LOUISVILLE CARDINALS (0-0) vs. NO. 6 AUBURN TIGERS (0-0)
Game Time: 3:30 p.m.
Location: Georgia Dome: Atlanta, Ga.
Announcers: Verne Lundquist (Play-By-Play), Gary Danielson (Analyst) and Allie LaForce (Sidelines)
Favorite: Auburn by 10.5
All-Time Series: Auburn leads 1-0
Last Meeting: Auburn won 16-3 on Sept. 14, 1974 in Auburn
Louisville's defense was one of the best in the country last year and many feel that they could be improved this year. Auburn has an offense that will definitely put that notion to the test. Head coach Gus Malzahn is known as an offensive mastermind and the results over the last decade back that up. Malzahn has been the architect of some of the most prolific offenses in college football history and he has had some of the most talented players at his disposal over that time. However, Auburn enters this season with the question of whether or not they can reload at the skill positions.
Malzahn has had the fortune of having very good quarterbacks over his career as an offensive coordinator and head coach. Cam Newton, Ryan Aplin, and Nick Marshallaren't all on the same level, but one thing they all had in common was the ability to be accurate in Malzahn's system. Malzahn being able to turn Nick Marshall (a defensive back, really) into a 60% passer is remarkable. With his new starter Jeremy Johnson, he won't have to work nearly as hard from a passing standpoint. Johnson is a prototypical pocket passer that has the ability to utilize his legs when needed. He's a career 70% passer but most of his time on the field has been in mop up duty. I did, however, get to watch Johnson in his only meaningful time last year when Marshall was suspended for the first half of Auburn's opener against Arkansas last year. Johnson torched an Arkansas defense that finished in the top 10 in scoring defense.
Johnson will be tabbed as a dual threat quarterback but that would be about the same thing as calling Teddy Bridgewater a dual threat. They both have the ability to use their legs when needed, but both are guys that prefer to stand tall in the pocket and deliver. Malzahn's offense isn't as reliant on read option as some think. Against Arkansas last year Johnson was utilized solely as a pocket passer. Malzahn utilized quick slants, tunnel screens, skinny posts, and other quick and easy throws which Johnson succeeded with. I would imagine we could see the same against a pressure defense like Louisville's.
The Auburn offense will potentially feature its best running back since Michael Dyer ran for over 1,200 yards in 2011.As good as Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne were for the Tigers, Javon Robinson has more talent than both. Robinson is a stout 230 pounds and he has the speed to take off if he gets in the open field. Robinson has shown a great ability to make quick cuts while also being able to get back to top speed quickly. Malzahn hasn't had a true power back at Auburn and I think how he chooses to utilize Robinson will be a key factor in the game. Robinson will likely be spelled by Roc Thomas, who averaged nearly 5 yards per carry as a third option last year. Peyton Barber is also a back that Malzahn has spoke highly of. If, for whatever reason, Robinson isn't the feature back that I'm expecting him to be, there isn't a huge dropoff with the other two backs.
We saw last year that having a star receiver can really change your entire offense. Duke Williams is that guy for Auburn. Williams is a monster of a receiver at 216 pounds and he had his biggest games last year against four top 25 teams. Duke just tends to show up when the spotlight is the brightest. The question mark for Auburn's offense is who else steps up at wide receiver. Outside of Ricardo Louis there isn't a lot of game experience on the roster. Auburn will likely rely on Williams a lot more than they might like to in order to keep the offense from being too run heavy. Other receivers that could step up into a more prominent role are Melvin Ray and Marcus Davis, with JUCO transferJason Smith as a wildcard right now.
Auburn returns 5 players that have notched starts in the SEC. The loss of Chad Slade andReese Dismukes could be big for the Tigers, but their replacements have experience under their belt and some feel that they could actually be improved this year. The line, along with a mobile Nick Marshall, only allowed 15 sacks and 74 tackles for loss on the season. Both numbers are solid and the sack number was one of the best in the country. Auburn's reliance on quick passes as well as no huddle principles helps to keep defenses tired as well as limiting their ability to really pressure the quarterback. In my opinion, this will be the key to the game. If Johnson is able to stand tall in the pocket and deliver the ball around the field Louisville will be in for a long day.
KEY PLAYERS: QB Jeremy Johnson, WR Duke Williams, WR Ricardo Louis, LT Shon Coleman, RT Avery Young
Taking a defensive coordinator position shortly after being fired from a prominent head coaching position has to be a very humbling experience for Will Muschamp. However, being a really good defensive coach and recruiter gave him the chance to pretty much have any position that was open (or probably not open). Muschamp couldn't have picked a better job than Auburn. The Tigers return 9 of their top 12 tacklers from last year and they were able to add one of the best players in the nation in Byron Cowart. A new coach's best friend is experience and Muschamp inherited plenty of it. His ability to turn this defense from a liability to anything that can at least stop someone will be key in this game.
