Thoughts on Oregon’s 2020 Schedule and Evolving Conference Matchups

by Kevin Nesgoda


Image by John Martinez Pavliga via    Flickr    (CC BY 2.0)

Image by John Martinez Pavliga via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Some Context

The Pac-12 released its plan for an altered 2020 fall football schedule on July 31st. As things stand now, week one is set to start on Saturday, September 26th. However, the Pac-12 has already laid out a backup plan in which the first two weeks of each team’s schedule can be compressed into their bye week and one week after the finish of their current schedule but before the potential Pac-12 title game.

As we already know, the conference abandoned any non-conference games previously scheduled to be played this season. That means no Hawaii, no North Dakota State, and (most notably) no Ohio State for our Ducks. Instead, it will be a 10-game, conference only schedule—meaning Oregon will play all but one Pac-12 foe, only missing out on a matchup with UCLA. It also means that there is a good chance the 2020 Pac-12 title game will be a rematch of two teams who have already met this year. 

Briefly, let’s address the elephant in the room: nobody knows whether this schedule will ultimately be played in this order or whether we’ll see football in the fall of 2020 at all. I’m of the opinion that nobody really can know for sure right now. Even if this thing gets off the ground and we do see games played, I wouldn’t rule out the schedule being altered or canceled if new information about player safety comes out.

And just to be clear, player safety should be, and needs to be, the number one priority in all of this. It’s our role as fans to support the players’ safety and their right to choose whether they want to play. With that said, I’m rooting hard that football can be played safely this fall. I love the Ducks and I love college football. Hopefully, this proposed schedule works out. For the rest of this article, I’ll be assuming that the schedule is played as currently planned. 

Setting the Expectation 

Look, Oregon is the best team in the Pac-12. We’re the defending conference champs. We’re the defending Rose Bowl champs. Every week we should be stepping on the field expecting to win. Honestly, we should be looking to win big. This Andy Avalos defense is capable of holding any team in the conference under 15 points, and even an off night shouldn’t result in anything a good offensive performance can’t make up for.

Speaking of the offense, I expect us to be improved this year despite the loss of Herbert. Moorhead should be a major improvement at offensive coordinator. Tyler Shough is a guy I fully believe in at quarterback, and everything coming out of the program seems to suggest he’s capable of taking over. Verdell is a quality Pac-12 back. At receiver, Oregon has its deepest unit in years—including a likely breakout guy in Devon Williams. On the offensive line, yes we’re going to have to work in some new faces—but we do have Mario Cristobal as coach and Penei Sewell, arguably the best player in all of college football. (For more of my full thoughts on our depth chart, go check out episode 3 of Quacked Out Podcast on Spotify here or Apple Podcasts here).

All this is to say, the expectation this year is to win a Pac-12 title and be in the thick of the conversation for the college football playoff (although we are unsure what format that will take). Yes, it’s college football, upsets happen and we should all expect the unexpected. But that being said, all the pieces are in place for a big year in Eugene. Now onto the schedule…

Game-by-Game Breakdown

9/26 Colorado

This is a great warm-up game for the Ducks. No offense to Colorado, but I don’t think we need to be too worried about this one. Get the new offense clicking and see if Avalos’s unit can pitch a shutout. It’s a good draw for our first game. Plus, Oregon will get to look ahead and dedicate some extra prep to a Washington State program that has given us fits over the past 6 years.

10/3 @ Washington State

The Ducks travel to Pullman for this week 2 matchup. Former head coach Mike Leach is out at Wazzu, traveling south to Starkville, Mississippi; and with him, he takes his patented air-raid offense. The Cougars’ new head man is Nick Rolovich, who landed the power-5 job after a successful stint at Hawaii.

Rolovich has his own unique personality and prides himself on a run and shoot offense he’s seen some success with at prior stops. From a football perspective, I don’t hate the hire by Washington State, but I also believe Leach had done an incredible job in crafting a unique system to match this lower end power-5 program, and ultimately I believe that Leach’s niche strategy is the probably the smartest way to put a competitive product on the field at an under-resourced program like Wazzu.

The Ducks can’t ignore this game, but I don’t think it presents quite the same threat as it has in recent years. Plus, there obviously remains a sizable gap in talent between these two programs. Cristobal’s guys should be fine if they come in sharp.

10/9 (Friday) Arizona State

You’d have to think the Ducks have this one circled after the heartbreaking loss we suffered in Tempe late last season. It’s a chance for revenge, and it’s a chance to make a statement.

I’ve always been one to point out there were reasons for our loss to the Sun Devils last year. Defensively, it was a bad game—but that unit wasn’t helped by our offense’s inability to sustain a drive. On offense, Oregon was hindered by the absence of Jacob Breeland, Mycah Pittman, and Jaylon Redd—three of Herbert’s favorite options to when attacking the seams of a defense. Additionally, Jake Hansen was out for the 2nd half, and Throckmorton’s slower snaps threw off the timing of the offense.

