against an equally touted front on the other side would be the most encouraging possible omen for the rest of the season.
Auburn doesn’t necessarily need much from Nix if it controls the line of scrimmage, a big if on both sides of the ball given that the Tigers’ own o-line remains a work in progress. The defense will likely fare better, but riding with a fledgling QB opposite an aspiring top-10 draft pick is too big a leap for my blood.
Oregon 24, Auburn 20.
Elsewhere in the SEC …
Ole Miss (+5.5) at Memphis
You don’t see many SEC West teams on the wrong end of the point spread against non-power 5 opponents, but the dynamic in the Liberty Bowl is pretty straightforward: Ole Miss is coming off a season in which it fielded one of the most flammable defenses in SEC history while Memphis — despite some significant losses on offense — has more than enough firepower to set it alight. The Tigers join Clemson as the only teams in the nation that return a 3,000-yard passer (Brady White), 1,000-yard rusher (Patrick Taylor Jr.), and 1,000-yard receiver (Damonte Coxie). The Rebels haven’t won a game while scoring fewer than 29 points since 2015, the hey day of the Nkemdiche years. That trend’s not going to end Saturday.
It doesn’t help, either, that Ole Miss is in full-on rebuilding mode on offense. It has been awhile since the Rebels have had to entertain any serious doubts on that side of the ball, but only 3 regular 2018 starters are back (RB Scottie Phillips, OL Alex Givens and OL Ben Brown), and for the first time in a long time in Oxford there are no next-level playmakers or obvious all-conference candidates anywhere. That could change quickly if the second-year pass-and-catch combo of Matt Corral and Elijah Moore clicks, or if the gem of the incoming recruiting class, 5-star RB Jerrion Ealy, makes good on the title after his decision to spurn (for now) a career in pro baseball. If they’re going to get the 6 wins they need to snap a 3-year bowl drought, though, this game really needs to be one of them. Patience with the young guns is a luxury they can’t afford.
Verdict: Memphis 38, Ole Miss 33
Alabama (–35) vs. Duke
I’ve resolved not to get too carried away this year by Alabama’s inevitable path of destruction through the regular season, and by anything that happens in this game, in particular. We know who the Crimson Tide are. We know what they’re going to do to a well-coached but otherwise completely outmanned opponent like Duke. And we know that it doesn’t necessarily say anything about how likely they are to achieve their only real goal of a national championship, any more than last year’s opening-day romp over Louisville — or 2017’s opening-day victory over Florida State, or 2016’s opening-day romp over USC — said about those teams, all of which faltered to some extent down the stretch after setting an invincible tone throughout the season. Unlike in those games, there’s not even that much to glean in this one concerning key personnel.
That said, there are a handful of positions to keep an eye on before the score gets out of hand:
Running Back: It’s Najee Harris’ time. Right?
NAJEE HARRIS! Hurdle, side step, stiff arm!!! pic.twitter.com/mCxtjvVU7b
— #FlashSZN (@ftbeard_17) October 20, 2018
Between Josh Jacobs’ early departure for the NFL and a preseason foot injury to freshman Trey Sanders, Harris is finally poised to become the 6-2, 230-pound Derrick Henry-esque bell cow he was born to be … although he’ll have to wait for the 2nd half after he and backup Brian Robinson were suspended for the 1st.
That leaves the starting role, for now, in the hands of true freshman Keilan Robinson, who has a huge opportunity to shine in his first college game in the absence of all 3 backs slated to play ahead of him. With Harris and Robinson Jr. on ice for the competitive portion of the evening, we won’t learn much about how carries will be distributed over the course of the season. But we might get a good idea of just how heavily the younger Robinson will be involved.
Tight end: Irv Smith Jr. was an underrated aspect of last year’s passing game, averaging an explosive 16.4 yards per catch with 7 touchdowns. His replacement is … uh, TBD.
