Oregon football's return from the depths of the Pac-12 back to the pinnacle looks like the beginning of another prosperous era in Eugene. A combination of veteran leadership and youthful talent buoyed the Ducks to their first conference championship in five years, and the program's fourth Rose Bowl Game in the last decade.
Offensive MVP: Penei Sewell, OT
Head coach Mario Cristobal called his sophomore offensive tackle one of the most talented players he's ever been around — and considering Cristobal's background as offensive line coach on national championship-winning teams at Alabama, that's serious praise.
Going with the sophomore Sewell over senior quarterback Justin Herbert for Offensive MVP was a tough call. Herbert's efficiency in the passing game proved vital to Oregon's philosophical approach, and he enters the Rose Bowl with 32 touchdown passes. But as the anchor on one of the best offensive lines in college football, Sewell made Herbert's efficiency possible with routinely clean pockets.
Sewell also helped pave the way for a rushing offense that has averaged more than 183 yards per game, employing a multifaceted rotation.
Defensive MVP: Troy Dye, LB
Dye finished one of the best defensive careers in Oregon history with a team-high 75 tackles, but that only scratches the surface of his contribution to a defense that ranked 10th in rushing yards allowed and ninth in points yielded.
Dye was Oregon's leading run-pursuer, got into the backfield for 9.5 tackles for a loss, dropped back into pass coverage with a pair of interceptions and four pass break-ups, and made two sacks with four quarterback hurries on pass-rushing duties. Statistically, Dye's choice for MVP is an easy decision; add his presence as a veteran leader and the four-year heart of an Oregon defense that underwent a dramatic metamorphosis, and Dye ranks as one of the all-time defensive MVPs at UO.
Best Freshman: Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE
The crown jewel of the Pac-12's highest-ranked 2019 recruiting class, Thibodeaux lived up to expectations. Thibodeaux's 14 tackles for a loss and nine sacks led a salty Ducks defense, and he hit his stride late in the season in the most critical juncture.
His performance in the Pac-12 Championship Game was simply dominant, including the first-ever punt block in the game's history.
Best Play of the Season: CJ Verdell's Run for the Roses
Despite a 20-0 halftime lead, Oregon's Rose Bowl bid looked to be in trouble in the fourth quarter against Utah. The Utes scored two touchdowns, one that included a successful two-point conversion, and were within one score after holding Oregon to a field goal in the third quarter.
Facing a third down against the nation's No. 1 rushing defense, Ducks offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo called Verdell's number. The sophomore running back responded with a 70-yard run, almost 14 yards more than Utah allowed ;per game coming into the Pac-12 title game.
"Just get to the end zone, man," Verdell said of his thoughts as he busted through past the secondary with only paydirt ahead of him.
Best Performance by a Player: CJ Verdell in Pac-12 Championship Game
Verdell had a slightly better statistical outing in a critical win over Washington State — Oregon's first defeat of the Cougars since 2014 — posting 257 yards. Against Utah, Verdell rushed for 208 yards.
But that those 208 yards were the most any ball carrier accrued against a Utah defense in five years makes it all the more remarkable. That he did so in the Pac-12 Championship Game only adds to the significance.
Verdell's effort beats out Brady Breeze's showing at USC in November, but spoiler: This space has reserved love for Breeze, as well.
Best Game (Team Performance): Rivalry Win over Washington
Oregon played more dominant games in 2019: The Pac-12 Championship Game and rout of USC both come to mind. However, the second-half effort against Washington set the table for those performances to come.
The Ducks had to rally from down two touchdowns in the second half against one of the most talented defenses in college football; Oregon's 35 points were the most Washington had given up to any opponent since the 2017 Fiesta Bowl. Herbert played one of the best games of his illustrious career, throwing for four touchdowns and leading the rally.
Plus, Oregon gets added bonus points for engineering a comeback on the home turf of its most hated rival.
Defining Moment: The Drive vs. Washington State
The 2019 Ducks matched plenty of milestones not reached since the magical 2014 season: One of the first was a win over Washington State. The October encounter in Autzen Stadium saw the Cougars score a touchdown with one minute left and take a one-point lead.
The subsequent drive was a gut-check moment for the Ducks in their quest to return to the Pac-12 title game. From Mykael Wright's long kickoff return to shorten the field, to Verdell breaking off a nice first-down run, and then Herbert's distribution of the ball — most notably two passes to Juwan Johnson, who made his presence felt for the first time on the season — everything clicked on that drive.
Biggest Surprise: Brady Breeze's Late-Season Emergence
Starting with the midseason blowout of Colorado, Breeze took a role of increased responsibility in the Ducks' secondary. Once November arrived, his play elevated to another level.
Breeze delivered a pair of game-changing plays at USC with a pick-six of Kedon Slovis and a fumble recovery in the red zone. After an overturned targeting call erased his would-be ejection from the Pac-12 Championship Game, Breeze made a beautiful read of Tyler Huntley to come away with just the third pick any defender made of the Utah quarterback all season.
Breeze also denied a pass that would have moved Utah into the red zone during the first half. Those four moments were all pivotal in Oregon's championship chase.
Biggest Disappointment: Three Red-Zone Plays from Perfection
A Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl berth are not accomplishments to be downplayed. Still, the line between Oregon making the College Football Playoff and not was as thin as the white-painted stripe marking the end zone.
In the Week 1 loss against Auburn, Oregon's offense moved the ball during the first half in a manner no opponent managed again until Alabama in the regular-season finale. That includes SEC Championship Game participants LSU and Georgia. The Ducks would have built an insurmountable lead were it not for a dropped third-down touchdown pass that preceded a missed field goal, followed by a botched option exchange Auburn ran back the other way.
A similar red-zone failure in the loss at Arizona State looms large. Oregon was stuffed on a fourth-down run, ending a drive that if converted, would have put the Ducks ahead 14-7 and changed the tenor of the rest of that game.
Senior That Will be Missed the Most Next Season: Justin Herbert, QB
Herbert's dedication to the program through four years and three coaching regimes provided stability that set the Ducks on this course to the Rose Bowl. He was the leader of a senior class about which Cristobal said: "I'm very passionate about that because the world would be a better place if you had guys that would grind out like they did, if that was the way it was for everything. They deserve all the credit in the world."
Herbert committed to restoring Oregon football to prominence. Mission accomplished.
Player to Watch in 2019: Mase Funa, LB
Funa positioned himself as a primary contributor for the Oregon defense early into his freshman campaign, and finished 2019 as one of the team's most dangerous playmakers. Funa finished the regular season with 8.5 tackles for a loss, trailing only Dye and Thibodeaux.
With Dye and Bryson Young set to graduate, Funa will be in position to emerge as a leader for the linebacker unit — and one of the top defenders in the Pac-12.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Quarterback Play
Herbert's departure after four years leaves an obvious hole. Tyler Shough is plenty talented and brings a dynamic, dual-threat element. However, his appearances were limited in 2019: He attempted just 15 passes, and while completing 12 with three touchdowns, it's much too small of a sample size to forecast just how effective he'll be as the No. 1 in 2020.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.