Eastern Washington's visit to Oregon for Week 1 is hardly the easy W one might anticipate of a lower-division matchup for a nationally prominent team. The Eagles are fixtures in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Playoffs and heavyweights in the competitive Big Sky Conference. They also visit Autzen Stadium with intimate knowledge of the Ducks' new-look offensive attack sans Marcus Mariota.
There may not be a more highly anticipated matchup of power conference program vs. FCS opponent ever — bear in mind, Appalachian State's upset of Michigan in 2007 was expected to be a cake walk before Armanti Edwards ran wild on the Wolverines.
Edwards established himself as a college football legend that Saturday in Ann Arbor eight years ago. Some years later, Vernon Adams became a star FCS quarterback with feats against power competition akin to Edwards' vs. Michigan.
Now, Adams is trying to take his star to another level as a graduate transfer at Oregon. He'll make his Duck debut against his former team.
Eastern Washington at Oregon
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Three Things to Watch
1. Vernon Football on the Big Stage
Eastern Washington transfer quarterback Vernon Adams needed less than two weeks of practices with the Ducks to secure the starting job. Adams beat out Jeff Lockie, validating the former's decision to make the rare leap from the FCS to the FBS — and not just the FBS, but last year's national runner-up.
Adams arrives at Oregon, expected to fill some gigantic shoes. Marcus Mariota capped his third season as starter with the program's first Heisman Trophy, a Pac-12 title and a spot in the College Football Playoff title game.
Adams hasn't withered on big stages before arriving at Oregon. He shredded Pac-12 defenses at Oregon State and Washington in 2013 and 2014 for six and seven touchdowns. Can he do the same for an entire season is one question. The other? Can he do so against a defense that's practiced against him for the previous three years?
2. A Rebuilt Secondary vs. A Pass-Happy Offense
The secondary is often the strength of any Oregon defense, but this year's version is faced with replacing playmaker Troy Hill, interceptions leader Erick Dargan and All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. This new-look unit starts right out of the gate against a pass-happy offense that won't shy away from attacking it, either.
Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin has overseen some of the most prolific passing offenses in the FCS over the years. The 2015 version should be no exception. The Eagles feature one of the best wide receiving corps in the subdivision, starting with All-American Cooper Kupp.
Kupp won the Jerry Rice Award in 2013, awarded to the most outstanding freshman in the nation, when he caught for 1,691 yards and 21 touchdowns. His encore in 2014 saw Kupp catch 11 more passes in total, for 104 on the year.
3. Who Rolls With Royce?
Royce Freeman broke out as Oregon's primary ball-carrier in 2014, his freshman campaign. He returns to shoulder the load in 2015, but he'll do so without running mate Thomas Tyner. Tyner sustained an injury in the offseason that will keep him out the duration of the season to come.
Oregon is not lacking for options to run in addition to Freeman. Who head coach Mark Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost tab to serve as Freeman's primary running back is an interesting facet of Saturday's game.
Talented freshman Taj Griffin joined the team for training camp despite a lingering injury, and he should see some carries. Veteran Kani Benoit offers a secondary power-back look, similar to that of Freeman. Either way, Oregon can continue to employ a multifaceted run game.
Eastern Washington is among the better FCS programs, and the Eagles have had a knack for giving Pac-12 foes headaches. They nearly beat Washington both in 2011 and 2014, and knocked Oregon State out of the Top 25 in 2013. Baldwin's team will give Oregon a stiff challenge, but the Ducks' overall talent and depth should make relatively quick work of the visitors.
Oregon's typical third-quarter deluge should instead come in the second quarter, squeezing Eastern Washington out of contention early in order to give the back-ups some opportunities. Eastern Washington will score some points one way or another, but shouldn't contend for too long.