Junior Miller Forristall looks like the nominal starter, but figures to operate more in the situational blocking/H-back role served last year by the also-departed Hale Hentges; ditto Major Tennison, a fellow junior who (like Forristall) didn’t touch the ball in 2018. The most intriguing athlete on the depth chart is redshirt freshman Cameron Latu, who made an impression in the spring after converting from defense to shore up a sudden lack of depth post-Smith. He might be the only option capable of forcing defenses to respect him as a downfield receiving threat. Until any of the above prove otherwise, this is the most pressing vacancy in the lineup.
Nose tackle/Inside linebacker: By all accounts, the vacant nose position belongs to true freshman D.J. Dale, who wrestled the starting role away from veteran Phidarian Mathis in the spring and has continued to work with the first team despite missing time due to a minor injury. Behind him, the starting ILB assignment might also fall to a pair of true freshmen, although in their case not by choice: Both projected starters, All-American Dylan Moses and senior Joshua McMillon, have already been ruled out for the season, with Moses’ torn ACL coming as a particularly devastating twist. After leading the team in tackles in 2018 this was shaping up to be a huge junior season before he was off to the next level.
Rookies Shane Lee and Christian Harris are among the leading contenders to fill that void in their college debut, along with sophomore Markail Benton. That’s a lot of youth holding down the middle of the defense.
Kicker: The bane of Bama fans’ existence. The incumbent, Joseph Bulovas, was not quite as shaky as a redshirt freshman as his reputation suggests, at least on field goals, where he hit on 10 of his last 11 attempts after the calendar turned to October. Still, only one of those connections came from beyond 40 yards, and Bulovas’ ongoing misadventures on extra points — where he justified his rep, missing 6 of his 81 tries; 6! — made him a prime target for demotion. Incoming freshman Will Reichard was the consensus No. 1 kicker in the 2019 recruiting class and comes with none of the baggage… yet. Cue ominous music.
Verdict: Alabama 47, Duke 10
Georgia (–21) at Vanderbilt
How concerned should Georgia be here? Slightly more than Alabama, I think: As the point spread suggests, a road trip against a potentially feisty division opponent in the first game of the season doesn’t set up as a perfunctory blowout. The Commodores have concentrated all of their offseason energy onto this game. They boast more legitimate playmakers on offense, in RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, WR Kalija Lipscomb, and TE Jared Pinkey, than they’ve had in many years. And UGA will be introducing a bunch of new, unproven faces, most notably at wide receiver and linebacker. This has the feel of what I call a Vandy Classic — close enough for long enough to make an upset seem vaguely plausible, but never crossing the threshold into wait this might actually happen territory and ending with the superior team pulling away late.
Two top priorities for the Bulldogs on offense (aside from keeping everyone healthy) will be (1) Identifying a 1a. at running back to share the workload with D’Andre Swift, and (2) Generating some semblance of chemistry between Jake Fromm and an essentially new cast of wideouts, or at the very least establishing 1 or 2 of them as viable targets. There’s no shortage of candidates at either position, some of whom saw significant playing time in 2018 (RB Brian Herrien, WR Tyler Simmons), most of whom did not. The highest ceilings at their respective positions belong to a pair of 5-star freshmen, redshirt RB Zamir White and newly arrived WR George Pickens, who have reportedly shown out in preseason camp. The less time it takes to establish them in their new roles, the less the Bulldogs will have to sweat on their march to Atlanta.
Verdict: Georgia 41, Vanderbilt 17
South Carolina (–7.5) vs. North Carolina
Sick of hearing about the Gamecocks’ blood-curdling schedule? OK, let’s talk about Tavien Feaster.
Tavien Feaster states he’s being recruited by SC, OU, ECU, VaTech, Bama, And Texas
— Nathan Marchese (@CFFNate) May 21, 2019
Feaster has flown under the radar a bit since committing to South Carolina last month as a grad transfer, in part because he arrived so late and in larger part because he’s not a quarterback. At Clemson, he peaked at 781 scrimmage yards and 8 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2017, before being permanently eclipsed last year by All-American Travis Etienne. Right now, it’s not even clear yet exactly where he’s going to fall in a rotation that still includes last year’s top backs, seniors Rico Dowdle and Mon Denson. But Carolina didn’t pursue the state’s highest-rated running back prospect since Marcus Lattimore just for the sake of adding another body to the mix, and presumably Feaster didn’t leave a productive niche on a championship contender to be one. He’s betting his final season of eligibility on a chance to be a headliner.
