Game of the Week: No. 11 Oregon-No. 16 Auburn opener 9 years after title game
ARLINGTON, Texas — For all the expectations that the 11th-ranked Oregon Ducks have for this season, there will first be a flashback to their championship near-misses of the past when they open against No. 16 Auburn.
When the Ducks last played in the home stadium of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys five seasons ago with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, they lost to Ohio State in the first championship game of the four-team College Football Playoff era.
Oregon also played a season opener at the North Texas stadium in 2011, the middle of three consecutive 12-win seasons under coach Chip Kelly. That loss to LSU came only about eight months after they were again on the verge of a national title, and lost in the BCS Championship Game to Auburn.
Gus Malzahn, going into his seventh season as head coach of the Tigers, was their offensive coordinator for that 2010 championship.
"Sometimes in the offseason, you reflect back on certain things. But that was a while ago, and of course, those are great memories," Malzahn said. "But they're different now, and we're a little different now."
The Ducks are the highest-ranked Pac-12 team and the North Division favorite. They go into Saturday night's game, the opener of coach Mario Cristobal's second season, with a three-game winning streak after a 9-4 season.
Malzahn is feeling some heat at Auburn after going 8-5 last year, another disappointing record for the Tigers, who in his first season as head coach in 2013 played in the last BCS title game (a 34-31 loss to Florida State). Five SEC teams are currently ranked higher than Auburn.
Quarterback Justin Herbert, a potential first-round NFL draft pick, opted to stay at Oregon for his senior season. That was just another reason Cristobal, his third coach with the Ducks, is confident that this team can meet expectations.
"Culture and the work invested. I think there's no hocus pocus to it. We feel that we've gone to a system, we've gone to a blueprint that's demanding but at the same time not demeaning," Cristobal said. "It's very encouraging, develops guys at a very high level and you see that. ... I think with that you build trust, you build confidence and therefore you execute better."
Some things to know about another SEC vs. Pac-12 season opener:
BO KNOWS AUBURN
Auburn is going with a true freshman starting quarterback whose name is familiar to the program. Bo Nix had a record-setting prep career that included Class 6A state titles in Alabama the past two seasons while playing for his father Patrick Nix, a Tigers quarterback from 1992-95. Bo Nix is set to become the first Auburn freshman to start an opener at quarterback since Travis Tidwell in 1946. The January enrollee beat out Joey Gatewood for the starting job after coming in rated the nation's No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 247Sports composite rankings.
Auburn has five fifth-year starters on the offensive line. Oregon has five seniors, and its OL has an FBS-best 153 combined starts. Ducks guard Shane Lemieux was a first-team AP preseason All-American and tackle Calvin Throckmorton was selected to the second team. Oregon also has sophomore left tackle Penei Sewell, who didn't commit a penalty in over 450 snaps as a freshman. Right guard Dallas Warmack is a graduate transfer from Alabama, where he was recruited by Cristobal, who was Nick Saban's assistant head coach, offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator from 2013-16.
FIND OUT FAST
Auburn is playing a Pac-12 team in the opener for the second year in a row, after beating Washington 21-16 in Atlanta last year.
"When you're playing one of the best teams in the country, you get the advantage of seeing exactly where you're at," Malzahn said. "Because there are some teams that play teams that are lesser, and they don't really know exactly where they're at, maybe until later in the season."
Oregon hasn't opened with a win over a ranked team since beating Wisconsin in 2001. The Ducks have won seven straight openers, though. ... Auburn is 6-0 against Pac-12 teams in neutral-site games. ... Ducks RB CJ Verdell was the only Power Five player last season with 1,000 yards rushing and 300 yards receiving. ... This is the 11th year in a row with a season-opening Top 25 matchup at AT&T Stadium. This is Auburn's first time in that game, and Oregon's second.