College football has officially arrived (though I bet our Wildcat friends in the south wish it hadn’t) and Oregon has a shot at revenge against the Auburn Tigers at Jerry World this Saturday at 4:30 PM.
College GameDay will be there and countless college football fans around the country will watch the battle between what could be the best o-line vs the best d-line. In celebration, we’ve invited our friends over at College and Magnolia (@CollegeAndMag) to chat about Bo Nix, Derrick Brown, Gus Malzahn and everything Auburn football. Thanks to Jack Condon for his in-depth answers.
1. We now know Bo Nix will be the starting QB this Saturday, but it’s still a possibility we see Joey Gatewood as well; What are the major differences between the two?
If you had to compare both of their styles to someone, Nix is more of the Johnny Manziel mold, where he has a great arm and he’s quick enough to get out of trouble. He’s apparently taken command of the team and they really respond to how he leads the offense. Gatewood is more of your Cam Newton mold, standing just a little smaller than the former Heisman winner. He can apparently make the throws necessary as well, but the zone read offense would be a huge option for Auburn if he starts. I think you’ll probably get packages for both guys in Arlington on opening weekend, though, so you’re going to see both.
2. Is this the best defensive line in the country? Walk us through what makes this unit so intimidating.
I believe it is, and so do many of the pundits around the land. The line is led by defensive tackle Derrick Brown, who returned for his senior season after he would’ve been a borderline first-round pick this past season. He’s got plenty of strength to push around just about any lineman, and he’s played with the other guys on the line for years now. There’s a ton of cohesion with the other two mainstays in Marlon Davidson at defensive end, and Nick Coe, who’s honestly going to rotate between positions depending on the situation. Davidson started as a true freshman against Clemson in 2016, and he may end up having the most starts in Auburn history when it’s all finished. Davidson’s got long arms and does a great job tactically fighting with a blocker to get penetration, while Coe is all about power rush. After adding weight to get up to 290, he could be a bear at defensive end or move inside to become a problem for a slower guard. Add in some bigger speed rushers like Big Kat Bryant (official roster name, for real), and a veteran presence at the other tackle spot in Tyrone Truesdell, and you’ve got the pieces for the best defensive line in the country.
3. What were some of the strengths and weaknesses of this team last year?
The strengths of this team in 2018 were pretty much on the defensive side of the ball. D-Line, Linebackers, and Secondary all had a ton of players returning from 2017, and so experience was a big factor for them. This season, the front and the secondary return mostly intact, but we lost the entirety of the linebacking corps. What you’ll see in the middle is a more athletic group, if not a super experienced group. The weaknesses were up front on offense. We underestimated how special the 2017 group was, and having some injuries as well as youth in the middle meant that Jarrett Stidham was facing pressure left and right. It also didn’t give a freshman running back a chance to make plays, and it isolated our receivers on the outside. The line started to gel late in the year (the Alabama game might have been their best game, final score notwithstanding), and so they should be better.
4. What can we expect from this Tiger offensive line?
Which leads into this answer. The whole line returns from 2018. There are fifth-year seniors across the board, with a couple of potential draft picks in the mix as well. Prince Tega Wanogho is the centerpiece at left tackle, while Marquel Harrell graded out as one of the best blockers in the country at guard. Last season the problem spot came in the middle, but Kaleb Kim seemed to get stronger and bigger and take command late in the year. His experience should pay off this season. Mike Horton and Jack Driscoll on the right side bring more leadership in, and it’s not like they’re not tested every day in practice. They’ll be better this season for sure.
5. Any players that have surprised you this offseason?
While we knew that a freshman (redshirt or true) was going to be quarterback, I’ve been surprised by the reports out of camp regarding Bo Nix. He’s been better than advertised and the coaches seem confident in his ability to win games. Other than him, running back Shaun Shivers (really small, really fast) seems to actually be making headway to get real carries this year as opposed to gadget play reps, and Matthew Hill at receiver looks like he’s going to be a factor in the passing game after a good spring game and fall camp. On defense, freshman linebacker Owen Pappoe will likely start and likely play well. He was one of the integral parts of the 2018 class, and he comes in with a ton of hype. The things his teammates say about him are nothing short of glowing.
6. What can we expect this offense to look like now that Gus is calling the plays again?
You’re going to get swaggy Gus again. Go watch the Music City Bowl against Purdue to get a glimpse of what that means for the offense. You’ll see a good mix of the run and pass, but probably not a ton of zone read option if Nix is the quarterback. The downfield passing game should return after a hiatus last year, and old standby plays from the early days of Gus should pop up too -- be ready for the statue of liberty, the Cam Newton jab step, and the pump fake. Our new OC Kenny Dillingham came from Memphis, where he had a fantastic tailback, but we’re all waiting to see what sort of wrinkles he’ll provide.
7. Oregon looks like a completely different team since we last met in 2011, how has your team changed since then?
Auburn’s honestly pretty similar to what we put on the field in our last meeting. Obviously there’s no generational talent at quarterback (that we know of), but the rest of the team is constructed almost the same. Running backs with defined roles. Veteran offensive line. Nasty defensive line with a superstar in the middle. Athletic and quick linebackers. Speed to burn in the secondary. We know we won’t see the Chip Kelly offense from you guys, but here’s hoping that you get some flashbacks (bad ones) when Auburn does certain things at Jerry World.
8. Which skill players will have a big game for Auburn in week one?
It has to start with the quarterback, so I think Bo Nix goes in and has a pretty solid outing. He’s got plenty of help from the rest of his skill positions, so if he puts the ball where it needs to be, the receivers could also have a big day. I would look for Will Hastings and Eli Stove to have a big impact early and often. They were both sidelined by injury last year after being major contributors in 2017. Add in Jay Jay Wilson, a transfer H-back from Arizona State. He’s gotten rave reviews in camp for both his blocking capabilities and his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He could slip around for some sneaky yardage if you’re not careful.
9. What unit are you most worried about under-performing?
It’s got to be the offensive line. I’m not worried about the defense, and I think the matchup up front when Oregon has the ball will be the highlight of the game. I’m also confident about our secondary’s ability to work on some of the backup receivers now that I know the Ducks have had some bad injury luck in that spot. However, if our offensive line doesn’t give the new QB time to throw, and doesn’t open up some holes in the running game, then we’re going to get antsy really quickly.
10. Prediction for the game?
I think the improvements up front on both sides of the ball mean Auburn gets the edge in controlling the line of scrimmage. Bo Nix has a good, not great game, but he has help from the defense and gets a couple of short fields to work with due to turnovers. Both sides land their fair share of punches, but Auburn takes a fourth quarter turnover with the lead and ices the game. Give me the Tigers, 31-20.