And if any team in this league could use one, it’s South Carolina. The Gamecocks have ranked 12th or worse in rushing offense in each of Will Muschamp’s 3 seasons as head coach; the leading individual rusher in each of those seasons has finished with the lowest team-leading total in the conference. Jake Bentley has never had anyone who resembles a steady, every-down running threat at his disposal. Feaster clicking in that role could be the catalyst that sparks the entire offense.
Speaking of Bentley, this is another game featuring a senior with more than 2 full seasons’ worth of starting experience under his belt (32 career starts, in Bentley’s case) opposite a true freshman making his college debut: North Carolina has already handed the reins to touted recruit Sam Howell, who took command of the job in the spring. New coach Mack Brown actually thinks the kid is far enough along to give the Tar Heels a fighting chance, or he’s decided to let Howell take his lumps now, when the expectations at UNC are as forgiving as they’re ever going to get, as an investment in the future. Against South Carolina’s fully stocked defensive line, we’ll find out real quick.
Verdict: South Carolina 34, North Carolina 16
Kentucky (–11.5) vs. Toledo
The Rockets should pose a manageable early test for Kentucky’s revamped secondary, but a shootout shouldn’t be a problem for the post-Benny Snell version of the offense, either: If UK struggles to score on a defense that ranked in the bottom half of the MAC last year in yards and points per game that’s a bad omen.
Verdict: Kentucky 30, Toledo 22
LSU (–28) vs. Georgia Southern
First rule of nonconference scheduling: Don’t schedule a triple-option team. Tigers fans should expect at least a few pangs of frustration defending shifty GSU quarterback Shai Werts, who was reinstated to the team earlier this month after a substance on the hood of his car that roadside tests initially indicated was cocaine turned out to be bird poop.
Verdict: LSU 31, Georgia Southern 13
Missouri (–17.5) at Wyoming
Wyoming fielded one of the most anemic offenses in the nation in 2018 but comes into this one with some optimism thanks to redshirt freshman QB Sean Chambers’ unlikely emergence last November. In their first 8 games, the Cowboys went 2-6 while eking out a miserable 15.5 points per game; in their last 4, they averaged 31 points en route to a 4-0 finish.
Verdict: Missouri 38, Wyoming 17
Mississippi State (–21) vs. UL-Lafayette
Altogether, the Ragin’ Cajuns’ backfield trio of Trey Ragas, Elijah Mitchell, and Raymond Calais accounted for more than 3,500 scrimmage yards, 33 touchdowns, and 42 plays of 20 yards or longer last year. Against Mississippi State, they were non-factors in a 56-10 rout that was even more lopsided than the final score. (ULL’s lone touchdown came well into garbage time.) The overhauled Bulldogs’ defense faces its first measuring stick.
Verdict: Mississippi State 44, UL-Lafayette 16
Texas A&M (–33.5) vs. Texas State (Thursday)
The Bobcats are almost respectable on defense, returning 10 starters from 2018. They also lost last year’s season opener at Rutgers 35-7, supplying the hapless Scarlet Knights with their only win of the season. So, you know, not that respectable.
Verdict: Texas A&M 48, Texas State 10
Tennessee (–26) vs. Georgia State
Thankfully, the Vols will have the services of one of the most physically dominant blockers in the nation and the flexibility to avoid throwing a true freshman — or freshmen — into the lineup unless they really want to, thanks to Trey Smith being cleared.
Verdict: Tennessee 38, Georgia State 14
Arkansas (n/a) vs. Portland State
This game’s existence is hereby acknowledged.
Verdict: Arkansas 40, Portland State 10