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#1 Auburn cruises to a comfortable victory on the back of a powerhouse offense and a defense that left no room for TCU QB Felix Luck to breathe.
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    [2022] Big XII Network Week 0 Preview: Opening Act

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    The wait is over, and the season is here today! The nation's most exciting conference wastes no time in bringing two of the best matchups of the marquee week 0. The Friday night undercard is the first conference game of the year nationwide as Texas looks to start their new era on the right foot against a Kansas team that is competing with them for sleeper status. But the opener might be the Game of the Year before the year's even had a chance to begin, as 2nd-ranked TCU meets top-ranked Auburn in New Orleans in the very first game of the entire season. Let's talk about the games.


    Thursday Night


    CFBHC Kickoff Game: :auburn: #1 Auburn (0-0) vs. :tcu: #2 TCU (0-0) (+5.5) (Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, LA)


    How many bigger games have there ever been to start a season? These two playoff semifinalists enter the season as the two primary national title favorites, meaning all eyes will be on New Orleans as they meet. If you're an NFL scout, you're watching this game. If you're on either team's schedule, you're watching this game. If you just enjoy college football, you're watching this game. But what are you looking for? The most obvious answer's going to be Heisman contender Marcus Black--but before I get to him, I want to talk about both of these teams' defenses. Auburn ranked 5th in the country in allowing under 16.1 points per game last season, and TCU was 8th with 17.2 allowed per game. Despite that, it's TCU fans who are more excited about their defense coming into the season while Auburn fans salivate over the offense. The Tiger defense doesn't have much of a talent dropoff compared to TCU, but they sure are younger. Five of Auburn's starters in the front seven alone are freshmen or sophomores, including the whole linebacker corps. Obviously you won't find a ton of freshman linebackers more talented than Brett Combs, who some close to the program say could get drafted into the NFL today if he were allowed. True freshman outside linebacker and pass rusher Francesco Tidwell also figures to be exciting, and gap-eating defensive tackle Jason Siegel partnered with true freshman defensive end Myles Wallace and an ever-dangerous Thomas Handy (who had 10.5 sacks last year) make for an intimidating defensive line. The youth up front removes one of TCU's biggest offensive concerns from the ledger: the Horned Frogs have a pair of freshmen starting on the offensive line and not much depth across the unit, so that makes for a youth-on-youth matchup. Auburn also has a young pair of safeties, with redshirt sophomore Daniel Joiner joining true freshman Jackson Smith back deep. 


    Expect TCU to see what they can get downfield against a secondary that no longer features Kenyon Justice or early declaree Eddie Burks. Felix Luck threw for school records of 4,155 yards and 31 touchdowns last season, and the trio of Finn Nielsen, speedster Griffin McHanna, and tight end Miguel Aguilera now have an extra year of experience under their belt. Add in redshirt freshman slot receiver F.T. Grady and the Frogs' offense can spread the field and attack the Auburn defense horizontally or vertically so long as the blocking holds up. There are three main question marks, all of which are tied together. First, can Luck become a more efficient passer? He set volume records and won games, and there's nothing wrong with that--but a completion percentage better than 59.7% and a passer rating greater than 127.5 would go a long way toward taking this offense from #41 in scoring to championship-level. That said, his efficiency numbers were down in part because he threw 633 times, which calls for the question of whether TCU will attempt to balance things out more--and that immediately brings up a third question of whether Martin Gifford can be the reliable tailback that the Horned Frogs haven't had since Bradley Cooley. The redshirt junior from West Texas will get his shot; if after a few games he can't establish himself, look for redshirt freshman Matteo Cates to get his shot. 


    I would expect the Horned Frogs to find purchase against the Tiger defense. But if they don't, then that vaunted defense can still keep them in the game as long as they can find some way to slow down an Auburn offense led by Heisman co-favorite Marcus Black. Easy enough, right? In the regular season last year, Black completed 71.2% of his passes for 3,425 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. What TCU may key in on, though, is the fact that he showed a clear focus on his top two guys. Jariel Martinez caught 64 passes for 1084 yards and 9 touchdowns; Kelvin Andrade added 58 receptions for 846 yards and 10 scores. The pair accounted for 47% of the team's receptions, 56% of its yards, and over 70% of its receiving touchdowns--in other words, they saw heavy usage and still exceeded expectations per catch. The Horned Frogs aren't worried about matching up one-on-one with them, because they have elite corners like Roman Blackmon and William Cooper. Their safeties aren't the strong point of the defense, but it's hard to imagine an easier situation for Ian Worley and Anthony Easter to walk into.