Herm Edwards, Jayden Daniels, and company certainly deserve a lot of credit for getting it done, but I’m not of the belief that last year’s result is indicative of a trend to come in this matchup. Injuries do happen in football and I do think we ultimately deserved to lose the matchup in Tempe last fall.

However, as Cristobal recruits more and more of his guys into this program, the Ducks are starting to build the depth necessary to overcome these setbacks. Personally, I expect this team to be dialed in this time around.

10/17 @ Oregon State

This will be a year to break tradition between the Ducks and their in-state rival Beavers. The game will no longer be marketed as “the Civil War” after a push from current and former players, including Oregon legend Dennis Dixon. Also, it won’t be played during the traditional final week of the season. But one yearly tradition I do hope to continue is the Ducks crushing the Beavers, as we have in 12 of the last 13 matchups.

I think the Beavs are finally trending the right direction in Corvallis and believe that Jonathan Smith is a capable man for the job. Oregon State has some impact players and things have been picking up for them in recruiting—with the notable addition of 4-star in-state running back Damir Collins out of Jefferson High School in Portland.

But the talent gap between these two in-state foes is still massive. I simply don’t see how the Beavers can overcome that this year. 

10/24 Bye Week

As things stand now, the Ducks are off in week 5—and frankly, we should expect to be undefeated at this point. I don’t love this bye week for Oregon. In a 10-game schedule, it’s a little earlier than ideal in my opinion. But Mario Cristobal will just have to make do with the cards he’s been dealt.

After the bye, Oregon heads into a 6 game stretch where I expect 4 of their 5 most challenging matchups of the season will lie (Arizona State being the one game not included). Oregon absolutely can make it through this gauntlet unscathed, but that will tak
e discipline and focus. It will be a good test of the culture Cristobal has been so dedicated to implementing during his time in Eugene.

10/31 Washington

A Halloween night brawl between the Huskies and the Ducks is what’s on the docket this season. Anyone on Twitter knows how much this rivalry has heated up in the past few years. What’s more, the rivalry is becoming a year-long event, with both programs heavily involved in the recruitments of high profile west coast players like Troy Franklin, Moliki Matavao, and JT Tuimoloau. Mario Cristobal and Jimmy Lake alike even seem to be feeding into the bad blood. I love it.

My take on the Huskies is that they’re on the verge of a decline. Chris Petersen is definitely a good college football coach, and the mix of coach Pete’s culture and the more high talent recruiting UW had under Sarkisian is the best way to win in Seattle. Now Pete is out and Jimmy Lake is in. Lake may have what it takes to get things done in this sport eventually—the jury’s still out on that—but for now, he’s still learning the ropes. Husky fans had hoped that Lake would provide a younger energy and spark necessary to make UW cool (particularly on the recruiting trail), but his first offseason has been filled with blunders and lowered expectations.

Washington is unequivocally losing this rivalry on the recruiting trail in the 2021 cycle, and really, it isn’t even very close. If the Huskies suffer their 3rd consecutive defeat to Cristobal, expect their fans to get anxious up in Seattle, given how much time they spend mulling over how they stack up with the Ducks. To make matters worse for UW, it looks like Lake made a poor hire at offensive coordinator in John Donovan, a guy who has struggled to find success as a college OC and draws consistently negative reviews from fans at his past stops, most notably Penn State.

With that said, as much as I hate to admit it, UW actually has a pretty talented roster going into this upcoming 2020 season. The Huskies sit at 13th in the 247 Blue Chip Ratio, a metric created by Bud Elliot to measure the portion of each team’s scholarship roster that is comprised of former 4 and 5-star recruits. No team has won a national title with blue chip players making up under 50% of their scholarship roster, and Washington sits just above that mark at 54%.

This won’t be a cakewalk for our Ducks, as the past two matchups have been decided by the thinnest of margins. That being said, I think it’s fair to expect an Oregon win this year over their rivals up north. In my estimation, we have an advantage in the quarterback room. We have an advantage at both coordinator spots. We have an advantage in strength and conditioning. We have an advantage in experience at head coach.

Overall, this Ducks roster is battle-tested and has proven a knack for pulling out close wins in big games under Cristobal in a way the Huskies have not. (OK I know the Auburn game… but besides that one… and 2018 Stanford. Ugh.) Anyways, these are all potentially deciding factors in what figures to be a close game between two talented foes. Give me the Ducks.

11/7 @ Cal

This one has all the makings of a trap game. It’s situated right between Washington and USC—probably the other two most talented rosters in the conference and two games that our players and coaches take very personally.

