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3 Reasons for Optimism About the Oregon Ducks in 2018

Justin Herbert

Justin Herbert

The stability within Oregon football created a line of succession that lasted four decades. Rich Brooks turned over his post to former assistant Mike Bellotti, who was followed by assistant Chip Kelly, who left the program with Mark Helfrich.

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But after Helfrich's firing in 2016, Willie Taggart became the first outside head coaching hire since Brooks 40 years prior. That lasted all of one season.

With Taggart bolting for the vacancy at Florida State — a job open for the first time in four decades, with Jimbo Fisher having succeeded Bobby Bowden as coach-in-waiting — a new cycle of immediate succession begins in 2018 with Mario Cristobal ascending to the role of head coach.

Cristobal elevated a fledgling FIU program most notably for its 2006 brawl with Miami to a Sun Belt Conference championship and back-to-back bowl appearances. He spent time on Nick Saban's staff at Alabama thereafter, before landing in Eugene. Cristobal coaches a team with some potential difference-makers in key spots in 2018.

1. Justin Herbert back behind center

Oregon's book-ending success around a midseason lull in 2017 spoke to the importance of having Herbert at quarterback. Herbert was a breakthrough performer as a freshman in the otherwise awful 2016 campaign, and he showed considerable progress before a collarbone injury in his sophomore season.

With an offseason to both strengthen his arm and continue developing as a passer, Herbert will enter 2018 as one of the Pac-12's potential Heisman Trophy contenders.

2. Keeping Jim Leavitt

The Willie Taggart era may have been truncated, but arguably the most significant development of his brief time as head coach — luring Jim Leavitt away from Colorado — remains. Leavitt transformed a Colorado defense that ranked among the nation's worst prior to his arrival, and made it a cornerstone of the Buffs' surprise run to the 2016 Pac-12 Championship Game.

Leavitt's impact could be gleaned in his first season at Oregon, as the Ducks climbed from No. 121 against the run, to No. 25 in 2017.

It certainly didn't hurt that Leavitt had talented playmakers, many of whom will return in 2018. Linebacker Troy Dye (above, right) and defensive lineman Jalen Jelks are two of the anchors for what could be a formidable defense in the season to come. Sophomore Jordon Scott also is one to watch on that side of the ball.

3. A favorable schedule

In recent years, Oregon played one of the more difficult schedules in the Pac-12. That simply isn't the case in 2018. The Ducks open with non-conference dates against Group of Five opponents San Jose State and Bowling Green, as well as Portland State from the FCS Big Sky Conference.

That leads into a home game against Stanford for four straight at Autzen Stadium until the Ducks hit the road for the first time on Sept. 29. That first road game comes ahead of a bye week, and rival Washington comes to Eugene following Oregon's time off.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.