#11 Oregon vs #16 Auburn
Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown will face a grueling lineup of formidable offensive lines this season. Mississippi State, LSU, Georgia, and Alabama will all bring the fight up front, as SEC teams are known to do, but Brown may not face a better interior offensive line all year than his Week 1 opponents, the Oregon Ducks.
Left guard Shane Lemieux and center Jake Hanson are Brown’s primary competition. Both offensive linemen have a case as the best player at their respective positions in the entire country and there is no doubt they will get an opportunity in the NFL. For now, they must prove they can handle a fellow future pro in Brown.
Brown does most of his work from a 3-technique position between the guard and tackle, but he is used to playing a handful of snaps at nose tackle, too. Brown is a terror off the line of scrimmage with his blend of explosiveness and agility, a dream combination of skills for any 3-tech. Before his opponents have a chance to react, Brown is in the backfield corralling running backs into Auburn’s linebackers or taking down the ‘back himself. Some defensive tackles with a similar skill set — Sheldon Richardson and Ed Oliver, for example — can have issues versus stronger offensive line, but Brown has enough bulk and brawn move offensive linemen out of his way, not be moved out of the way by offensive linemen.
To put Brown’s talent in perspective, consider him somewhere along the spectrum of Kawann Short. Short is primarily an explosive run-stopper for the Carolina Panthers, but he can flex all around the line, including to nose. That positional flexibility is what made the Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei pairing in Carolina so lethal early on in their careers.
Versus Georgia last year, Brown regularly forced running back D'Andre Swift to merge into rushing lanes he didn’t want to go through. Whether it was forcing a cutback or taking away the cutback, depending on the offense’s play call, Brown made sure he was the one to dictate where Georgia’s backs were running to.
If Lemieux’s priors are any indication, Brown isn’t going to have an easy day. Not only is Lemieux nearly identical to Brown in size (roughly 6'4"/6'5" and 315 pounds for both of them), but he has the movement skills and on-demand power to match. He won’t leave room for Brown to slice through the line of scrimmage at the snap, nor will he lose on the first punch. Where Brown may be able to win is in the extended fight against Lemieux. While Lemieux can get to his spots and make a good impression on contact, he doesn’t always play with an exciting finish, whereas Brown will not relent in his pursuit to the ball carrier.
Brown beat up Georgia from a nose position as well. Georgia center Lamont Gaillard was no slouch, either; he was an All-American and sixth-round draft pick by the Arizona Cardinals. The quality of opponent didn’t matter to Brown, though, and he controlled the run game from the nose just as well as he did at 3-tech. That is Hanson’s problem to deal with now.
In pass pro, Hanson will hold down his assignment. He is one of the best pass blockers in the country, while Brown isn’t an elite pass-rusher the likes of Quinnen Williams or Ed Oliver. However, Brown made a handful of standout plays in the run game against a stouter center in Gaillard. Hanson is flanked by two quality run-blocking guards, but he himself is not the fiercest in the ground game. It will be worth monitoring how often defensive coordinator Kevin Steele puts his star defensive tackle over Oregon’s center.
Oregon’s offensive line will not be outclassed too often this season, but Brown is on track to be a first-round pick come April. Brown can solidify his status as one of the elite defensive tackles in the class with a strong performance, while Lemieux and Hanson will have a chance to prove they can handle more than just Pac-12 defensive linemen.
Edge: Derrick Brown
#11 Oregon vs #16 Auburn
The Oregon-Auburn matchup features more than a war in the trenches. Sticking with the same game, we also find one of the better wide receiver versus secondary battles of the week. Oregon wide receiver Juwan Johnson, a Penn State transfer, will have his hands full trying to beat Auburn cornerbacks Javaris Davis and Noah Igbinoghene.
For analysts wanting a worthwhile early look at Johnson, this matchup is a dream. Davis and Igbinoghene play vastly different styles and Johnson is only equipped to handle one of them.
At 6’4” and 231 pounds, Johnson sports a tall, rocked-up build that makes him a matchup menace by default. Accentuated by his long arms, his frame allows him to post up in traffic and the underneath area to bully defensive backs away from the catch point. Though Johnson leaves viewers scratching their heads with some of his drops, his highlight receptions are as absurd as you might imagine someone his size is capable of.
The problem with Johnson being built like a tight end is that he moves like a tight end. Average tight end athleticism is fine for playing over the middle of the field, but for playing out wide the way Johnson does, it’s not ideal. He is slow to rev up coming off the line, yet doesn’t get in and out of his breaks quickly enough to make up the time. Against cornerbacks that are not simply outmuscled by him, Johnson struggles to create separation.
That’s where the dichotomy between Davis and Igbinoghene comes in to play. The dynamic between Davis and Igbinoghene is akin to Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara from the Chicago Bears under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio last season. Fuller (Davis) is the smaller, less physical corner that thrives in space, whereas Amukamara (Igbinoghene) does his best work playing press near the sideline. They complement each other well and give the defense options as to how they want to handle opposing offenses, specifically certain receivers.
Davis, measuring in at a generous 5’10” and 180 pounds, wants to play in open grass. He flies across the field and isn’t afraid to trust his instincts as soon as he sees a play developing. Ideally, Davis plays an off-coverage role that capitalizes his speed and trigger while keeping him away from contact. This is the matchup Johnson should be praying his coaches can get for him.
