Oregon carries hopes of Pac-12 relevancy against Auburn

EUGENE, Ore. – With the latest referendum on the decline of Pac-12 football arriving this weekend at AT&T Stadium, the league is fighting dueling negative narratives.

The first set of challenges comes on the field, where the Pac-12 has missed the College Football Playoff the past two seasons and begins this season with no teams ranked in the Top 10. After Hawaii’s upset of Arizona on Saturday night, the Pac-12 has lost five consecutive games to the Mountain West. Most of the league’s preseason attention has been on USC’s Clay Helton, who has been on so many hot seats he needs asbestos pants.

Then there’s the off-field issues, which are rooted in varying distribution problems. Financially, the Pac-12 is lagging behind its peers at $31 million annual per-school revenue distribution, more than $22 million less than the Big Ten. The Pac-12 Network remains harder to find than an Elizabeth Warren sign in Wyoming, and its lack of reach has been greeted with apathy. For all this, Larry Scott is cashing in $5.3 million annually, an eye-popping salary in an era when eyes rarely pop at collegiate salaries.

Can No. 11 Oregon beat No. 16 Auburn and provide much-needed jolts to two places the league is desperately lagging – optics and optimism? Last season, the Pac-12 plummeted off the national radar after Washington lost to Auburn in the opener. It never really returned.

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Will it start this season with a similar belly flop? The Oregon-Auburn game comes accompanied by a ton of on-field intrigue, little of which ties back to the Pac-12. Playing for conference pride ranks fairly low on the priority scale, as Duck fans won’t exactly be chanting “Pac-12” during the fourth quarter if they are pulling away.

For Oregon, the game looms as more of an exciting stage for their program.

“It’s an awesome opportunity to prove and show the country that, absolutely, a Pac-12 team and Oregon can complete at that level and with a team like Auburn,” said Oregon offensive lineman Calvin Throckmorton.

Oregon’s Justin Herbert (L) and Auburn’s Nick Coe will meet on Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Getty)

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Oregon has the best player on the field, as quarterback Justin Herbert projects by many NFL scouts as the potential No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. He’s flanked by Throckmorton and an offensive line that returns 153 starts and is considered one of the country’s most stout units.

In a way, the game’s most compelling fundamental tension comes in the trenches. Auburn boasts a defensive line considered by many the best in the nation, and history would indicate that an elite SEC defensive line – led by future first-round tackle Derrick Brown – should dominate a Pac-12 group.

SEC vs. Pac-12 traditionally hasn’t only been a mismatch of cable distribution. Flashbacks from Auburn’s Nick Fairley pummeling Oregon in the 2011 BCS title game will serve to Duck fans as a reminder of why the SEC has been so dominant in recent decades.

Oregon’s chances of pushing around Auburn on Saturday comes with an interesting subplot, as coach Mario Cristobal is an old offensive line coach and spends an inordinate amount of time with that unit. He also knows from his time at Alabama as an assistant coach from 2013 to 2016 exactly the caliber of players he’s going up against.

Cristobal said the versatility of linemen like Auburn’s Nick Coe and Marlon Davidson make Auburn unique, as he said the 291-pound Coe and 278-pound Davidson are effective at different spots on the line and epitomize Auburn’s depth there.

“They’re so deep they can just Rolodex them in, they’re always stay fresh,” Cristobal said. “They just knock people back, they do a great job controlling the line of scrimmage. Tremendous challenge and tremendous opportunity.”

Oregon especially needs to give Herbert time considering his corps of inexperienced and unreliable wide receivers, as the Ducks endured 52 drops last season. “Man, how good could we really be if we shore up all those issues?” Cristobal said.

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The intriguing wrinkle for Auburn comes from a source of much of the program’s offseason offensive optimism – the return of coach Gus Malzahn as the play-caller. Auburn scored 56 points in the first half against Purdue in the Music City Bowl with Malzahn returning to play calling.

But the intrigue on Saturday will revolve around how he handles true freshman quarterback Bo Nix, who’ll be starting amid the weekend’s biggest stage. Malzahn has the country’s second-hottest seat to Helton at a top-20 program, and he has a true freshman quarterback and a grueling schedule.

Stopping Malzahn’s offense will be an intriguing test for new Ducks defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, who comes from Boise State after the testy departure of the accomplished but antagonistic Jim Leavitt.

The most intriguing player on Oregon’s defense is five-star recruit Kayvon Thibodeaux, who will see plenty of duty at rush end even if he’s not the technical starter. He’s emblematic of what Cristobal has done at Oregon in recruiting, as Thibodeaux hails from Southern California and was ranked as the No. 6 overall national recruit and No. 1 at his position on Rivals.com.

Oregon finished No. 7 nationally last year in the Rivals.com recruiting rankings, nine spots ahead of the next Pac-12 school (Washington). For 2020, Oregon is the top Pac-12 school again at No. 14.

“We’re rebuilding an unbelievable program, last year we signed the highest-rated class they ever had,” Cristobal told Yahoo Sports “And it ain’t slowing down, it’s not, it’s only picking up and you know how it works, there’s a reason teams that have a high level of personnel acquisition tend to remain in the top spots in the country.”

For Oregon’s reality on the field to reflect its recruiting rankings, winning on Saturday would be a huge step. And for the Pac-12, that would mean some good news for the first time in a long time.

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