ARLINGTON, TEXAS — This feels like the perfect meeting place for Mario Cristobal’s past and future to collide.

After all, everything’s bigger in the Lone Star State.

There isn’t a game on the national landscape this weekend with greater stakes, especially for the Pac-12, than No.11 Oregon’s opener against No. 16 Auburn at AT&T Stadium (4:30 p.m., ABC).

ESPN’s “College GameDay” will broadcast from nearby Fort Worth, Texas. Both fan bases, each starving to get back in contention for the College Football Playoff, will be well represented inside the Dallas Cowboys’ 100,000-seat stadium.

 

Cristobal, a former Alabama assistant, will try to prove that bringing an SEC mentality to the West Coast is working at the expense of the old Iron Bowl rival.

Embattled Auburn coach Gus Malzahn will try to rediscover his play-calling magic during an unpredictable game of chess with first-year Oregon defensive coordinator Andy Avalos.

Justin Herbert gets another opportunity to showcase his skills for an army of NFL scouts against a defense loaded with NFL talent. The senior from Eugene’s counterpart, true freshman Bo Nix, can add to his legend as a five-star legacy recruit from Pinson, Ala.

The Ducks, still in the process of stacking elite recruiting classes together, appear to have a bright future under Cristobal.

But with the return of Herbert, the most experienced offensive line in the country and Troy Dye leading what should be Oregon’s best defense since 2014, now is the time to start winning big.

“We’re trying to win a national championship,” junior cornerback Thomas Graham said. “I feel like that’s every team’s goal, but coach Cristobal has a unique way of focusing in on the details and how we need to progress from January 1st all the way to now.”

 

The Ducks wrapped up Cristobal’s first season with a 7-6 victory over Michigan State on New Year’s Eve at the Redbox Bowl.

Dillon Mitchell decided to forgo his senior season to enter the NFL draft after playing the role of Herbert’s security blanket throughout the 9-4 campaign.

Finding reliable targets for the potential Heisman Trophy candidate proved to be easier said than done during fall camp with senior Brenden Schooler (foot) and dynamic freshman Mycah Pittman (shoulder) both erased from the Week 1 depth chart with injuries.

Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson and juniors Jaylon Redd and Johnny Johnson are expected to start against Auburn. Tight end Jacob Breeland returned from injury this week, and Cam McCormick is a game-time decision.

“All over the field we’re going to have matchups all day where we’re really going to have to challenge ourselves to overcome and get through and get after them,” offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo said. “It’s going to be fun, it’s a great way to open the season, and our guys are looking forward to the challenge.”

The film from this game will be brought up during the job interviews for Oregon’s offensive linemen and Auburn’s defensive lineman at the 2020 NFL Draft Combine.

The Ducks’ best unit, led by all-American candidates Penei Sewell (left tackle), Shane Lemieux (left guard) and Calvin Throckmorton (right tackle), leads the FBS with 153 career starts returning.

The Tigers have three defensive linemen — Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe — projected as first-round picks.

“It's very similar,” Throckmorton said of facing Michigan State’s dominant defensive line in the bowl game and now Auburn’s formidable front. “They're both extremely well disciplined, well coached defenses, and they play extremely well as a unit. So we're excited for it.”

Establishing the run, something the Ducks were unable to do consistently last season, will be a daunting task. CJ Verdell and Travis Dye are listed as the co-starters at running back after combining for 1,757 yards and 14 touchdowns last season as freshmen.

“Michigan State had a very good front. They did a good job stopping the run,” Cristobal said. “We’ve got to enhance what we do, do it better with a couple tweaks here and there, and progress.”

Oregon’s defense made significant progress the past two seasons under Jim Leavitt, but Cristobal and the quirky coordinator broke up on Valentine’s Day.

Avalos, the former Boise State defensive coordinator who helped spoil Cristobal’s debut as Oregon’s coach at the 2017 Las Vegas Bowl, wants to present Nix with some confusing looks and keep the fuse from being lit for Auburn’s explosive skill players.

The Tigers also return all five starters on their offensive line. The Ducks will counter with an experienced defensive front anchored by nose tackle Jordon Scott.

“Our offensive line is one of the tops in the country, and I think going against those guys makes the whole group better,” Scott said. “It’s nice to play with some guys who have experience together. Sometimes against other teams, the chemistry might not be the same, so the blocks look a little different. It’s always good to go up against good competition.”

This is the first time Oregon has opened a season against a ranked opponent since a 40-27 loss to then-No. 4 LSU on Sept. 3, 2011. Special teams gaffes cost the Ducks that afternoon at AT&T Stadium, but Chip Kelly’s team went on to win the Pac-12 and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.

Oregon’s 2019 recruiting class, the highest ranked in program history, should be able to improve the team’s depth and athleticism on special teams.

However, if a game-winning field goal is needed for the Ducks in this marquee nonconference game — Auburn is a slight 3½-point favorite — Cristobal hasn’t said whether Adam Stack, Zach Emerson or freshman Camden Lewis will be called upon.

Ready or not, it’s time for the 2019 season to begin with a Texas-sized game.

“We’re getting a little chippy out there with the offense a little bit,” Troy Dye said after Wednesday’s practice. “We’re just trying to go out there and have a chance to play against a different colored team and just go out there and show the world what we have.”