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

Reigning Pac-12 champion Oregon takes on one of the toughest schedules in the nation

Following a return to the Pac-12 apex and national prominence, the 2020 Oregon Ducks face a degree of uncertainty. If the campaign goes off as scheduled, the Ducks also face lofty expectations.

 

Returning almost every starter on an outstanding defense has Oregon as an overwhelming favorite to repeat as Pac-12 champions, and perhaps become the conference's first College Football Playoff participant since Washington in 2016. Doing so requires navigating one of the most brutal schedules in all of college football.

 

12. Sept. 19 vs. Hawaii

Last season's Mountain West Conference West division champion will undergo some changes in 2020, namely losing head coach Nick Rolovich to Washington State. Newcomer Todd Graham is a familiar face, however, coaching Arizona State from 2012-17. His last season in Tempe included a Sun Devils upset of the Ducks in current Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal's one season as defensive coordinator.

 

11. Oct. 31 at Arizona

Arizona's confounding nose-dive after a 4-1 start last season relegated the Wildcats to the Pac-12 South cellar. The 2020 campaign is pivotal for head coach Kevin Sumlin, whose team is something of a wild card. Highly touted quarterback Grant Gunnell is poised to take over as the full-time leader of an offense with enough pieces to be dangerous. Tucson has not been kind to Oregon in recent trips, most recently as the site of a shocking Wildcats blowout of the Ducks in 2018.

 

10. Nov. 28 at Oregon State

Oregon State improved by leaps and bounds in each of Jonathan Smith's first two seasons at the helm. The next step for the Beavers is making a bowl game after coming within seconds of riding their prolific offense to one in 2019. Oregon's in-state rival replaces some key pieces, namely quarterback Jake Louton and All-American wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins, but outstanding running back Jermar Jefferson returns.

 

9. Sept. 26 at Colorado

The short-lived Mel Tucker era in Boulder may not have produced a bowl bid, but Colorado knocked off some impressive opponents — most notably Arizona State — and took strong opponents like USC to the wire. Karl Dorrell inherits an intriguing roster rife with potential. The Buffaloes will pull off a big upset or two in 2020; there couldn't be a bigger upset than knocking off the Pac-12 favorites in Boulder.

 

8. Oct. 24 vs. Stanford

While it wouldn't necessarily be accurate to label Oregon-Stanford a rivalry, the series became the conference's preeminent matchup from 2009-15. Back then, it was a stark contrast of styles, but the Ducks have since adopted and thrive with a brand of ball very much akin to that which Stanford has used with David Shaw. The Cardinal's proven method for success took a hit in 2019, due in large part to a rash of injuries. Back at full strength, the Cardinal should bounce back in 2020. As for Oregon, drawing Stanford when it does could make this a trap: The Cardinal come to Autzen Stadium one week after the Ducks' body-blow game against another physical opponent, Cal.

 

7. Nov. 21 at Washington State

A new era begins on the Palouse with Nick Rolovich taking over for Mike Leach. While there are unknowns at Washington State — including the quarterback situation and the Cougars' acclimation to the Run-and-Shoot after running the Air Raid since 2012 — one certainty is that Rolovich can coach. Another fact: Washington State has been an exceedingly tough out for Oregon, winning four straight from 2015-18 and nearly stunning the Ducks a fifth consecutive time last October in Eugene.

 

6. Sept. 5 vs. North Dakota State

FCS juggernaut North Dakota State is not an opponent to be taken lightly — especially in Week 1 coming off an unprecedented offseason. The Bison have won eight of the past nine national championships in their subdivision, last year beating an outstanding James Madison side in an instant classic. The star of that NDSU team, quarterback Trey Lance, became the first freshman ever to win the Walter Payton Award, designated for the nation's premier offensive player in the FCS ranks. After throwing no interceptions and electrifying in both the passing and running game, Lance deserves to be in preseason Heisman Trophy conversations; expect him to enter the discussion if the Bison shock the defending Pac-12 champs.

 

5. Oct. 17 at Cal

A strong case can be made that this is one of the two or three toughest, if not most important games on Oregon's docket. When at full strength last season, the Golden Bears were among the most impressive teams in the Pac-12. Oregon alum Justin Wilcox has transformed Cal into a hard-nosed program with impressive defensive chops. With quarterback Chase Garbers back healthy to guide the offense, the 2020 squad could have the program's best shot at a Rose Bowl berth since the ill-fated 2004 bid. Oregon benefits heading into this road trip from having its bye week the Saturday prior, hence the lower ranking.

 

4. Oct. 3 vs. Washington

Rivalry games always take on their own unique life; especially so when the rivals in question are jockeying for divisional supremacy. Now add decades of true animosity, and you have a combustible situation. Washington faces some unknowns heading into 2020 after having set the pace in the Pac-12 for a few years under Chris Petersen, but first-year head coach Jimmy Lake played a vital role in restoring the Huskies to greatness. Expect a similarly hard-hitting, defensive-minded team comparable to those of the past half-decade to descend upon Autzen.

 

3. Nov. 7 vs. USC

Popular opinion suggests these are the two front-runners for the Pac-12 Championship Game in 2020 — and with good reason. Oregon returns a stacked defense with last year's breakout, first-year sensation Kayvon Thibodeaux leading the way. USC counters with a prolific passing attack and its own first-year sensation, quarterback Kedon Slovis, back for more. The Ducks gave the Trojans fits last season, but the 2020 USC squad should be more refined than the version Oregon trounced last November in Los Angeles.

 

2. Nov. 13 vs. Arizona State

Revenge is on the menu for Oregon after Arizona State spoiled the Ducks' College Football Playoff aspirations a season ago. Autzen Stadium will no doubt be rocking, but drawing what should be a better Sun Devils squad on six days' rest is a unique challenge. ASU quarterback Jayden Daniels had his national coming-out party against Oregon last November; he may well be in the Heisman hunt by this juncture of the campaign.

 

1. Sept. 12 vs. Ohio State

Perennial College Football Playoff contender Ohio State provides an early-season measuring stick for Oregon's own playoff worthiness. Ryan Day's offensive chops translated in his first full season as head coach for the Buckeyes, with the nation's third-highest scoring offense (46.9 points per game), which was led by two Heisman Trophy-caliber talents in Justin Fields and J.K. Dobbins. Dobbins is gone, but Fields returns to be the catalyst. The vaunted Ducks defense may not see a tougher challenge all season.

 

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

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