As the calendar turned to August and with college football on the near horizon, USA Today released the first coaches poll on Thursday. It lines out a pair of top-25 matchups for week one, both in the non-conference.
Defending national champion Clemson sits atop the poll at No. 1 with Alabama just behind. However, the first week of competition is more about West Coast football than the SEC. No. 13 Oregon and No. 16 Auburn face off in the Cowboys Classic at AT&T Stadium (7:30 p.m. Eastern time, ABC), while No. 23 Stanford hosts No. 25 Northwestern (4 p.m., FOX).
The Ducks and Tigers last played in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game, with Cam Newton leading a last-minute drive for the winning field goal in a 22-19 squeaker. Meanwhile, the Wildcats shut down Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey in 2015 en route to a 16-6 upset over the Cardinal.
Oregon rode its defense to a 7-6 victory in the Redbox Bowl over Michigan State, while Auburn obliterated Purdue 63-14 in the Music City Bowl. Northwestern made its first Big 10 Championship Game, lost to Ohio State by double-digits and finished off a 9-5 campaign with a 31-20 triumph over Utah. Lastly, Stanford edged Pitt 14-13 in the Sun Bowl.
Let’s take a look at these two matchups and their implications for the rest of the season.
Oregon vs. Auburn
Oregon is not the light-speed offensive unit it was under Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich, but it was damn effective in Year One under Mario Cristobal. One thing that should lead to continuity is the return of quarterback Justin Herbert, who is a likely first-rounder in next April’s NFL Draft.
He led the Ducks to 427 yards and 35 points per game, while tossing for 3151 yards, 29 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. He needs to boost his completion percentage (59%), but he’s as good as your going to get under center in the country.
The Tigers will look to get pressure on him with their one-two combo of Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson. The two linemen combined for 16 TFLs and seven sacks, which is respectable. As College Football News points out, as five Ducks starters return on the offensive line, including Second Team All-Pac-12 left guard Shane Lemieux.
Nobody picked off more than two passes for the Tigers last year, as well. If Oregon plays aggressively, it’s not clear that Auburn can take advantage with turnovers.
Auburn lost their starting quarterback in Jarrett Stidham, didn’t have a 1,000 yard rusher last season and also lost their top-2 receivers. The edge here should go to Oregon based on personnel, but the Pac-12 is just 15-19 against the SEC all-time.
Wins like these are important to legitimize the Pac-12, who hasn’t sent a team to the College Football Playoff since Washington in 2016.
Northwestern at Stanford
As Athlon pointed out, Northwestern has defied conventional wisdom to do remarkable things during Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure. This includes a Big 10 West division title last fall, as well as a handful of bowl wins after decades of ineptitude.
Northwestern has defied analytics by winning a lot lately despite one of the feeblest offenses in the FBS. Since 2015, the Wildcats rank 123rd in average yards per play (4.95) and 121st in percentage of offensive plays of 10 yards or longer (17.2). It’s simply not sustainable to expect more victories without more big plays.
That offense lost starting quarterback Clayton Thorson and replaces him with former 5-star and Clemson commit Hunter Johnson. As he adjusts to a conservative approach by OC Mick McCall, expect him to rely on Isaiah Bowser, who averaged 108.0 yards rushing in the final eight games after Jeremy Larkin’s medical retirement.
It’s not as if Stanford can respond with a potent attack of its own. Even with Bryce Love, the Cardinal scuffled to just 28 points per game (11th in the conference). In addition, just five starters return on defense.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats are bolstered by the leadership of All-Big Ten defensive end Joe Gaziano and Pat Fitzgerald clone Paddy Fisher. This game may be a defensive slog, but Northwestern seems to have the edge here.
A non-conference win for the Big Ten is essential, as the conference champion has missed out on the College Football Playoff for three straight seasons (Ohio State made it without winning the division in 2016).