Year 1 of the Mario Cristobal era saw some highs for the Ducks in their road back to Pac-12 contention
First-year Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal arrived in Eugene in 2017 to serve as offensive coordinator on Willie Taggart's staff. The flag-bearer of the Pac-12 for the first half of the 2010s, Oregon dipped badly in short order. It hasn't taken long for Cristobal to get the Ducks pointed back in a positive direction.
With a background that includes a tenure at Alabama, and retaining defensive guru Jim Leavitt, Cristobal introduced a hard-hitting, physical brand of football to blend with the high-flying offense that defined the Ducks in the previous decade.
Oregon surged into the Pac-12 championship conversation in 2018 before some late-season setbacks dropped the Ducks from the race. But with some young playmakers on both sides of the ball, Oregon looks poised to be an annual contender in the conference again soon.
Offensive MVP: Dillon Mitchell, WR
Quarterback Justin Herbert came into the 2018 season with plenty of NFL draft buzz, and he showed plenty of flashes during the campaign. Helping Herbert look his best was Mitchell, one of the leading wide receivers in all of college football, and the clear choice for Oregon's offensive MVP.
Mitchell hauled in 69 passes for 1,114 yards and nine touchdowns. He's Oregon's first 1,000-yard receiver since Byron Marshall in the national runner-up 2014 season.
Defensive Co-MVPs: Troy Dye and Justin Hollins, LBs
Dye recorded a team-high 101 tackles in the regular season, once again asserting himself as an invaluable leader of the Oregon defense. But Hollins tallied 12 tackles for a loss, five sacks and four forced fumbles. Who to name Ducks defensive MVP?
In the words of Richard Dawson's Damon Killian from the 1987 classic The Running Man, "Hard decisions call for hard solutions."
Both Dye and Hollins were key to an outstanding run defense, which has held opponents to just 3.76 yards per carry. Dye functioned as the reliable stalwart, with Hollins delivering big plays. There weren't many linebacker tandems in college football better.
Best Freshman: C.J. Verdell, RB
The question of who would emerge to fill the massive void left by Oregon career rushing leader Royce Freeman was answered early on, with Verdell seizing control early. Verdell was complemented in the backfield by fellow freshman Travis Dye, proving the Ducks ground attack is in good hands for the foreseeable future.
Of the two, Verdell has posted the gaudier stat line: 975 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns, 312 receiving yards and another two scores. His two-way ability makes him an invaluable asset for the Ducks' offense heading into 2019.
Best Play of the Season: Blake Maimone's Fake FG
There were more important plays in Oregon's season, but Maimone's touchdown pass to Jacob Breeland in the win over UCLA was shocking, brilliantly executed, and fun. That it came against former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly's new team made it all the more poetic, as it's the kind play Kelly would have pulled from his bag during his tenure in Eugene.
Best Performance by a Player: C.J. Verdell in the Civil War
In an excellent freshman season, Verdell saved the best for last. He rushed for four touchdowns and caught a fifth in Oregon's 55-15 deconstruction of rival Oregon State, for the Ducks' eighth win in the regular season. The running back's showing serves as a springboard for the Ducks into 2019 and possible contention in the Pac-12.
Best Game: A Rivalry Reclaimed
Oregon locked down its border rivalry with Washington for more than a decade, but the streak ended in spectacular fashion in 2016 when the Ducks surrendered 70 points. Another blowout loss in 2017 suddenly positioned Oregon on the wrong side of a streak in the bitter rivalry.
The 2018 edition of this hostile conference series featured two teams ranked in the Top 25 and coaches with similar philosophies. The emphasis on physicality and defense that Washington head coach Chris Petersen has established with the Huskies is similar to what Cristobal has brought to Oregon. And these similarities bore out in an outstanding game.
The two teams traded haymakers all the way to overtime when Verdell's touchdown run made the difference. Autzen Stadium erupted, and suddenly, the Oregon-Washington rivalry looked like it could become the marquee series in the West for years to come.
Defining Moment: Two Saturdays in October
Autzen Stadium has a reputation as one of, if not the toughest place to play in the Pac-12. That reputation played a central role in Oregon's resurgent 2018, particularly in the overtime win over Washington. The home crowd combined with stiff winds to force the extra frame and notch a marquee Ducks win.
As good as Oregon was at home, it struggled almost as much on the road in 2018. One week after beating Washington, UO faced Washingon State on the Palouse. The raucous, Martin Stadium crowd fueled by a College Gameday visit harrassed the visitors -- but not as much as Gardner Minshew, who blitzed Oregon for an insurmountable, early lead.
The juxtaposition of the two games best defined the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Oregon's 2018 campaign.
Biggest Surprise: Travis Dye's Rise
As quickly and unexpectedly as freshman C.J. Verdell manned the feature-back duties, fellow frosh Travis Dye emerged down the stretch to give Oregon a potent, two-prong attack.
Oregon's best teams typically had a two-man rushing approach on which to rely, like LaMichael James with Kenjon Barner or Barner and De'Anthony Thomas. The same was true of Alabama teams on which Cristobal worked as offensive line coach or the coach's FIU teams. Kedrick Rhodes and Darriet Perry combined for almost 1,600 yards in 2011.
Now, with Dye and Verdell, Oregon's set for similar double trouble against opposing defenses in the coming years.
Biggest Disappointment: Road Woes
The vexing final minutes of regulation in a September, overtime loss to Stanford could qualify as the most disappointing single moment for the Ducks. However, the Washington win catapulted Oregon into the forefront of the Pac-12 championship chase just a few weeks later. No harm done in the Stanford loss.
The two weeks after beating Washington were a different story. Oregon fell behind early against an amped Washington State and the second-half rally fell short. There was no rally effort to speak of the following Saturday in a road blowout at Arizona. The Ducks' next road game over that stretch was a tense back-and-forth affair at Utah, and a third straight away loss in Pac-12 play.
Senior That Will be Missed the Most Next Season: Jalen Jelks, DE
Oregon's defensive resurgence in the past two seasons coincided with the emergence of Jelks as a star up front. Jelks' individual stats were down slightly in 2018 from the prior campaign, but he still racked up an impressive 7.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks in the regular season en route to first-team All-Pac-12 recognition.
Jelks' explosiveness and playmaking ability up front will not be easily replicated.
Player to Watch in 2019: Thomas Graham Jr., CB
Already a fixture in the Oregon secondary through his first two years in the program, Graham is a prime candidate to make the step to All-American in 2019. Graham's outstanding on the ball, deflecting 16 passes in the regular season to go with three interceptions.
Those are already gaudy numbers, but Graham has the potential to do even more. Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt has a track record for defensive backs emerging as high-round NFL draft picks, and Graham's the next in line to do so.
From a breakout standpoint, remember the name Jaylon Redd. The speedy wide receiver has accounted for five receiving touchdowns with another on the ground and has the potential to develop into a consistent Swiss Army knife kind of player in the Ducks' offense.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: The Justin Herbert Situation
Rumors regarding Herbert's future have been prevalent throughout the season. Despite coming into 2018 with buzz as a surefire first-rounder, chatter that Herbert would return for his 2019 senior campaign swirled.
With mock drafts projecting him in the top 10, and a recent report suggesting he's leaving Oregon after the bowl game, Oregon needs contingencies in place for a new quarterback.
Braxton Burmeister was thrown into the fold perhaps before he was ready in 2017, replacing an injured Herbert. Oregon struggled mightily with the true freshman at the helm. Burmeister has attempted just 10 passes this season. If Herbert does leave, the quarterback position becomes the most pressing uncertainty of Oregon's offseason.