Muschamp utilized a 3-4/3-3-5 (They have a "buck" end which is a hybrid LB/DE) defense at Florida but in any defense you need good defensive tackles. Auburn has a really good one in Montravious Adams. Anytime you see a 300-pounder wearing number 1 you have to give him some credit. Adams finished last year with 8 tackles for loss and three sacks. Muschamp's system asks tackles to eat up blocks more than make plays, but he has had disruptive forces at the position before. The defense doesn't return a lot of experience along the line but it is by far the most talented position they have if you ask me. Carl Lawson has returned from an injury that kept him out last year and he is joined by two highly ranked freshmen at defensive end. Throw in DaVonte Lambert and you have plenty of tools for Muschamp to utilize when it comes to putting pressure on the offense. Muschamp has said that he plans on putting his best four pass rushers on the field on third downs. That could include two top ranked defensive end recruits and Lawson, who is on every preseason watch listed on earth it seems.
It never hurts to have your starting middle linebacker returning for your defense. It's even better when you have an outside linebacker that put up similar numbers returning with him. Cassanova Mckinzy and Kris Frost are both experienced guys that put up outstanding numbers last year. Both came close to totaling 100 tackles and both ended up with double digit tackles for loss. Mckinzy has been a big time player for Auburn's defense for the past few years but Frost really stepped his game up last year and became a player that was even considered a potential early entrant for the draft. I'm not sure how Muschamp will fill the third linebacker spot, but I wouldn't be surprised to see true freshman Jeff Holland push veteran Justin Garrett for playing time. Holland was a big time prospect out of Florida and Muschamp might be looking to get some more talent on the field. If there's one area where Mckinzy and Frost struggled, it was in coverage with play action passes being especially tough. Wisconsin was a team that really exposed this as their run heavy offense really kept both linebackers looking into the backfield instead of retreating to their zones. This could be why Tre' Williams is listed as "or" on the depth chart with Mckinzy. Williams was a backup last year but it says a lot that he could potentially take over for a senior starter. Something to keep an eye on with James Quick and Traveon Samuel lining up in the slot.
The Tiger's secondary have a similar scenario that Louisville will have this year. They are welcoming two high-level transfers in to bolster an area that had glaring weaknesses. Tray Matthews and Blake Countess will likely step right into the starting lineup for Auburn at free safety and cornerback, respectively. They will join stud safety Jonathan Ford, ballhawk corner Jonathan Jones, and likely nickelback Joshua Holsey to make up what should be a much improved secondary. Depth is a concern here for Auburn but there is no question that this group will be able to hold their own against a group of receivers that will have to show that they can get things done without DeVante Parker. The question with this secondary is whether or not they can stop giving up big plays. They allowed an average of 7.1 yards per attempt last year as well as surrendering 22 touchdown passes. Muschamp likes to be aggressive with his playcalling. Without a solid secondary he won't be able to stay in his comfort zone.
KEY PLAYERS: DT Montravious Adams, Buck Carl Lawson, LB Kris Frost, CB Jonathan Jones, S Jonathan Ford
Excitement Level: 9.6
It's the highest-profile season-opener of my life, a bunch of my best friends are going to be in attendance, and it's happening in the same place where I witnessed Louisville win a national championship in basketball. I'm adequately excited.
Pregame Meal: Red Rage Tailgate food
Game Attire: Khaki shorts, red Cardinal bird polo, red Cardinal bird shoes, new grey/red old English L hat.
Don't hold me to that hat decision. He's new and I'm not sure if he's ready. I may have to go back to the red U of L Titelist hat. It's not my first choice because it's not ultra-Louisville, but we've been through a lot together and I trust him. Gonna be a game-time decision.
Bold Prediction: Lamar Jackson plays quarterback and he plays it well
We all stay appropriately grounded.
Please keep in mind that I am coming off the imperfect season in which I misfired on all 13 bold predictions. It's not your fault if today doesn't go as planned, Lamar.
Predicted Star of the Game: DeVonte Fields
I don't see any way Louisville wins without putting significant pressure on Jeremy Johnson, and Fields is going to be the primary guy shouldered with that task.
Griffin Uhl Playing Alert Level: Fuzzy Wuzzy Brown (moderate)
--Louisville is 52-38-6 all-time in season-openers, and is currently riding a four-game winning streak in season-openers.
--Auburn is 94-26-2 (.779) all-time in season openers. The Tigers have won eight of their past nine openers dating back to the 2006 season opener.
--This will be Louisville's first season-opener away from home since playing at Kentucky in 2005.
--Louisville is 19-1 in regular season non-conference games under the direction of Bobby Petrino.
--The Tigers hold a 6-4 record all-time at the Georgia Dome, winning three SEC Championship Games (2004, 2010, 2013) and three bowl games (1997, 2007, 2011). Auburn is 9-7-1 all time in games in domed stadiums.
--Louisville has not been a double-digit underdog since being a 14-point dog against Florida in the 2013 Sugar Bowl. The Cardinals won that game, 33-23.
--Dating back to 2013, Louisville has forced at least one turnover in 16 consecutive games.
