College football's nebulous peanut gallery has awaited Oregon's... return? ... with bated breath. The Ducks finished below .500 all of one season, 2016, but that was enough to spark some unrealistic expectations of how soon it would take them to be back to a title-contending level.
Don't believe me? Find some tweets from the Nebraska game in 2017.
Knee-jerk reactions aside, Oregon's progress since finishing 4-8 is impressive on its own, and undeniable. The Ducks went 7-6 in 2017, 9-4 last year, and are trending to a double-digit-win campaign — the program's first since reaching the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in 2014 — this coming season.
Quarterback Justin Herbert and a stout offensive line lead an offense returning 10 starters. The defense welcomes back seven players, including linebacker Troy Dye and tackle Jordon Scott. If Oregon can navigate through a difficult Pac-12 North schedule, and withstand a stiff challenge in Week 1, the wait for the Ducks' return to the top may not be long.
Just don't call it a comeback.
Athlon asked a few editors and one of its college football contributors to share their realistic win/loss projection for Oregon in 2019.
Oregon Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2019
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
With Justin Herbert back at quarterback and one of the nation’s top offensive lines in place, Oregon is primed to contend for the Pac-12 title in coach Mario Cristobal’s second year at the helm. The Ducks need to identify a couple of playmakers on the outside, but the 2019 recruiting class and a transfer from Penn State (Juwan Johnson) should provide immediate help. Similar to the offense, Oregon’s defense received a boost at the draft deadline when Troy Dye passed on the NFL for his senior year. Dye leads a group that held teams to 25.4 points a game last fall and is under the direction of new play-caller Andy Avalos. Personnel-wise, the Ducks are in good shape entering 2019. However, two questions hover over this team. Can Cristobal and his staff elevate this program to the next level and play with more week-to-week consistency? And most importantly, can the Ducks navigate tough road trips to Washington, Stanford, USC and Arizona State?
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Oregon's opener vs. Auburn in Texas isn't a make-or-break game, but it will provide us with a nice barometer of just how good this team can be. Oregon will have just as much talent as pretty much every team on its schedule, including Auburn, but the Ducks must make some progress on defense (with a new coordinator) and identify some playmakers at wide receiver. Oregon catches a break by not playing Utah, the team to beat in the Pac-12 South Division, but has arguably its three most difficult league games on the road — Stanford, Washington and USC. Beating Washington is the key to winning the division, but I have the Ducks losing that game, along with at USC, and beating Stanford in Palo Alto. This looks like a nine- or 10-win team.
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45)
When Willie Taggart was introduced as head coach in December 2016, he came to Oregon with a reputation for turning programs around — after tearing them down to the foundation and building all over. He didn't need to do that at Oregon, inheriting plenty of young talent.
The greatest contribution Taggart made to Oregon's rebuild in one season at the helm came in his coordinator hires. One was offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal, Taggart's successor and a former Nick Saban assistant. His approach reshaped the Ducks' style to a more physical one, and the experience he returns in 2019 makes this Oregon team especially qualified to succeed with such an approach.
It gets an immediate test out of the gate on a neutral field against SEC opponent, Auburn. If Oregon can win that one, look for the Ducks to get off to the races. The Ducks will have a chance to build serious momentum before an early-season date with Stanford, then the rivalry game at Washington. Both coming away from Autzen is a challenge, but Oregon draws Washington State — a thorn in the program's side since 2015 — at home.
Oregon's playoff credentials should be clearly stated by Halloween.