    One difference between the task TCU's defense faces and the task Auburn's defense faces is the sheer range of expected options. Auburn is more able to afford to bet that TCU will try to throw it, because if they lose due to TCU's run game then they picked the correct poison. TCU, however, can reasonably expect to have to defend the pass, the handoff, the quarterback keeper, the option--all of it's on the table. Marcus Black's elite, his receivers are elite, his offensive line is elite (and experienced, featuring four senior starters to go with a redshirt freshman left tackle), and his backfield partner Sean Meade is elite. Meade ran for 1490 yards and 18 touchdowns on 5.8 yards per carry, averaged 124.2 yards per game despite sharing a backfield with Marcus Black, and showed breakaway speed with touchdown runs as long as 75 yards. If you're TCU's defense, confronting the offensive line and making plays in the backfield is beyond crucial. There are a lot of Horned Frogs capable of doing that; they had 28 rushing tackles for loss last year. Returning defensive linemen Aidan Morrell, Aidan McAlister, and Kwon Shaw combined for 10, and you can expect defensive tackle Jasiah Pickens to pick up some of the slack. Senior linebackers Elliot McElmore and Chance Herring combined for 6 last year, and rising sophomore Richard Farrell co-led the team with 6. Will that be enough to stop Black and Meade? Probably not. Will it be enough to slow them down? Maybe. Will it be enough to win?


    My gut says yes. Give me the more experienced Frogs in a shootout.


    :tcu: #2 TCU 38, :auburn: #1 Auburn 31


    Friday Night


    :texas: Texas (0-0) at :kansas: Kansas (0-0)* (-7.5)


    The first conference game of the year goes to the nation's most exciting conference, as an under-new-management Texas heads up to Lawrence to try to break a two-game losing streak to the Jayhawks. The Longhorns begin the first full season of the constapatedape era with a quarterback change, as junior Lucas Beckwith took over the starting spot from senior Kyler Tackett--who will undoubtedly push his younger counterpart in practice to win the job back. The Longhorns are hoping that Beckwith's superiority on his feet will be an advantage as well as a distraction from the threat of Simeon Wells running up the middle. The three-year starting tailback had the best season of his career last year, cruising to 1594 yards and 15 touchdowns on nearly 5.5 yards per carry. The Longhorns return an experienced line with two junior starters (headlined by left tackle Bobby Drake) and two senior starters. And boy, are they going to need it against a talented Jayhawk defensive line. Defensive ends Noah Urlacher and Jamari Callahan and defensive tackle Albert Duke combined for 20.0 sacks, 9 rushing tackles for loss, and 3 fumbles forced last season. Two of those sacks, two of those tackles for loss, and Callahan's fumble forced and recovered came in the Texas game. If Texas can control the line of scrimmage, they shouldn't have trouble working through the soft middle of Kansas's defense and moving the ball downfield a few small pieces at a time. If not, though, then negative plays and turnovers are a risk.


    But the same's true for Kansas's offense against a strong Texas defensive front. Tristan Priest had 8.5 sacks and 4 rushing tackles for loss by himself last year; defensive tackle Jamal Robinson added another sack-and-a-half and 5 tackles for loss. Add a healthy Zion Gaines to the mix and a young Jayhawk line (four starters are sophomores or younger) is going to have its hands full. The offense is going to mostly be on Christian Graham's shoulders, because the receivers can't really expect to win one-on-one battles with the Texas corners (especially not Devon Braxton) and runningback Andre Black is almost completely unproven. He'll at least have a pair of safety valves in tight ends Jaime Bautista and Samuel Hardy, though--Bautista last year was one of just three Big XII tight ends to ever record over 900 receiving yards and at least 10 touchdown receptions in a single season, joining Steven Maloney in 2018 and Hastin Rider in 2020. Texas's linebackers are a question mark just like Kansas's; they moved inside linebacker Samir Sneed to the outside for coverage purposes.


    Both of these teams have a lot of question marks, some self-inflicted and others not--bu both have potential, and the winner's going to earn immediate dark horse status in the conference race. I think both will struggle to score in this one (and both will play top-notch defense), but I'll take Kansas to come out on top and eke out a home win.


    :kansas: Kansas 17, :texas: Texas 13

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