Week 1’s most consequential game is in the middle of the afternoon on the first big Saturday, when Chris Petersen’s Huskies will step into Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta to take on Gus Malzahn’s Tigers. The S&P+ projections rank these teams No. 4 and No. 5, and it’s possible that this game could differentiate the two come Playoff selection time at the end of the year.
Think through the potential scenarios. We could see Auburn with only a loss to Alabama in a top-heavy SEC, hoping its win over the Pac-12 champ makes up for its lack of SEC West title. We could see Washington win a down Pac-12 despite a conference loss, but find itself confident in Playoff seeding, thanks to its win over an SEC power. However the rest of the season plays out, the winner of this game will likely enter Week 2 with the country’s best résumé item so far.
Here are some of the big matchups that could ultimately alter Selection Sunday.
1. Jarrett Stidham vs. the best secondary in the country?
Auburn is losing four mainstays from a bruising offensive line, including jack-of-all-trades Austin Golson and two-time All-SEC Braden Smith. Kerryon Johnson had a lot of success running behind them, and he’s moving on as well, leaving some youth and uncertainty to the normal feature of the Auburn offense, the run game.
However, War Eagle is in year two with new OC Chip Lindsey and transfer QB Jarrett Stidham, who threw for 3,158 yards last year, the first time this century an Auburn QB threw for 3,000 yards in a season (yeah, Heisman winner Cam Newton came close). His rebuilt OL should feature rising junior and star athlete Prince Tega Wanogho at LT after an impressive spring and UMass transfer and veteran RT Jack Driscoll, once he arrives for fall camp.
Gus Malzahn isn’t moving away from his smashmouth spread roots, and FB Chandler Cox returns to guarantee physical lead blocking.
But this offense is going to fling the ball around more than we’ve grown accustomed to. Stidham’s top three targets should all be back, with explosive slot Ryan Davis and big outside target Darius Slayton leading the way.
Of course, that’s a challenging way to approach beating this Washington team. The defense returns all five starters from a very good secondary on a top-10 S&P+ 2017 defense that was No. 2 nationally in minimizing explosive passing plays, as well as four other starters.
The Huskies play a multiple, speed-oriented style, with personnel up front that can morph from a 3-3-5 to a 2-4-5 thanks to the versatility of DE/LB Ryan Bowman.
The only really tough loss is NT Vita Vea, but the hole he’s leaving is likely to be filled by 322-pound returning starter Greg Gaines. And while Auburn’s interior run game could be good, it’s not the obvious strength it normally is.
The preferred style at Washington is to play single-high-safety coverages that mix and match which DBs and LBs end up in the four underneath coverage roles, while locking down the outside with CBs Austin Joyner and Byron Murphy. For example, the call above:
A mix of off-zone coverage and tighter pattern-matching, which ultimately creates a base four-man rush/cover 3 shell. If that sounds like a lot for a QB and his OL to figure out before and during a snap, it is.
But you can always just try to overpower it with the run game or beat the coverage outside (particularly the nickel and CB on this play).
Auburn might need Stidham to be ready to do the latter, but if his linemen aren’t ready to pick up the inside stunts, then even that might not matter.
2. Auburn’s D vs. Jake Browning and Co.
The Auburn defense is probably going to be the best and most talented unit Washington faces in the regular season. The Tigers return eight starters from last year’s salty unit and will be very tough between the hash marks, with all the experienced talent they have at DT, LB, and S.
Much like the Huskies, the Tigers tend to defer stress to their CBs outside while locking down the middle with the safeties and backers and leaning on a four-man rush.
The Tigers prefer to play quarters coverage and bring a more standard four-man rush, with their “buck” position player coming off the edge like a normal pass rusher. See No. 4, new Denver Bronco Jeff Holland, at the bottom of the line here, forcing Georgia into a sack:
DC Kevin Steele’s strategy is really simple: play sound defense and rely on talent and execution. The Tigers involve safety play aggressively on standard downs, but usually with two DBs in deep coverage and press coverage outside.
So beating the Tiger D comes down to execution. UCF did it with hybrid players who could play matchup games, tricky option tactics, and the improv ability of QB Milton McKenzie. Washington will probably lean on the hybrid/matchup game, thanks to having a veteran QB in Jake Browning and a roster filled with tight ends.
The name of the game has been about creating angles for speedy players, rather than overpowering teams in the trenches, although the Huskies will use multiple-TE sets towards that end too at times.
With Browning returning for his fourth year in this offense and what might be his best OL yet, the Huskies should have a variety of ways to attack, even if Petersen’s offense can’t exactly light up this talented defense.
This is a big chance for Petersen to prove his clever tactics can once again work against a highly talented opponent.
Out-executing the Auburn defense with a straightforward approach is a difficult path, but the Huskies’ familiarity with more creative game planning could be a leg up, though they weren’t quite there during their Playoff season, which included multiple-score losses to the Sam Darnold Trojans and to Alabama. They also stayed a step behind Penn State throughout last year’s bowl.
They could regain credibility by scoring on this defense and winning a strength-on-strength battle against the Auburn passing game.
Catching the Tigers early in the season, before their young OL gels, the Huskies should be able to pull off an impressive win (and slight upset, per Vegas), giving themselves a high ceiling moving toward December.