The SEC revealed its new slogan — “It just means more” — three years ago.
Shortly after the confetti was cleaned up from Alabama’s national championship celebration to cap the 2016 season, Mario Cristobal left the Crimson Tide for Oregon.
Now the 11th-ranked Ducks open Cristobal’s third season in Eugene (second as head coach) against No. 16 Auburn on Saturday at AT&T Stadium (4:30 p.m., ABC).
The only matchup this weekend between ranked opponents means more for the slumping Pac-12 than the SEC, which has five teams ranked in the top 12.
“I think anytime you play a game, you're representing your conference, as well as your university, your community,” Cristobal said when asked about carrying the banner for the Pac-12. “But we don't try to make it anything outside of us preparing our program as we face a great opponent. So we really try to stay focused on just the simple stuff.”
A Texas-sized horde of NFL scouts will be on hand in Arlington to see Justin Herbert and Oregon’s experienced offensive line battle an Auburn defense loaded with next-level talent.
With a strong senior season, the Ducks’ quarterback will be in the mix to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft. Auburn defensive linemen Derrick Brown, Nick Coe and Marlon Davidson are also projected to be first-round selections.
“The physicality on both sides is impressive to watch, and I know that as competitors both sides are ready to get after it,” said Cristobal, one of the nation’s premiere offensive line coaches. “There’s going to be attention drawn to that, but I think across the board you can expect a very physical game on both sides.
“A tremendous amount of respect for Auburn and how they do things. I’ve had the opportunity to watch them play and be an assistant coach playing against them there. They’re as physical and as impressive as you can see.”
Oregon will try to establish the running game to take some of the pressure off Herbert, who will not have injured wide receivers Brenden Schooler or Mycah Pittman to pass to.
CJ Verdell and Travis Dye, who combined for 1,757 yards and 14 touchdowns last season as freshmen, are listed as co-starters on the depth chart released Monday.
“It’s probably better to think of those guys as guys that play together, rather than singling out one as a lockdown guy,” Cristobal said of the one-two punch.
Wide receiver Juwan Johnson, who was limited in practice last week due to an unspecified injury, has been cleared to play against Auburn. Cam McCormick remains limited, but Cristobal said he is optimistic the standout tight end will be ready by Saturday.
First-year Oregon defensive coordinator Andy Avalos is preparing for the unknown in true freshman quarterback Bo Nix, who has been named the starter over redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn took over the play-calling duties for the Music City Bowl, which the Tigers won 63-14 over Purdue with 586 yards of offense (7.81 yards per play).
“He’s a very talented football player,” Cristobal said of Nix, a five-star recruit from Pinson, Ala. “I know when you name a starting quarterback you have full confidence in that young man. They might play two, so we are prepared to play both.
“Both quarterbacks are great passers, they run the ball as well. We’re very familiar with their coach’s system and how they do things.”
Auburn was picked to finish fourth in the SEC West Division. The Tigers’ conference schedule includes games against No. 12 Texas A&M, No. 8 Florida, No. 6 LSU, No. 3 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama.
Oregon, a slight Pac-12 North Division favorite over No. 13 Washington, is on the short list of Pac-12 teams with the talent and schedule strength to make a run at the College Football Playoff.
So this marquee nonconference game means more than most.
“There’s no hocus-pocus to it,” Cristobal said when asked of the Ducks are ready for the program’s return to the national spotlight. “We’ve gone to a blueprint that’s demanding, but at the same time not demeaning. It’s very encouraging, develops guys at a very high level, and you see that. You see that in the building, you see it when we go out onto the field. I think with that you build trust, you build confidence, and therefore you execute better.
“It means that much more to each member on the football team because there’s a genuine love for each other and respect as people, as colleagues and as competitors. For those reasons, I think that we’ll continue to progress. We feel like we’ve taken another step in the right direction throughout camp.”