Expectations are high for a veteran Ducks lineup in Mario Cristobal's second season
Oregon football enjoyed a half-decade at the pinnacle of college football, reaching its climax in the 2014 season. The Ducks claimed their third conference championship in five seasons, which earned them an invitation to the inaugural College Football Playoff. Oregon then smashed defending national champion Florida State in the Rose Bowl behind Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.
The 2019 campaign marks another half-decade since that memorable run, and Oregon's undergone considerable transformation. The Ducks stumbled to 4-8 just two years removed from the playoff, precipitating the first coaching hire from outside the extended Rich Brooks tree in four decades. Willie Taggart spent all of one season in Eugene before departing for Florida State and leaving the reins to Mario Cristobal.
A product of the University of Miami, a surprise winner as head coach at FIU, and finally an assistant to Nick Saban, Cristobal brought a new perspective to Oregon. The program that became the West's trendsetter with a hyper-speed offensive style is now one of the most physically imposing squads heading into 2019. That approach combined with veteran leadership makes the Ducks intriguing contenders to return to the playoff, five years after they were a part of the first edition.
Three Reasons Oregon Will Reach the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. Justin Herbert
Herbert emerged as a bright spot in the dim 2016 season. The quarterback impressed in his freshman debut and showed progress when available during an injury-shortened 2017. The buzz ahead of Herbert's junior campaign was that the signal-caller was destined for the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft -- and he might still be. Only, it's the 2020 draft instead of '19.
Herbert stunned plenty of pundits when he announced his return to Oregon for his senior campaign, despite the 2019 draft class being widely considered thin at quarterback. Herbert's decision to start for his fourth consecutive season sets the tone in an expectation-heavy season. Should he match the lofty promise set before him during an otherwise dismal 2016, Herbert can write his name in Oregon history alongside that of Mariota.
2. College football's most veteran offensive line
Much of the attention heading into the season lies on Herbert, which is to be expected. Breakout rising sophomore running back CJ Verdell will also generate plenty of buzz after an outstanding freshman season that included the game-winning touchdown run vs. Washington.
The success of both Herbert and Verdell hinges largely on the offensive line, however, and Oregon's is the most veteran in the nation.
Offensive Lines with most career starts returning— Phil Steele (@philsteele042) July 10, 2019
1. @oregonfootball 153
3. @RaginCajunsFB 131
4. @TexasTechFB 115
5. @CycloneFB 114
6. @MSU_Football 113
7. @herdFB 111
8. @TXSTATEFOOTBALL 110
9. @BallStateFB 109
10. @UW_Football 107
Shane Lemieux, Jake Hanson, Penei Sewell, and Calvin Throckmorton all earned All-Pac-12 recognition in 2018. The fifth starter, Alabama transfer Dallas Warmack, isn't exactly a slouch, either.
3. A physical front seven
Shortly after the announcement of Herbert's return to Oregon for 2019, the Ducks scored another huge return in three-year starting linebacker Troy Dye. Dye's been the heart of the Ducks defense since his 2016 freshman campaign, and his leadership will be vitally important as a senior.
The return of Dye provides some balance to a defense that sustained a few noteworthy losses in leading pass rushers Jalen Jelks and Justin Hollins, and the surprising exit of coordinator Jim Leavitt. Despite having those holes to patch, Oregon could have one of the most formidable defenses in the Pac-12 with Dye heading a corps of returners that also includes talented lineman Jordon Scott, and secondary playmakers Thomas Graham Jr. and Jevon Holland.
The addition of 5-star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux should offset the pressure Oregon loses in the departures of Jelks and Hollins.
Three Reasons Oregon Won't Reach the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. Losing Leavitt
Taggart's hire before the 2017 season brought with it some major victories in building a staff. One was Cristobal added from Alabama to coordinate the offense. The other was wooing Leavitt from Colorado, where his tenure reversed the Buffaloes from the worst defense in the Pac-12 to one of the best. Leavitt worked similar magic at Oregon, particularly with stopping the run.
His replacement, Andy Avalos, comes from a Boise State program that flourished on defense. Living up to Leavitt's lofty standard, however, will be the difference in Oregon competing for the College Football Playoff.
2. Offensive inconsistency
It feels odd to state this about an Oregon football team, but the Ducks suffered through lulls in offensive production during the 2018 season. In three of Oregon's four losses, the Ducks scored a combined 60 points. In the fourth loss to Stanford, Oregon managed 31 points but let off the gas in the second half.
The offense didn't just go cold in losses, either. Oregon won its bowl game against Michigan State with just seven points.
Experience should translate to greater production, but it's not guaranteed. One of the few starting spots not retaining its 2018 starter is also noteworthy: Gone is reliable wide receiver Dillon Mitchell, Herbert's clear No. 1 option.
Two limited, albeit meaningful data points working against Oregon: The earliest a team that made the playoff ever lost was Ohio State in Week 2 of the 2014 season. That puts an added layer of pressure on the Week 1 matchup with Auburn in Arlington, Texas. Furthermore, the season-opening showdown in Texas sets the stage for a brutal first half of the schedule for Oregon, with road games against Stanford and Washington both falling before Oct. 20.
The second data point Oregon must work through: The Big 12 has missed the College Football Playoff twice. The Pac-12 has missed the field three times, and the Big Ten champion has been excluded each of the last three straight seasons. The ACC and SEC have not missed the playoff since its inception. That's no coincidence: The former three leagues play nine conference games, and the latter two only play eight. It absolutely makes a difference.
Oregon's "down" period has been relatively mild. The Ducks book-ended 4-8 and 7-6 seasons with a pair of nine-win campaigns, both of which included head-to-head victories over the Pac-12 champion (Stanford in 2015, Washington in '18). Their projected return to prominence isn't a long-awaited march in the vein of Texas or Miami; Oregon played for two national championships since the Longhorns or Hurricanes last played for one.
All the same, the popular pick for Oregon to return to the Pac-12 mountaintop -- and thus have a shot at returning to the College Football Playoff -- turns up the pressure on Cristobal. His team faces a similar proposition to 2018 Pac-12 champion Washington, which returned a veteran lineup and opened the season with a high-profile game against Auburn. If the Ducks can get past the talented Tigers in the season opener, it's far from smooth sailing: marquee conference matchups with Stanford and Washington are both on the road.
While the Pac-12 has taken a PR beating the last couple seasons, the notion a one-loss conference champion wouldn't make the playoff lacks a shred of precedent. The Pac-12 has sent two such teams to the playoff in its five-year existence and would have had a third with Stanford in 2015 had the Ducks not spoiled the party
Beat Auburn and at least split the Stanford-Washington series, and the Ducks are in. They have the pieces to accomplish exactly that.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 15
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 9-3 (7-2 Pac-12)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: N/A
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 8.5
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.