ATLANTA (AP) When Louisville opens the season against No. 6 Auburn at the Georgia Dome, Bobby Petrino will be reminded of two ugly episodes in his coaching career.
He’d prefer to focus on beating the Tigers, knowing that will require his full attention.
Auburn again has the look of a championship contender, now that Gus Malzahn’s dynamic offense is complemented by Will Muschamp running things on the other side of the line.
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”We feel good about where we’re at as a team,” said Jeremy Johnson, the Tigers’ new starting quarterback.
Petrino has checkered ties to both Auburn and Atlanta.
He served as the school’s offensive coordinator in 2002, but is largely remembered on the Plains for secretly meeting a year later with Auburn officials about a head coaching job that wasn’t actually available.
Petrino prefers to put a positive spin on his Auburn experience.
”I had red hair. I was a lot younger,” he said, chuckling. ”Lots of good memories back then.”
Petrino’s coaching carousel also took him briefly to Atlanta, where he lasted less than a season with the NFL Falcons in 2007. Star quarterback Michael Vick was busted for running a dogfighting operation and, with the team in the midst of a miserable season, Petrino bailed with three games remaining to take a job at Arkansas.
”You know, that was such a long time ago, I haven’t even thought about it,” Petrino insisted. ”I’m just very happy to be the head coach here at the University of Louisville and excited for what we got going here.”
While Louisville has yet to settle on a starting quarterback, Auburn expects to keep lighting up the scoreboard with Johnson taking over for departed signal caller Nick Marshall.
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Johnson will be making only his third career start, but he’s already been the subject of considerable preseason hype. The Tigers have no doubts about his passing skills; the intrigue centers around how much he’s used as a runner.
”He’s tired of everybody talking about him,” said Malzahn, the Tigers’ head coach and offensive mastermind. ”He wants to prove himself.”
Auburn struggled to an 8-5 mark last year after reaching the national championship game the previous season, despite averaging more than 35 points a game. The big problem was the defense, which surrendered more than 30 points in its last seven games against FBS opponents – including 55 in a loss to rival Alabama.
Enter Muschamp, the former head coach at Florida who takes over as Auburn’s defensive coordinator.
”He’s just really stressing communication in this first game,” Malzahn said. ”That’ll be very important, being able to adjust on defense.”
Here’s some other things to watch for when Auburn takes on Louisville in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game:
WHO’S THE QUARTERBACK? Petrino will wait until kickoff to reveal his starter and there’s a chance he’ll use multiple QBs. Reggie Bonnafon is the most mobile of the group, but Will Gardner was 5-2 as a starter in 2014 and Kyle Bolin threw for 681 yards in the final two games.
BEEFING UP THE DEFENSE: The Tigers are quick up front, and the return of end Carl Lawson from a knee injury that kept him out all of last season gives a huge boost to the pass rush. Also keep an eye on sophomore linebacker Tre’ Williams, who is pushing for more playing time even though he’s at the deepest position on the defense.
REVAMPED SECONDARY: Louisville led the nation with 26 interceptions a year ago, but they’ll be breaking in four new starters in the secondary. Most notably, Georgia transfer Josh Harvey-Clemons takes over at safety after sitting out a year.
NEXT RUNNER UP: Auburn had the Southeastern Conference’s leading rusher the last two seasons, but may go with more of a backfield-by-committee approach this time around. Roc Thomas showed promise as a freshman, playing behind Cameron Artis-Payne, and will make his first start. There’s also Jovon Robinson, the top-rated runner coming out of junior college.
DUKE’S STATUS: Auburn WR Duke Williams had a team-high 45 catches last season and is set for a more prominent role with Johnson at quarterback and Sammy Coates in the NFL. Malzahn, however, hasn’t said how much Williams will play in the opener after he served a six-day suspension early in camp for an unspecified disciplinary issue.
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