The Oregon Ducks and Fresno State Bulldogs have some shared history: After leading something of an offensive renaissance at Fresno State in the mid-1990s, Jeff Tedford did the same at Oregon around the turn of the millennium.
Tedford returned to Fresno State as head coach almost two decades after helping Joey Harrington to a Heisman-caliber season at UO and restored the Bulldogs to past glory with a Mountain West Conference championship in 2018.
Fresno State had dipped earlier in the decade under Tim DeRuyter, who is now in his first season as defensive coordinator at Oregon.
"My wife and I and my family had a great time in Fresno, but this game is not about me," DeRuyter told reporters this week. "It's about these guys that are playing for us."
That bit of history aside, Fresno State kicks off 2021 celebrating a different piece of history: This marks the 20th anniversary of a breakthrough season in which the Bulldogs ripped off non-conference wins over Wisconsin, Colorado, and a team based in Oregon coming off a Fiesta Bowl (Oregon State).
Fresno State at Oregon
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 4 at 2 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Oregon -20.5
When Fresno State Has the Ball
At quarterback for Fresno State is a name that should be familiar to Pac-12 followers: former Washington Husky Jake Haener.
Like former Oregon State Beaver Marcus McMaryion before him, Haener was revitalized with a transfer out of the Pac-12 and to Fresno State. He passed for 14 touchdowns in the shortened 2020 season and came out of the gate of 2021 firing with three scores on a 20-of-26 performance last Saturday (Week 0) against Connecticut.
Of course, the Oregon defense presents a much stiffer challenge than the over-matched UConn side, starting with the presence of the best edge rusher in the nation, Kayvon Thibodeaux.
He's not just a sack-generator or threat on passing downs: the do-everything Thibodeaux can force an offensive coordinator to expend multiple blockers focusing just on him so that linebackers like Noah Sewell can get to ball carriers much more easily in the backfield.
Fresno State will need to get the outstanding Ronnie Rivers rushing lanes early and create short-yardage second and third downs.
When Oregon Has the Ball
A dramatic philosophical shift for Oregon in the Mario Cristobal era from the image that comes to mind from the Chip Kelly and latter-year Mike Bellotti eras — or the more pass-happy Bellotti/Tedford tenure — emphasizes physicality.
The Ducks mastered the approach in their 2019 Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl season, thanks to a veteran offensive line and savvy future NFL quarterback in Justin Herbert. Last season, with heavy line turnover, power-running CJ Verdell injured and instability at quarterback, Oregon regressed.
The 2021 Ducks offensive line is considerably more experienced with just about everyone returning. Verdell's healthy and a prime candidate to cook in his first full season under offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead — something of a running-back guru with stars like Chase Edmonds (Fordham) and Saquon Barkley (Penn State) under his tutelage.
That leaves Anthony Brown, the veteran who emerged as the Week 1 starter, to carve out his niche at quarterback. Brown showed flashes of explosiveness as a ball carrier in situational packages a year ago and now gets the chance to show his full array of skills.
His debut as the clear No. 1 comes against an experienced and salty Fresno State defense. There may not be too much to glean from shutting down UConn, but Arron Mosby, David Perales, Kwami Jones, and Kevin Atkins are proven commodities. Altogether, this is arguably the best defensive line in the Mountain West.
Fresno State also boasts a solid secondary with the addition of talented UCLA transfer Elijah Gates.
Despite some unimpressive statistics last season, the Bulldogs are aggressive on defense and will look for the momentum-changing takeaway. Ball protection is critical for Oregon to avoid giving Fresno State hope.
Fresno State will contend for the Mountain West's West division title in 2021 and has shown time and again over the past two decades that it can hang with any power-conference opponent. The key for Oregon against a good Bulldogs bunch in Week 1 is a fast start on both sides of the ball.
A veteran Bulldogs' defensive front will immediately test the progress made on the Ducks' offensive line. Should Oregon move the ball effectively on the ground early and lessen the degree of difficulty for Brown in his first start of 2021, the Ducks can win comfortably.
Prediction: Oregon 38, Fresno State 17
Podcast: Week 1 Preview, Predictions & Spread Picks
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.