--Auburn rushed for 255.5 yards per game last season which ranked 2nd in the SEC and 13th in the country. The Tigers lost the top three rushers from that team.
--Louisville is 22-1 over the last three seasons when attempting at least 35 rushes in a game. The lone loss came last season at Clemson.
--Among all active FBS players with at least 75 attempts, Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson ranks first in career completion percentage (73.1), yards per attempt (11.0), touchdown percentage (11.5) and QB rating (198.4).
--Johnson has attempted just seven passes with his team trailing, and his only start came in last season's season-opener against Arkansas when Nick Marshall was suspended for the first half.
--Louisville hasn't opened the season against a ranked opponent since falling to Ohio State, 20-19 on Sept. 5, 1992. The Cardinals were 17-point underdogs in that game.
--With 734 all-time victories, Auburn is the 13th-winningest FBS football program in the nation and one of 18 teams with 700+ wins.
--Louisville has won 15 of its last 16 non-conference games, with the only loss during that span being last season's defeat in the Belk Bowl against Georgia.
--Louisville is 10-6 against ranked opponents since 2006.
--Bobby Petrino is 10-0 all-time in season-openers.
--While at Auburn, Gus Malzahn is 3-0 in the Georgia Dome (one win as a head coach, two as offensive coordinator). AU averaged 52.7 ppg and won by 25 ppg in those games.
--Bobby Petrino is 18-17 as a college head coach when his teams are held to fewer than 140 yards rushing.
--This will be the first game Louisville has ever played in the state of Georgia.
--Bobby Petrino is 3-1 all-time against Auburn.
--Auburn is 50-14-2 all time in season openers after having lost the last game of the previous season.
--Auburn is 11-0 all time while ranked number 6 against unranked opponents, outscoring them by an average of 44-8.
--Louisville has covered the spread the last five times it has been a double-digit underdog, and won the last two games outright (Florida in 2013 and West Virginia in 2011).
--Auburn is 120-75-9 against current members of ACC, but 69 percent of those games have been against either Georgia Tech (47-41-4) or Clemson (34-13-2).
--Louisville is 15-35-1 all-time against the SEC, but 5-1 in their last six games.
--Louisville has only played three games ever on CBS, with all three of those games coming during the 1997 season. The Cards went 1-2 in those games, beating Illinois and losing to Penn State and East Carolina.
--Louisville is currently riding a consecutive game scoring streak that spans 186 games dating back to the 2000 season. The streak ranks as the third longest in the ACC behind Virginia Tech (257) and Georgia Tech (224).
--Dating back to 1980, Louisville is 150-16 when scoring 30 or more points in a game. The Cards are also 5-100 all-time when allowing opponents to score 40 or more points.
--"The biggest thing for us now is to go out and play and execute. I'm looking forward to winning." --Auburn defensive lineman DaVonte Lambert
--"We're excited about it, because this isn't one of those games that we put on our schedule just to say that we were in it. This isn't something that we want to come back from Atlanta saying, 'We got to play in the Georgia Dome against Auburn.' No, this is something that we truly believe we can win - and we're going to go out there and win." --L.J. Scott
--"I love being at Auburn because Auburn's a place that expects to win championships." --Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn
--"Every time I take the field I try to leave my stamp on the game, but overall we're going down there as a team with one goal in mind: that's to win the game. Obviously if I can wreak havoc and do the things I want to do, obviously that's a bonus. But when we come out with a victory I'm always happy... It's a business trip and we're going to go down there and take care of business." --Sheldon Rankins
--"I've been waiting to play them again. I look forward to it." --Josh Harvey-Clemons
--"Every time we've played (at the Georgia Dome) we've had home-field advantage." --Auburn head coach Gus Malzhan
--"They're a power run team and they like to take shots downfield. They have a great QB, great offensive line, great playmakers. I expect them to utilize what they have in previous years, we just have to go out there and execute the way we know how." --Sheldon Rankins
--"Nothing." --Auburn defensive lineman DaVonte Lambert on what concerns him about Louisville
--"I've been ready for a year. Basically everybody in Georgia that I know will be there. ... I just take the time and meditate sometimes and calm myself down about it, because I don't want to get too jacked up about it." --JaQuay Savage
--"We're very young on offense, but I feel like we're talented. Defensively we have a lot of experience and talent. We should rely on our defense early in the season. But I do really think we can bring our offense along." --Bobby Petrino
--"I'm just ready to play Saturday and give everybody what they've been waiting on." --Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson
--"We've been preparing for (Auburn) since we came back from Christmas break. What I want fans to see is what I want to see - a football team that is well-prepared and knows what we feel Auburn will do. I want to see a football team that plays fast and physical and with tremendous confidence. We need to go into that game expecting to win so we can play the way we always do. It's going to be a bowl type atmosphere." --Bobby Petrino
Whenever you spend a significant amount of time looking forward to something, the day it arrives is always a bit surreal. Enjoy every moment of today, and hopefully we'll all be celebrating together tonight and for the rest of the week.