On the other side, Cal has a bye week before this game, so they’re sure to be focused and well prepared. Something is building in Berkeley under Justin Wilcox (shoutout to the former Duck). This would certainly be a signature win for the Golden Bears, a la the upset the Sun Devils pulled off in Tempe last year.

As reigning Rose Bowl champions and favorites in the 2020 conference race, Oregon is going to get the best shot from every team they face—everyone wants to take down the champ on the big stage. Again, this will be a test for the culture that Cristobal has continually beat the drum for during his time in Eugene.

At their best, Oregon should be able to win this game handily. The question, of course, is will we show up at our best? Have the Ducks embraced that heartbreaking defeat in Tempe and used it as motivation to stay sharp? Or are we prone to repeat our mistakes and suffer the same fate once again? That’s what I’m looking to see from this game.

11/14 USC

For the 3rd week in a row, the Ducks will face a top Pac-12 opponent—see what I mean about the second half of this schedule being a bit loaded? There are few things that get me more hyped up than Oregon vs USC—the only in-conference matchup that features two national brands.

I don’t question that our players will be geared up for this one, but the same could be said of the opposing Trojans after they suffered an embarrassing 32-point blowout in the coliseum last year. Every time Oregon beats USC it means a little extra—another year that the program most capable of creating a dynasty on the west coast lays dormant. Cristobal has been very calculated in squelching any moment at USC, consistently winning high-profile battles both on the field and off. We’ll see if he can do it again this year.

Who are the breakout candidates in this one? It’s got to be the front 7 for Oregon. Play from our secondary will be crucial against Graham Harrell’s air-raid attack lead by Kedon Slovis—but I trust those guys in the back end for the Ducks. The place where Oregon really has a chance to dominate this game is in the trenches on the defensive side. USC is weak on the o-line, and it’s the type of weakness that could cripple their entire attack if properly exploited. Luckily, the Ducks have just the guys to do it—Jordon Scott, Austin Faoliu, Mase Funa, Adrian Jackson, Isaac Slade-Matuatia, maybe even a bit from the freshman linebacking duo of Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell. Oh ya, and then, of course, there’s Kayvon Thibodeaux.

After an impressive freshman year, especially towards the latter end, Thibodeaux seems ready to pop as a sophomore. If it hasn’t happened yet, expect this game to be Kayvon Thibodeaux’s official entrance onto the national stage. NFL number one pick buzz, a run at the Bednarik Award, an invitation to the Heisman ceremony in 2021—it could all start with Thibodeaux tormenting his former hometown Trojans on a Saturday in mid-November. That’s what I expect to happen.

11/20 (Friday) @ Arizona

This will be a much-needed break for our Ducks. Yes, Arizona has some talent—a promising QB Grant Gunnell, a solid WR room, and some experience on defense. And, of course, strange things always seem to happen in the desert. I just don’t see much magic going on there under Sumlin. Unlike their in-state counterpart, Arizona doesn’t seem to be building towards much.

I’ll say this, I expect Sumlin to be gone before the Wildcats find themselves back in the heat of a Pac-12 South race deep in November. I simply don’t believe this program has the energy or the swagger to pull off a major upset against the Ducks. That makes this a nice road draw for Oregon, and should give us the chance to collect ourselves before the final push.

11/28 Stanford

Oregon and Stanford ha
ve had some memorable and meaningful showdowns over the past decade or so. Some have had me jumping and shouting in victory, others left me crushed and demoralized in defeat.

Unfortunately, I believe that that era of the rivalry is coming to an end. At one time this was one of the great yearly stylistic clashes in all of college football. For the Ducks, it was always a crucial test of whether a given year’s squad could handle the brutal physicality and clinical execution represented by the Cardinal. Under Cristobal, I am not sure that Stanford will still be the relevant measuring stick for whether Oregon can compete nationally in a given year. Cristobal prioritizes the trenches; it’s the first place he wants to make sure we aren’t outmatched. Not only has Stanford declined, but also, the sport has evolved.

In the early 2010s, the top tier of college football (outside of Oregon) looked a lot more like those old Stanford teams—the Cardinal were an appropriate simulation of what we might see against an Auburn or Alabama on the national stage. In today’s sport, that regional measuring stick probably looks more like a pass-heavy offense with dynamic playmakers at receiver, something like a better version of Leach’s Wazzu or the USC air-raid. Either way, I’m sad to say I don’t expect this year’s Stanford game to be one of the most compelling chapters of “birds vs nerds.”

In a weird way, I’m actually sad to say I’m not too worried about the Stanford game this year. Just look what happened last season, Oregon had one of our most sluggish performances (at least offensively) and still walked out of Palo Alto without much threat of taking a loss.

To summarize, I just think Mario Cristobal has built this program in a way that nullifies many of Stanford’s strengths that at one time gave us fits.  