Conversely, Igbinoghene comes in a bit bigger at 5’11 and 200 pounds, and with a tougher play style. Igbinoghene wants to get in a wide receiver’s face, press them up, and fight them down the sideline. He isn’t allergic to contact like some cornerbacks — he invites it. It’s hard to tell considering how physical he plays, but Igbinoghene converted from wide receiver just last year. Maybe he is just doing all the things that gave him fits when he was a receiver. Whatever Igbinoghene’s secret is, Johnson won’t want to deal with it first hand. Igbinoghene could give Johnson fits.
Johnson’s production will depend on how often he faces each cornerback. If Johnson gets a majority of his snaps versus Davis, he could have a field day catching passes from quarterback Justin Herbert. Lining up against Igbinoghene for most of the game, however, might make for a long day for Johnson.
Advantage: Auburn CBs
Fresno State vs USC
Fresno State’s turnaround the past couple seasons has been miraculous. The tail end of the Tim DeRuyter era sucked the life out of the program, but Jeff Tedford returned as a familiar face on campus to save the day. Since Tedford's triumphant return in 2017, the Bulldogs have again become one of the best teams in the Mountain West and are recruiting enough talent to stay there.
They still aren’t USC, though.
The matchup between Fresno State cornerback Jaron Bryant and USC’s wide receiver duo of Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman Jr, not to mention stud sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown, is a microcosm of the disparity between the two programs and, in some sense, the Power 5 and Group of 5 conferences.
Bryant is a strong candidate to finish as one of the best senior cornerbacks in the class. Since becoming a starter in 2017, Bryant has been no stranger to finding the football. He has five interceptions and 19 passes defended over the past two seasons and there is no reason to think his production will slow down in 2019.
However, Bryant enjoys the benefit of not often being outclassed as an athlete in the Mountain West. He is a physical, smart player that can often act one step ahead of his opponents, but he isn’t going to beat many top receivers in a foot race. His game is beating receivers before they can get a race going. There are talented receivers in the Mountain West, make no mistake, but the raw talent and speed USC deploy at wide receiver are at a different level. Bryant is going to have to find another gear to keep up.
Pittman Jr, in particular, has the juice to expose Bryant down the field. With a stunning 18.5 yards per reception last season, Pittman Jr. was one of the scariest deep threats in the country — with a true freshman quarterback, mind you. Now that quarterback J.T. Daniels has gone through another offseason to get comfortable in the offense, Pittman’s potential to pop the top off the secondary becomes more pronounced than before.
Vaughns presents the opposite dynamic. While Vaughns can threaten as a field stretcher, he is best served as a utility player. Vaughns is the substance that complements Pittman’s flashiness. He is better served running short-to-intermediate routes that make use of his natural pass-catching ability without stressing his route-running.
Of the two draft-eligible receivers Bryant is going to see, Vaughns’ less explosive style of play should be the better of the two matchups for the senior cornerback. That is not to say Vaughns will get locked down. He is too talented to get shut out and will surely have a fancy catch or two up his sleeve. Vaughns shouldn’t embarrass Bryant the way Pittman can, though.
Bryant could do wonders for his stock by not allowing Pittman to beat him deep and minimizing what Vaughns can do in the 5-15 yard range, but he shouldn’t be expected to pull off the feat.
Advantage: USC WRs
Northwestern vs #25 Stanford
It’s no secret Stanford is the place to look if you’re a team itching to draft a tight end. Since 2012, the Cardinal have seen six of their tight ends drafted to the NFL, most notably Zach Ertz and most recently Kaden Smith. It’s been nearly a decade since Stanford didn’t have a tight end worth some level of NFL attention. Junior Colby Parkinson is set on continuing the streak.
Parkinson isn’t just the next Stanford tight end to earn a spot in the NFL, he fits the mold of what a modern tight end can be. Some teams still prefer in-line tight ends who can block well and be a safety blanket over the middle, but plenty of teams deploy tight ends who are more like big receivers. Jimmy Graham has long been a shining example of that style of player, but Eric Ebron, Evan Engram, Trey Burton, Jordan Akins, and Blake Jarwin all fit as different permutations of the pseudo-receiver.
As for Parkinson, field-stretching is the best way to use him as a receiver. Stanford ran a never-ending stream of seam and vertical routes last season, in part because quarterback KJ Costello will throw them no matter what. Parkinson thrives down the field. He has the speed and fluidity in space to threaten vertically and just enough acrobatic ability to pull off tough back-shoulder catches when defenders can't get their head around to find the ball in time. With Costello still in place at quarterback, expect Parkinson to continue setting up shop past 15 yards.
When he does, it is going to be a nightmare for Northwestern linebacker Paddy Fisher.
One of the top returning B1G linebackers, Fisher is lean and mean with a full head of steam. He doesn’t hesitate triggering in the run game and will put every ounce of force he can muster into every tackle attempt. As far as playing near the line of scrimmage goes, you can’t ask for much better than Fisher. Fisher’s play in coverage, unfortunately, produces nowhere near the same results.
Fisher doesn’t get beat in coverage because he is a bad athlete. He isn’t Deion Jones, but he will not often get cooked in a straight up foot race. Rather, Fisher gets his feet stuck in the mud when he is looking for work in coverage. It takes Fisher an extra beat to process where he needs to be and what he needs to accomplish within a given coverage. Against an NFL-quality skill player like Parkinson, that extra moment of uncertainty from Fisher is enough for him to get beat.
There will be no scarcity of chances for Parkinson to make that clear, either. Parkinson is Stanford’s best candidate to soak up the production lost from Kaden Smith and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside leaving for the NFL, and Costello is going to be eyeing him from the first snap. With as favorable a matchup as he is going to get against Fisher, this is Parkinson’s opportunity to step up big time.