The Ducks seek their fifth straight win when the Buffaloes come to Autzen on Friday night
By virtue of outstanding defensive showings against Stanford and Cal, Oregon's 2-0 in Pac-12 play. Meanwhile, the Ducks handed both the Cardinal and Golden Bears their second conference losses. With Washington State dropping games to UCLA and Utah out of the South, and Washington suffering setbacks against Cal and Stanford, Oregon holds a two-game lead over everyone but, remarkably, Oregon State.
The road to Levi's Stadium remains quite long, however, with the first potential pitfall looming Friday night at Autzen Stadium. The Colorado Buffaloes come to town for the first time since 2016, already boasting a conference road victory over a Top 25 team.
The Buffs' defeat of Arizona State on Sept. 21 is arguably the high watermark of head coach Mel Tucker's young tenure at Colorado. His team also scored a marquee win Sept. 7 over former Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost and Nebraska.
Although the Buffs come in off a loss to Arizona, their bevy of playmakers — and the Pac-12's proclivity for Friday night cannibalism — gives this one high upset potential.
Colorado at Oregon
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 11 at 10 p.m. ET
Spread: Oregon -20.5
When Colorado Has the Ball
Few quarterbacks around the country have as much game experience as Oregon's Justin Herbert. Colorado's Steven Montez is one of them. Both debuted as starters in 2016, and though Montez did not become the full-timer until '18, he played plenty of significant snaps in relief of Sefo Liufau as a freshman and sophomore. Montez ranks second in the conference with 292.6 passing yards per game, and his two interceptions against 176 pass attempts are the second-best such ratio in the Pac-12 — behind only Herbert.
Colorado's corps of receivers is one of the most explosive in the country, particularly when Laviska Shenault Jr. is available. He missed the Arizona game and much of the Arizona State matchup, but Tony Brown stepped up to shoulder the load.
In the run game, Alex Fontenot has been reliable, though yet to match his prolific output in Week 1 when he hit up Colorado State for three touchdowns. He shares duties with first-year Buff Jaren Mangham.
Colorado's quietly been one of the most potent offensive teams in the Pac-12 this season at 34.6 points per game, but has yet to see a defense as stingy as Oregon's. Like Herbert on offense, linebacker Troy Dye is a four-year starter and leader on the field. He's been a driving force for Oregon's No. 17-ranked rush defense (allowing just 95.4 ypg). With the upperclassman Dye setting the tone, first-year Duck Kayvon Thibodeaux is emerging on the line. Thibodeaux won Week 6 Defensive Lineman of the Week honors in the Pac-12, and will be key to pressuring Montez from behind a Buffaloes offensive line that was stellar in the win at Arizona State.
When Oregon Has the Ball
Herbert's efficiency is close to unrivaled in college football. Completing passes at an almost 72 percent clip, and with 15 touchdowns against just one interception, Herbert has been the definition of dependable. For a program that built its reputation in the past decade on explosiveness, however, it's a noticeable difference.
Oregon's wins over Stanford and Cal could be best described as adequate offensively — and only partially so against. The Ducks went without points in the first half against the stout Cal defense. Like the Golden Bears with Evan Weaver, Colorado comes into Autzen Stadium with a do-everything linebacker in Nate Landman. Landman plays with unrelenting tenacity and seems to be in on every play.
His activity will be an element to watch, particularly with as much as Herbert targets tight end Jacob Breeland in the passing game. Breeland is Oregon's top pass catcher at 352 yards, and he has one more grab than Jaylon Redd, whose production will also test the Buffs' linebacker corps. Redd's a frequent target on short patterns that function almost like a pitch would in a traditional pro-set offense.
The Ducks roll with a multifaceted rushing look, paced by sophomores CJ Verdell and Travis Dye. Cyrus Habibi-Likio handles certain short-yardage situations. The diversity in the run game, coupled with Oregon's outstanding offensive line, hammers away at opposing defenses.
Friday nights have been a graveyard for the aspirations of Pac-12 teams eyeing a title or College Football Playoff appearance. In 2017, Washington State shocked USC on a Friday in Pullman; the Trojans returned the favor a year later in Los Angeles. This season alone has seen USC trip up Utah and Arizona State shock Cal on the road.
While the conditions seem right for yet another Pac-12 stunner, Oregon's physicality presents Colorado with a tough matchup. The Buffs have to pull Oregon into a shootout, similar to what they accomplished at Arizona State. Should the Ducks extend offensive drives, while getting off the field with punts early, Oregon can set the pace and wear away on Colorado. Mario Cristobal's built at Oregon a look similar to what Colorado should expect from Mel Tucker; both coached under Nick Saban at Alabama, before Tucker went to Georgia with Kirby Smart.
Until Colorado's a team built more for high-scoring affairs. Oregon's designed to shut down such a style.
Prediction: Oregon 30, Colorado 17
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.