Posted on June 2, 2020
General Outlook: Oregon Remains the Team to Beat
Overview: Despite losing veteran quarterback Justin Herbert to the NFL, the Ducks are the clear favorites to repeat as Pac-12 champions, and the best hope for restoring the Conference to national prominence in 2020.
Best-Case Scenario: Oregon makes a run at its second College Football Playoff appearance in seven years, with a chance to play in its third National Championship Game in 11 years, behind a stellar defense and a potent rushing attack.
Worst-Case Scenario: UO competes for the North Division Title as a feared-and-circled foe for everyone on its schedule.
What Should Happen: With a wealth of talent at his disposal, expected starting quarterback Tyler Shough (pronounced Shuck) should have the support he needs to develop. If the redshirt sophomore isn’t ready, the Ducks will likely go with coveted Boston College transfer Anthony Brown.
What Must Happen: Given the high expectations and outside noise, head coach Mario Cristobal and his staff must keep this team grounded and focused. As with any potential title run, the margin for error will be razor-thin. If the coaches navigate that minefield, a Playoff berth could be in the cards.
Greatest Strength: A Swift & Dominant Defense
It’s no secret that Cristobal and defensive coordinator Andy Avalos have put together one of the country’s best defensive units. This speedy group could prove even stronger than last year’s, drawing comparisons to some of the more elite defenses in the SEC.
Headlined by linemen Kayvon Thibodeaux, Jordon Scott, and Austin Faoliu, the defensive front line should once again give opposing offenses fits. The secondary is anchored by lock-down corners Thomas Graham Jr. and Deammodore Lenoir, along with safety Jevon Holland, all skilled and instinctual players that make passing on the Ducks difficult, to say the least.
Incoming freshmen linebackers Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell, two of the Top 15 prospects in the country, figure to make an immediate impact with the departures of Troy Dye and Bryson Young.
With nine starters returning from a unit that gave up the second-fewest points per game in the Pac-12, it’s easy to see why the Ducks are generating national attention. The ‘D’ isn’t likely to miss a beat with the addition of Flowe, Sewell, and freshman corner Dontae Manning. If UO plays up to its preseason hype, the defense will deserve much of the credit.
Biggest Concern: Transition to a New Quarterback
Uncertainty at quarterback presents the biggest challenge to Oregon’s continued rise in the West. Whether the Ducks go with the relatively untested Shough or the seasoned Brown, the result won’t be known until they take the field.
Shough appeared in just four games last season, attempting 15 throws—mostly during garbage time—resulting in three touchdowns and an 80% completion rate. By contrast, Brown, a three-year starter for the Eagles, threw for 4,738 yards and 40 touchdowns in his 28 outings.
While Shough emerged from an abbreviated spring camp as the presumptive starter, Brown provides an insurance policy as well as a potential bridge between Herbert and the next Duck starter. Consequently, the weight of Oregon’s season won’t fall entirely on young Shough’s shoulders, giving the heir-apparent more time to develop, if needed.
Regardless of who starts at quarterback, running backs CJ Verdell and Travis Dye will be a load to stop behind a talented offensive line led by Outland Trophy winner Penei Sewell. If Shough matures quickly, or Brown performs as reliably as expected, the Ducks could be headed for the Dream Season many envision.
If not, the Pac-12 race suddenly becomes a lot more interesting.
Deciding Factors: Contributions from Incoming Freshmen
After securing the nation’s 12th-best recruiting class, the success of UO’s season could rest on its heralded freshmen.
Flowe, Sewell, and Manning are five-star prospects with the potential to make an impact from Game One. But they’ll have a strong supporting cast of four-stars behind them, any of whom could break out in any given game.
That gives Oregon’s defensive coaching staff the luxury of letting a group of bona fide potential starters battle for weekly playing time, while also requiring those coaches to manage the egos of talented backups who know they could be starting elsewhere.
It’s a good problem to have, and one that Avalos has already proven himself capable of handling. Last season, Mykael Wright, the nation’s top cornerback recruit, patiently waited behind young guns Graham Jr. and Lenoir, making the most of his reps when his time came.
Schedule Analysis: Key Nonconference & Conference Games
The ballyhooed matchup with Ohio State in Eugene looms on September 12th, but Oregon can’t afford to overlook perennial giant-killer North Dakota State the week before.
Provided the Ducks survive that encounter as expected, the stage will be set for one of the most anticipated games of the year, and the Playoff implications are clear.
If Oregon defeats the Buckeyes, a path to the Rose Bowl—which doubles as a Playoff game this season—will have been pried opened. On the other hand, a loss won’t necessarily kill the Ducks’ chances, provided they don’t slip up in Pac-12 play, as they did last year against Arizona State, after losing the opener to Auburn.
Realistically, there hasn’t been a game at Autzen Stadium with this much significance since No. 7 Michigan State made the trip in 2014. Oregon’s defeat of the well-respected Big Ten program that year ultimately catapulted the Ducks to the National Championship Game. Something similar could be brewing this season, though the Buckeyes present an exponentially tougher challenge.
Of course, Conference play holds its own set of challenges: Most notably, a potential trap game at California and a dangerous home bout vs. USC. Battles with Arizona State and Washington stand as potential pitfalls as well. A loss in any of those games would likely dash the hopes of a return to the Playoff.
But if everything goes right, Oregon could well find itself in the thick of things when the Selection Committee sits down to make its final decisions.
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