After a disappointing 8-5 season in 2014, including going 4-4 inside the SEC, head coach Gus Malzahn will try to take his team to the top of the conference and into the College Football Playoffs in his third year on the job. His Auburn Tigers will open the season hosting the Louisville Cardinals (9-4, 5-3 ACC in 2014) on Saturday, September 5, at the Georgia Dome, in Atlanta (3:30 PM Eastern).
The Tigers started the season with a solid 5-0 run, but ended by dropping four of the last five, including a 34-31 overtime defeat against the Wisconsin Badgers in the Outback Bowl. Auburn scored 35.5 points per game last season (27th) and will have to replace six players on the offensive side of the ball.
QB Nick Marshall is gone, and with him, the zone-read attack. The team will go to a more balanced offense this year under experienced backup Jeremy Johnson. He will have the bonus of throwing to receiver D’haquille Williams (45 catches, 730 yards, 5 touchdowns) against a Louisville defense that was 31st against the pass in 2014 and allowed 21.8 points per game (24th).
“He can be effective at running and throwing and that’s kind of best-case scenario for us,” Malzahn said to the Associated Press about Johnson.
Jeremy Johnson mainly thinks he will be more than comfortable running the Auburn Tigers offense, especially as he’s guided by an offensive mastermind like Malzahn.
“Everybody seems to be open at times, just wide open,” Johnson explained. “He’s very creative and he runs things to make another play or person to come open. Like I said, he’s a genius.”
Louisville had a strong year in their first season in the ACC, and first under head coach Bobby Petrino; but 2014 ended badly as they fell 37-14 to the Georgia Bulldogs in the Belk Bowl. The Cards enter this season after losing ten players to the NFL draft.
It’s complicated to figure out who will be the starting quarterback for the Cardinals this season as Petrino has four names in place to take the starting job in: Reggie Bonnafon, Kyle Bolin, Will Gardner or Tyler Ferguson. Bonnafon leads the poll, but it’s far from official yet.
“Coming out of spring, if we were to open today, [Bonnafon] would run out there with the number ones and be our starter,” Petrino pointed out to the Courier-Journal. “He had a good spring. He was getting better throwing the ball – more consistent with his accuracy – and he throws the deep ball well. We all know he can make plays with his legs.”
The Cardinals scored 31.2 points per game last season (53rd), although they looked awful on offense against Georgia, another SEC powerhouse during their bowl presentation.
The fact that the game is on a neutral field could give Louisville a shot, but ultimately the Tigers new offense looks in line to be one of the best in the nation. Take Auburn.
Pick: Auburn (-10.5).
(Photo Credit: Kentucky National Guard [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)