On a shelf in Mario Cristobal’s office sits a thick red binder of notes labeled “Alabama vs. Auburn.”

Oregon’s coach and his staff traveled to his old SEC stomping grounds in March to visit with their peers in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Athens, Ga.

Cristobal, a former Alabama assistant under Nick Saban, adheres to the old coaching cliche about not looking ahead and only focusing on the next opponent.

But the next opponent, Auburn, certainly has the attention of the Ducks. And the clock is ticking as Oregon prepares for its high-profile 2019 opener on Aug. 31 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (4:30 p.m., ABC).

With the winter strength and conditioning program and spring practice in the rear-view mirror, Cristobal is confident his veteran players will mesh with the touted freshmen on campus this summer so they can all hit the ground running during fall camp a month from now.

“These player-led workouts are the key to teams taking that next step,” Cristobal said during a recent interview with The Register-Guard. “We told our guys winning championships, the Pac-12 Conference, big games, it’s not easy. Everybody has good players. These workouts that you have on your own, they’re optional. They’re voluntary.

“So is competing for the Pac-12 championship, it’s also voluntary. It goes hand in hand.”

 

The return of potential NFL franchise quarterback Justin Herbert, who will play behind one of the nation’s top offensive lines, has created great expectations for Cristobal’s second season leading the program.

A win over Auburn, another team loaded with talent and looking to return to glory after recent stumbles, would get Herbert in the early-season Heisman Trophy conversation and Oregon in the College Football Playoff picture.

“I would hope with Auburn being the first game on the schedule, with the tradition and what they’ve been able to do with that program, shoot, there’s a lot of other things motivating them, but I know that motivates them,” new Oregon defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “We’ve got a huge challenge sitting in front of us, and I know they’re excited. …

“Obviously when we have a tremendous challenge like Auburn to start the season, that will get the fire burning.”

The Tigers, nearly a decade removed from winning a BCS national championship at the expense of the Ducks, are expected to have an elite defensive line and return all five starters on an offensive line which struggled last season.

Despite finishing the 2018 campaign with a disappointing 8-5 record (3-5 in the SEC), Auburn beat then-No. 6 and eventual Pac-12 champion Washington in the season opener in Atlanta and shredded Purdue 63-14 in the Music City Bowl with embattled coach Gus Malzahn taking over the play-calling duties.

“I think Auburn is a great carrot,” Oregon offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo acknowledged. “But more than anything, it’s how do we go into the next season and raise the bar for Oregon? If we focus on that, we’ll take care of business and the score will take care of itself.”

The Pac-12, absent from the College Football Playoff the past two seasons, could use a signature nonconference victory by Oregon over another Power Five brand name to help change the narrative early in the season.

The Ducks’ blowout win over Florida State in a 2014 national semifinal at the Rose Bowl remains the conference’s lone College Football Playoff victory.

“Is Oregon there yet to compete for a national championship? I’m not sure. I think that certainly we’re going to find out a little bit when they play Auburn to kick off the season,” former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. “But I do believe Oregon should and will compete year in and year out for the North (Division) championship and for the Pac-12 Conference championship.”

Oregon’s road to Santa Clara, Calif., for the Pac-12 title game include trips to Stanford (Sept. 21), Washington (Oct. 19), USC (Nov. 2) and Arizona State (Nov. 23).

“I know it’s on a lot of people’s minds about Auburn, and they can’t wait to get down to Dallas, but the fact of the matter is we have to prepare the same way for every opponent,” Oregon safeties coach Keith Heyward said. “It doesn’t matter if that’s FCS or Auburn or looking into next year when we play Ohio State. If we don’t prepare and have our bodies ready in training over the summer going into the fall, if we’re not studying the football and don’t have our minds ready, then it doesn’t matter who we play. We won’t do well if we don’t do those things.

“But if we do prepare and do those things, then we’ll be just fine. It will come down to just executing in between the lines.”