Oregon grew into one of Pac-12 football’s two pace-setters since 2009, splitting four of seven conference championships with rival Stanford in that time.
But with roster turnover and new, growing threats from divisional foes Washington and Washington State, the Ducks face arguably their most difficult path to the top of their conference yet.
With 11 games against Power Five conference competition, and more road games in Pac-12 play than home contests, Mark Helfrich’s bunch must navigate some rocky waters in 2016. Here are Oregon’s 12 regular season games ranked from easiest to most difficult.
12. Sept. 3 vs. UC Davis
Oregon traditionally hosts an opponent from the Football Championship Subdivision early in the season, but such opponents are not necessarily equal. To wit, perennial Big Sky Conference title contender Eastern Washington gave Oregon a handful last season in Eugene.
Don’t expect the same of a UC Davis team, coming off an 11th-place finish in the same Big Sky.
11. Sept. 10 vs. Virginia
Virginia makes the cross-country trek to Eugene for new head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s second game at the helm. This is the return date of a 2013 encounter, wherein the Ducks left Charlottesville 59-10 winners.
The Cavaliers are rebuilding under Mendenhall, so don’t expect much of a fight when they visit Autzen Stadium.
10. Nov. 26 vs. Oregon State
Rarely can one expect to see an in-state rivalry game rank so poorly when assessing a schedule -- especially a rivalry as contentious as the Civil War. Though the Ducks have won eight in a row, the Beavers have a knack for giving their counterparts all they can handle, as last year’s surprising 52-42 outcome demonstrates.
Consider this ranking a testament to the overall strength of Oregon’s schedule more than a slight on Oregon State, though the Beavers are facing a monumental rebuilding project in head coach Gary Andersen’s second season.
9. Sept. 24 vs. Colorado
Here’s where things start to get interesting. Colorado’s a program showing consistent improvement under head coach Mike MacIntyre, and the Buffaloes should reach their first bowl game since 2007 this season. When a potential postseason squad ranks just ninth in a preseason strength of schedule outlook, it says a lot about the team’s docket.
Last year in Boulder, the Buffs gave Oregon their most competitive game since joining the Pac-12 five years ago.
8. Oct. 29 vs. Arizona State
Last season’s meeting in Tempe produced one of the most dramatic finishes of the entire college football campaign. That game set an impossibly high standard, especially given the uncertainty awaiting Arizona State in the campaign to come.
The Sun Devils experienced mass turnover on the roster, as well as the departure of numerous assistant coaches, most notably offensive coordinator Mike Norvell (now the head coach at Memphis). Arizona State should take a step back in the Pac-12 South this year.
7. Oct. 21 at Cal
Once a program jockeying with Oregon on the way to the conference’s mountaintop, Cal fell well behind in the late 2000s. Sonny Dykes has made strides in his first three years, but the Golden Bears still look up at the Ducks.
Cal enters 2016 starting a new quarterback for the first time since Jared Goff assumed the reins in '13. The Bears’ outlook is shrouded in uncertainty as a result. With the weeknight kick and home-field advantage, however, this remains one of the iffier dates on Oregon’s schedule.
6. Sept. 17 at Nebraska
Oregon sees a coach it knows well in Mike Riley, the longtime Oregon State leader, entering his second year at Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers endured some growing pains adjusting to new schemes, but finished the year with an impressive win over the Ducks’ Pac-12 mate, UCLA. Nebraska should be better than its sub-.500 finish of 2015, and a raucous crowd is sure to welcome the Ducks into Lincoln for one of the most interesting non-conference dates of the 2016 calendar.
5. Nov. 5 at USC
Oregon’s rise to prominence in the Pac-12 came at the expense of USC, the conference’s standard bearer for the previous decade.
The Trojans return a talented lineup, particularly on offense. USC features one of the best offensive lines and wide receiver corps in the nation. Despite some uncertainty on defense, a bevy of 4-and-5-star talent should be up to speed by the time Oregon visits L.A. Coliseum.
4. Oct. 1 at Washington State
Washington State shocked the Pac-12 last October, beating the Ducks in a double-overtime thriller at Autzen Stadium. That victory served as an important launching point for the Cougars’ best season since 2003.
Washington State’s 2016 team looks to be even better, a legitimate contender for the Pac-12 North with talented quarterback Luke Falk leading the way, and the Cougars get the benefit of home-field advantage.
3. Nov. 12 vs. Stanford
Oregon-Stanford has grown into the preeminent game on the Pac-12’s late-season calendar. The Ducks’ win last November on The Farm effectively kept the Cardinal out of the College Football Playoff -- consider it a receipt for the 2012 season.
Though the Pac-12’s top two teams for seven years straight, both face question marks ahead of the 2016 campaign. This year’s installment in the burgeoning series carries significant implications not only for the season to come, but the direction of the changing Pac-12 North.
2. Nov. 19 at Utah
Nothing more profoundly crystallized the shift in power structure within the Pac-12 last season than Utah’s demolishing of Oregon at Autzen Stadium. It was a perfect storm of a good Utah team playing near-flawless football and exploiting some badly wounded Ducks.
While a repeat of last year’s thorough deconstruction seems unlikely, Kyle Whittingham has another good lineup in 2016, and the always-boisterous Rice-Eccles Stadium audience gives Utah a considerable home-field advantage.
1. Oct. 8 vs. Washington
Thirteen years. It’s been 13 years since a Washington team has beaten an Oregon squad, a mark indicative as much of the Ducks’ prowess in that time as it is the Huskies’ underachievement.
The 2016 Washington Huskies are, on paper, the program’s best incarnation since '01, when they were coming off a Rose Bowl run.
More than a decade’s worth of bragging rights and serious implications to the Pac-12 North rest on an early-season date, at a juncture in the season Oregon could still be finding its identity.