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Oregon Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Ducks' Schedule

Oregon Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Ducks' Schedule

Oregon Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Ducks' Schedule

Oregon's fall from the top of the college football perch was swift. The Ducks' return to the top could play out just as quickly.

In his first full season as head coach, Mario Cristobal oversaw a 9-4 showing that was capped off with a 7-6 win over Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl, underscoring that this version of Oregon differs vastly from the offensively innovative teams of the 2000s and early 2010s. However, the stifling defense and physical line play that may define Oregon now could prove just as successful.

A bevy of returning experience on both sides of the ball makes up a potential College Football Playoff-crashing lineup. How realistic Oregon's championship aspirations might be could be evident as early as Week 1, when the Ducks play SEC foe Auburn in Texas. Likewise, Oregon's Pac-12 title chops will be tested early on with the renewal of a burgeoning rivalry.

12. Sept. 14 vs. Montana

Once a powerhouse in Div. I-AA, and then FCS, Montana has fallen on some uncharacteristically challenging times in recent years. The third and final of Oregon's three non-conference dates should give Mario Cristobal ample opportunity to divvy up playing time to reserves before the Ducks embark on their Pac-12 schedule.

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11. Sept. 7 vs. Nevada

College Football Rankings: Nevada

Former Arizona State assistant coach Jay Norvell successfully introduced a pass-happy offense at Nevada that will have the Wolf Pack in the fight for the MW West in 2019. Despite breaking in a new starting quarterback, the Pack's scheme will give the Oregon secondary a workout, but the Ducks' physicality on both lines should exhaust the Mountain West visitors.

10. Nov. 30 vs. Oregon State

College football rankings: Oregon State

A rivalry game earns some additional credit when compiling a ranking such as this, even if Oregon has largely dominated the Civil War for years. A lopsided loss to the Beavers in 2016 marked a low point for the Ducks during their dismal campaign, but the program's quick recovery could result in the '19 edition being a final step before Oregon returns to the Pac-12 Championship Game for the first time since '14.

9. Oct. 11 vs. Colorado

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The 2016 season presented Oregon opponents with lengthy losing streaks against the Ducks an opportunity to finally break through. Colorado was one such opponent, scoring a 41-38 win in Autzen Stadium that snapped a six-game skid dating back to the 2001 season's Fiesta Bowl. Before that, Oregon won each of the meetings in the Pac-12 era by an average margin of 38.2 points per game. The 2016 loss came just before '19 Ducks starting quarterback Justin Herbert took over behind center.

8. Nov. 16 vs. Arizona

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The 2018 campaign was largely a resurgent one for Oregon football, but the Ducks' visit to Tucson just before Halloween demonstrated the work UO still has to do to regain powerhouse status. Khalil Tate — stymied for most of the game in Oregon's 2017 win at Autzen — worked well in tandem with running back J.J. Taylor, who confounded the Ducks' defense. Both are back for the Wildcats, giving the revenge game factor to this one just a little bit more emphasis.

7. Oct. 5 vs. Cal

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Just before Oregon soared to the head of the Pac last decade, it jockeyed with Cal for the conference's second billing behind then-national power USC. The Golden Bears have yet to bridge the gap, with the lone win since 2008 coming in overtime during the — you guessed it — '16 season. With Justin Wilcox cultivating a physical brand of football in Berkeley comparable to Cristobal's approach in Eugene, this one has the potential to be a slugfest.

6. Nov. 2 at USC

College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

Beginning in the 2001 season, at least a share of every Pac-10/12 championship for a decade straight belonged to either Oregon or USC. The Ducks are widely considered favorites to add to the two programs' collective dominance of the league in 2019, and their placement in the race should be clear heading into the final month stretch. The USC wide receiving corps may be the best Oregon faces in 2019, though questions about the Trojans' quarterback situation persist during the offseason.

5. Nov. 23 at Arizona State

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Some of the Pac-12's most thrilling games of recent years pit Arizona State against Oregon. The Ducks' win in Autzen Stadium a season ago knocked the Sun Devils from the Pac-12 South race, ending with a controversial nod to Oregon's escape from Tempe in 2015. Add Arizona State's final-minute field goal to win at home in 2017, and three of the series last four have been the conference's most nail-biting finishes.

4. Sept. 21 at Stanford

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Stanford

The preeminent Pac-12 series in the first half of the decade regained its stature in 2018: College Gameday, two Top 25 teams, and a wild finish Stanford stole in overtime. Certainly, the memories of last season's late, blown lead stayed with the Ducks during the offseason — not that this budding rivalry needs any added juice. With seven straight conference championships between them from 2009-15, and two of the most physically minded head coaches in the Pac — David Shaw and Mario Cristobal — this already has the ingredients for an early-season classic.

3. Oct. 26 vs. Washington State

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No opponent has had Oregon's number for the last half-decade quite like Washington State. Starting with an overtime win at Autzen Stadium in 2015, Washington State has won every matchup for four straight seasons. Before the current streak, Mike Leach's Cougars vexed Oregon even in defeats. The 2013 game was a bizarre back-and-forth the Ducks had to pull away in late. Oregon was blitzed early in last season's matchup at Martin Stadium, the electricity of a program-first visit from College Gameday energizing the Cougars.

2. Aug. 31 vs. Auburn (Arlington, Texas)

Much like rival Washington a season ago, Oregon's campaign kicks off with a high-profile, Week 1 matchup against Auburn that could make or break the team's playoff hopes. While an early loss is hardly disqualifying for playoff contention, no team has ever rebounded from losing in Week 1 to make the final field of four. Auburn's coming off an emphatic final win of a somewhat disappointing 2018, returning a veteran corps — much like Oregon. A win in AT&T Stadium could launch the Ducks into the national conversation early. As an assistant on Nick Saban's Alabama staff, Cristobal was a party to a 3-1 record against Gus Malzhan's Tigers.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Auburn

1. Oct. 19 at Washington

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

The rivalry game against Washington is pretty much always the most anticipated game on Oregon's schedule; few rivalries in the nation, let alone the Pac-12, have as much animus as this one. However, it's been rare in the series history that both programs were viable championship contenders. Oregon's overtime win at home a season ago may have set a tone to change that. Chris Petersen's established Washington as a perennial Pac-12 pace-setter, as it was from the 1970s into the '90s. Coming off a nine-win 2018, Oregon's experienced lineup appears poised to return the Ducks to the standard set earlier this decade.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.