12/5 @ Utah

The Utes campaigned hard for this one—it appears they are seeking revenge after suffering a crushing defeat to the Ducks in last year’s Pac-12 title game, which left Utah on the outside of the playoff. Frankly, the Utes lose a lot from their special season in 2019; most notably Tyler Huntley, Zack Moss, Jaylon Johnson, and Bradlee Anae. Those are the type of players that gave real teeth to Kyle Whittingham’s program.

To make matters worse for the Utes, Cristobal and the Ducks don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. If the Pac-12 landscape is an arms race, then Utah is falling well behind in terms of talent acquisition. More and more, they are becoming the team that shows up with a knife to the proverbial gunfight, as their recruiting rankings lag behind the rest of the conference’s top tier. At some point, the talent gap simply becomes too large to overcome with scheme and culture. It might be enough to edge out a dysfunctional USC program in the Pac-12 South race, but besting the Ducks is another story. Again, it’s not like Oregon is a program lacking in culture or scheme, particularly after the addition of OC Joe Moorhead.

If there is a silver lining for the Utes, it’s that they have until the last week of the season to prepare themselves for this game. They have ample time to turn an abundance of question marks into answers and they’ve shown an impressive ability to reload, particularly on the defensive end, over the past few years. However, if Oregon plays its best game, we should win comfortably—as we did in the conference title game last season.

And speaking of the conference title game, this matchup brings an interesting dynamic because it could be a possible preview of the conference title game currently scheduled for just two weeks later. Oregon seems to be the favorite in the North, while Utah figures to be in a close race with USC and likely Arizona State for the South. It’s entirely possible that these two teams could face each other in consecutive matchups, something that has seldom been seen in college football. 

12/12 Bye Week

Another bye, this one is the same for every school in the Pac-12. If games have to be canceled or rescheduled, there’s a good chance they’ll move to this week. If that doesn’t happen, it will be nice to have an extra week to gear up for a potential conference championship game.

Also, this could be a key period for Cristobal and staff to sure up recruiting for the Ducks’ 2021 class before early signing period, which is currently slotted for December 16th through the 18th (although that may be subject to change given this year’s unique calendar). By the way, that 2021 class is shaping up to be the best in program history by a pretty wide margin. 

12/18 or 12/19 Pac-12 Championship Game

There’s not too much to say here given the Ducks don’t know who their opponent will be or even which date this game will be played on. Some would say the Ducks don’t know if they’ll be in this game. They also don’t know, for sure, where it will be played. The conference announced this year’s game will be held at the home stadium of the team with the best record.

I do know this though: if the Ducks play up to their full potential, we should be playing our final conference game in Autzen in mid-December, and hopefully, we’ll be looking to make a statement and bolster our case for a playoff berth (in whatever form that takes).

Final Thoughts

11-0 is out there. 10-1 is out there as well. Either of those marks would clearly be a very successful season. Now, is this the year? I don’t know. It could be. This team has the talent to pull something big off and in a sport and a year of uncertainty, I’m not willing to count them out entirely. But, I also think it’s important for us all to put things in the context of the trajectory of this program.

I’m of the opinion that the best is yet to come in the Cristobal era. A couple more recruiting classes like this one in 2021 and Oregon will have the roster to be within a score of any team in the country on any given Saturday. So what do we need out of this year? Really, I would just say we need to maintain the standard we established in 2019-20.

First, win the Pac-12, or at least win the North. If we do that, we should secure a bid to a New Years 6 bowl (assuming those happen this year). A competitive performance in a NY6 bowl gives Oregon all the tools we need to continue the upward trajectory of this program. I certainly believe that’s a goal that this team can accomplish. 

Shameless plug: Go listen to Quacked Out Podcast on Spotify here, Apple Podcasts here, or search Quacked Out Podcast on your preferred platform for a lot more Ducks talk and follow on Twitter @QuackedOutPod to keep up to date. Go Ducks! Peace.

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3 comments

metpdx@gmail.com August 8, 2020 - 1:21 AM

Love the depth of Conference knowledge displayed and the Ducks spirit and passion. Gotta be excited by the prediction that “the best is yet to come!” Here’s hoping we get a season to see if your predictions ring true. Cristobal is building a dynasty. Go Ducks!

Reply
metpdx@gmail.com August 8, 2020 - 1:21 AM

Love the depth of Conference knowledge displayed and the Ducks spirit and passion. Gotta be excited by the prediction that “the best is yet to come!” Here’s hoping we get a season to see if your predictions ring true. Cristobal is building a dynasty. Go Ducks!

Reply
metpdx@gmail.com August 8, 2020 - 1:21 AM

Love the depth of Conference knowledge displayed and the Ducks spirit and passion. Gotta be excited by the prediction that “the best is yet to come!” Here’s hoping we get a season to see if your predictions ring true. Cristobal is building a dynasty. Go Ducks!

Reply

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