Another season of transition for Oregon football kicks off in 2018, but the Ducks embark on a campaign with higher expectations than they faced a season ago. Though the Willie Taggart era lasted only one season, retaining Mario Cristobal as head coach provides stability. Cristobal overachieved in his last head coaching role at FIU, then flourished as offensive line coach at Alabama before arriving in Eugene.
Oregon also retains defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, whose miraculous work for 2016 Pac-12 South champion Colorado translated immediately at Oregon in '17. The Ducks' strides defending the run with a young front seven a season ago could carry over into 2018, which would make Oregon one of the most formidable defenses in the Pac-12. But much of the focus will be on UO's offense.
With potential No. 1 NFL draft pick Justin Herbert (above, right) quarterbacking behind what should be an excellent offensive line, Oregon has the potential to compete for a surprise Pac-12 championship. The first half of the schedule, with home games against Stanford and Washington, will dictate the Ducks' title aspirations.
Athlon asked a few editors and college football contributors to share their realistic win/loss projection for Oregon in 2018.
Oregon Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2018
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Washington is the clear favorite in the Pac-12 North, but there’s a tight battle between Stanford and Oregon for second. The Ducks have a favorable path in coach Mario Cristobal’s first year, as both Washington and Stanford visit Eugene. Also, Oregon returns one of the conference’s top quarterbacks in Justin Herbert, and the defense will continue to improve behind coordinator Jim Leavitt. The biggest concern is the coaching transition. How will Cristobal and new play-caller Marcus Arroyo perform in their new roles? If everything falls into place, Oregon would seem to have an edge over Stanford for second. However, the coaching transition pushes the Ducks to 8-4 and third in the North behind the Cardinal.
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
I don't necessarily look at Oregon as a nine-win team, but I went down the Ducks' schedule and came up with nine games that I believe they will win. Keep in mind, this team was very, very good — especially on offense — when Justin Herbert was healthy last year. My forecast includes big home wins over Stanford and Washington and some struggles on the road (losses at Washington State, Arizona and Utah). The Pac-12 opener against Stanford will obviously be very important; win that and the Ducks should be 6–0 when Washington comes to town on Oct. 13.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
The Ducks are capable of having a huge season if they can keep Justin Herbert healthy -- a big if, to be sure. Still, this might be the best passing team in Eugene since Marcus Mariota was slinging it around and it wouldn't surprise me if the defense continues to improve and allow fewer big plays. Oregon also lucks out in the schedule department too but it's still a stretch to put them among the elite of the Pac-12 just yet. Still, there's a lot to like about what's going on with the program after quite a bit of upheaval and they may just be getting started.
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45)
Oregon is such a prime candidate for emerging as a surprise Pac-12 North champion, that should the Ducks accomplish this it wouldn't even qualify as a surprise. They get both Stanford and Washington at Autzen Stadium, which is a huge advantage. Oregon also avoids USC out of the South. Considering the non-conference schedule is one of the weakest in the nation, the Ducks should roll into Pac-12 play against Stanford 3-0 with plenty of confidence and experience for its reserves. That can either be a negative — not game-tested enough ahead of a huge showdown — or provide the boost necessary to reel off some true momentum.
Justin Herbert's obviously the focal piece, but Tony Brooks-James has qualities reminiscent of LaMichael James. Should he break out as the No. 1 running back, after supplementing Royce Freeman the past two seasons, Oregon will be tough to stop on offense. The continued improvement of the defense, with standouts like Jalen Jelks and Troy Dye, is the wild card. Jim Leavitt proved what he can do at Colorado, and if he recreates the ball-hawking, turnover-generating style Nick Aliotti employed in his time as UO defensive coordinator, there's no limit to what this team can accomplish.