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David Paschall | Chattanooga Times Free Press | August 29, 2018

Auburn football: Tigers continue history of tough schedule in opening weekend's only top-10 matchup

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The Auburn Tigers aren't much for easing into football seasons.

After playing third-ranked Clemson in the second game last year and facing a No. 2 Clemson in its 2016 opener, Auburn will open this season Saturday against No. 6 Washington at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Chick-fil-A Kickoff is this weekend's only matchup of top 10 teams, with the Tigers entering Gus Malzahn's sixth season as head coach with a No. 9 ranking.

"You play the schedule that you've been given," Malzahn said in a recent news conference. "Washington is one of the best teams in the country. They're as good as advertised on defense, and offensively they have a bunch of weapons.

"It's a good test for where we're at, and it should be a good one."

Auburn never seems to have a shortage of such "gauge" games, having played Clemson five times since 2010 and having to end every regular season with the Iron Bowl. Malzahn's Tigers made college football history last season by playing four games against the four-team playoff field, posting a 2-2 record by beating Alabama, losing to Clemson and splitting two games with Georgia.

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There are numerous subplots to Saturday's matchup. Auburn has yet to win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium after losing to Georgia last December in the Southeastern Conference championship game and to Central Florida in the Peach Bowl on New Year's Day, while Washington could revive some league pride in the Pac-12 following that conference's 1-8 bowl debacle of last season.

Yet Malzahn and Washington counterpart Chris Petersen don't care about those angles compared to concerns about their respective offensive lines.

Auburn rushed for just 125 combined yards the last two years against Clemson, dropping 19-13 and 14-6 contests. In last September's meeting, Clemson sacked Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham 11 times.

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"It's been a focus for us, trying to eliminate the negative plays and the sacks," Malzahn said. "That's really a big-picture thing that we've been focusing on. A lot of these first games are about adjustments. You predict how they may play, and when you get out there they may do something completely different.

"I expect that we'll need some adjustments to be made throughout the course of the game. There may be more adjustments in this game than any other game."

Stidham is back this season, but Marquel Harrell is Auburn's lone lineman with decent starting experience. Prince Tega Wanogho and Mike Horton have started at least one game, while Kaleb Kim and Jack Driscoll will be new to the starting scene.

Washington could exploit Auburn's offensive front, but Petersen is concerned about what the stout defensive front seven of the Tigers could do to his offensive line. The Huskies return quarterback Jake Browning, a four-year starter who was the Pac-12 offensive player of the year as a sophomore in 2016, but Petersen used "Alabama-ish" to describe Auburn's defense.

"If we don't give him a chance to set his feet and develop a running game, no one is going to have a chance," Petersen said Sunday in a news conference. "It's about how the guys in front of him hold up."

The Huskies also return senior running back Myles Gaskin, who has rushed for 1,000 yards each of his first three seasons.

Auburn has played only two Pac-12 teams in the past decade, defeating Oregon 22-19 in the BCS championship game of the 2010 season and opening its magical run to another BCS title-game appearance in 2013 with a 31-24 home win over Washington State. This is Washington's first game against an SEC foe since losing 24-7 to Alabama in a Sugar Bowl semifinal following the 2016 season.

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"The players and the fans might like these games more than the coaches," Petersen said. "There will be those first-game things like, 'How did that happen?' When you're playing a team like Auburn, those things can be painful. You've got to have your game right from the start. If you don't, you'll pay the price.

"This is going to be as challenging as anything we do all year long."

This article is written by David Paschall from Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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