A pivotal 2021 season could be Oregon's launching point back into the national title picture
Their advancing to the Pac-12 Championship Game was, in and of itself, reflective of the oddities of the pandemic season. Oregon finished with more losses than bitter rival Washington, but COVID-19 protocols that contributed to the cancelation of their scheduled matchup also landed the Ducks in the title game.
The 2021 campaign promises a return to some level of normalcy, and offers Oregon an opportunity to claim a third straight Pac-12 championship — and this one without an asterisk attached.
5 Storylines to Watch During Oregon's Spring Practice
1. Quarterback competition
Tyler Shough won the quarterback vacancy left at the conclusion of Justin Herbert's remarkable four-year Oregon career. Herbert, the 2020 NFL Rookie of the Year, left a huge void and Shough never quite filled it. Despite flashes of brilliance, Oregon coaches ended up splitting reps between Shough and Boston College transfer Anthony Brown.
Shough entered the transfer portal and landed at Texas Tech, leaving an offseason quarterback competition in Eugene that features Brown and a cast of new faces. Freshmen Jay Butterfield and Robby Ashford (redshirts who practiced with the 2020 team) and true freshman, early enrollee Ty Thompson will all vie for the job.
Don't expect a starter to be declared in the spring, but the coming weeks will set the course for the competition heading into the summer.
2. Offensive line progress
Ahead of its return to the Pac-12's pinnacle in 2019, Justin Herbert called the offensive line "the heart and soul" of Oregon football. Most of the players responsible for shaping that dominant unit in 2019 were gone in 2020, including likely first-round 2021 NFL Draft choice Penei Sewell.
Although the group changed members last season, the Ducks run-game production from 2019 to 2020 went largely unchanged. The Oregon offensive line also maintained a similar rate of sacks allowed last season as the year prior. With a bevy of returners like Alex Forsyth, T.J. Bass, Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu, and George Moore, the Ducks' front five in 2021 could be downright dominant.
It helps their job (and vice versa) that top ball carriers CJ Verdell and Travis Dye, and promising youngster Sean Dollars, are in the backfield.
3. More from Moorhead
Along the same vein, Oregon's run game stands to benefit greatly from its first real offseason with offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. Moorhead brought lofty credentials to Eugene from tenures as head coach at Fordham and offensive coordinator at Penn State, and oversaw the development of star running backs from Chase Edmonds to Saquan Barkley to Kylin Hill.
With a truncated year to get acquainted, and now this spring season, look for more intricacy from the Ducks' offense in the fall that will begin its implementation in the coming weeks.
4. Defensive turnaround
While the quarterback competition promises to garner most headlines, the most important offseason development for Oregon comes on defense. The Ducks regressed considerably in 2020, giving up 29 or more points in four of its seven games. Opponents posted an average of 32 points per game in Oregon's three losses, which includes the 41 it gave up to rival Oregon State in an exciting Thanksgiving weekend contest.
Young stars made their names known for the Oregon defense in 2020, most notably Freshman All-American Noah Sewell. With Kayvon Thibodeaux and Mase Funa back in the front seven as well, the Ducks aren't without exceptional talent. After defensive coordinator Andy Avalos' departure for the Boise State head-coaching vacancy, it's up to Tim DeRuyter to turn around Oregon's production.
DeRuyter oversaw one of the most impressive, single-season defensive improvements in his first season at Cal, and by 2018, had the previously porous Golden Bears defense ranked among the nation's best. With the talent he inherits in Eugue, it's not unreasonable to anticipate similar results.
5. Preparing for a critical non-conference schedule
Oregon's original non-conference schedule, which included visits to Autzen Stadium by FCS juggernaut North Dakota State and perennial College Football Playoff contender Ohio State, was an unfortunate loss of the pandemic season. The 2021 slate still features a marquee matchup with the Buckeyes, but the Ducks must go to Columbus this September.
That early-season showdown looms large, even five months out. The Ducks', and potentially the Pac-12's playoff hopes, may well ride on how Oregon shows out at the Horseshoe. Before then, though, a Fresno State team built to contend in the Mountain West next season kicks things off. Oregon's opening two games rank among the tougher sets any team in the nation will play next season, and especially any playoff hopeful.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.