The Ducks will need to be playing at their best to survive their October and November slate
Wille Taggart's first season as Oregon Ducks head coach kicks off with mystery and promise.
Taggart arrives at Oregon, boasting an impressive track record for turning programs around. He transformed Western Kentucky from a winless mess into a bowl participant, leaving behind the foundation for the Hilltoppers to be perennial front-runners in Conference USA. He then went to South Florida, where last season's impressive finish has the Bulls poised for a potential Top 25 ranking in 2017.
At Oregon, Taggart has a much stronger base on which to begin building. The Ducks return a talented offense, with quarterback Justin Herbert; running backs Royce Freeman and Tony Brooks-James; and wide receiver Darren Carrington. The addition of defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt gives new direction to a defense undergoing a considerable overhaul.
The Ducks have the potential to break out in Taggart's first year — but they must navigate a difficult schedule in order to rebound from last year's 4-8 finish.
12. Sept. 2 vs. Southern Utah
Southern Utah made the FCS Playoffs two of the last four seasons, but the Thunderbirds slipped to the middle of the pack in the Big Sky Conference in 2016. That's where SUU is likely to reside again in 2017.
This game's an opportunity for Oregon to usher in its new era gently, assuming all goes according to plan. The schedule picks up immediately thereafter, so this is a prime opportunity to tune up.
11. Sept. 30 vs. Cal
Former Oregon defensive back Justin Wilcox returns to his alma mater for the first time as a head coach. Wilcox was hired to replace Sonny Dykes at Cal in January. His first season will bring some growing pains in the initial phases of a rebuild.
As a defensive coordinator, Wilcox's Washington and USC teams went a combined 0-3 against Oregon. While at Boise State, however, the Wilcox-coordinated Broncos defense grounded the up-tempo Oregon offense. That's unlikely to happen this time around, with the bulk of Cal's rebuild falling on the defensive end.
Handling the Golden Bears comes down to new UO defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt's unit withstanding the onslaught from Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin's side. As head coach at Eastern Washington, Baldwin oversaw a 592-yard, 42-point outpouring on the Ducks in 2015.
10. Nov. 18 vs. Arizona
When these programs last met, the Pac-12 championship was at stake and Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota sealed the Heisman Trophy. Much has changed since that December 2014 encounter; both Arizona and Oregon are coming off last-place finishes in their respective divisions.
Both teams should be improved from 2016, though implications as lofty as their last encounter are highly unlikely. Rather, this late-season matchup in Autzen Stadium — where Oregon beat Arizona in 2014 — could decide whether teams play in a bowl game.
9. Sept. 16 at Wyoming
Three-time FCS national championship-winning head coach Craig Bohl engineered one of college football's most impressive turnaround last season. Wyoming climbed from dead last in the Mountain West Conference, to hosting its championship game in the course of just one season.
The Cowboys play with a physical style reminiscent of Bohl's title-winning North Dakota State squads, which could provide an intriguing juxtaposition with Oregon's brand of football. Add the elevation of Laramie's War Memorial Stadium — which, at 7,215 feet is the highest in FBS — and this non-conference road trip could take a toll on the Ducks.
Oregonl also will have to contend with Josh Allen, one of the premier quarterbacks in college football.
8. Sept. 23 at Arizona State
Oregon owns a 10-game winning streak against Arizona State, which includes one of the highlights in the otherwise dismal 2016 season: a 54-35 rout.
Arizona State employs a new defensive coordinator this time around, former Baylor assistant Phil Bennett. The Sun Devils also are set to host under a sweltering desert sky; temperatures in Tempe in September average 100 degrees.
Conditions should be right for a shootout, much in the same vein as Oregon's last visit to Sun Devil Stadium. The Ducks left there 61-55 winners in overtime in 2015.
7. Sept. 9 vs. Nebraska
The writing for Oregon's disappointing season was scrawled on the walls of Nebraska's Memorial Stadium last September. The Ducks let an impressive road win slip away through a collection of self-inflicted errors, as they failed to convert on a pair of two-point conversions, and were penalized for a staggering 126 yards.
In much the same way last season's trip to Lincoln set the tone, the Ducks can chart the course for 2017 against the Huskers; this time, for the better.
6. Nov. 25 vs. Oregon State
On a rain-soaked day in Reser Stadium last November, Oregon's No. 121-ranked rushing defense gave up 310 yards, at 5.85 yards per carry, and the Ducks' eight-game dominance of the Civil War came to an end.
The Beavers' impressive win closed out 2016 on a high note for Gary Andersen's program, which rolls into 2017 with the potential to be the spoiler of the Pac-12 North. If Oregon State doesn't emerge as the division's surprise team, however, it could be Oregon. The rivals are both loaded with talented veterans.
Adding to the intrigue in this one, it marks the first time former 5-star recruit and Rose Bowl Game star Thomas Tyner will suit up in Autzen Stadium. However, he'll do so as an Oregon State Beaver after ending his medical retirement to transfer there in the offseason.
5. Oct. 21 at UCLA
Much like Oregon, UCLA enters the 2017 season as something of an enigma. The Bruins finished last season with a 4-8 record, mirroring that of the Ducks. Like UO, UCLA retains enough talent to come roaring back in a big way.
It looks like a make-or-break season for Bruins head coach Jim Mora, who oversaw an unprecedented stretch of success from 2012-14 — UCLA's only time winning nine-plus games in three consecutive seasons. Falling short in big games, coupled with last season's decline puts pressure on Mora in 2017, however. Among those big games his previous teams failed to win were matchups with Oregon. UO has won the only two games played against UCLA since Mora took over in 2012.
One reason for optimism in Westwood this season is the return of quarterback Josh Rosen. His play coming back from injury will be the difference in UCLA contending in the South — and perhaps ending its losing skid against Oregon.
4. Oct. 7 vs. Washington State
Washington State's ascent into the upper half of the Pac-12 began ostensibly in Autzen Stadium two seasons ago. The Cougars scored an overtime win in Eugene in 2015, ending an eight-game winning streak for the Ducks in this series.
In the season-and-a-half since, Mike Leach's Cougars have become legitimate contenders in the division. They should be once more in 2017, with quarterback Luke Falk back running the air-raid offense. His accurate passing will test an Oregon passing defense that struggled mightily a season ago.
3. Oct. 28 vs. Utah
The highlight of Oregon's 2016 season came in a late-season visit to Rice-Eccles Stadium, where Justin Herbert's touchdown toss to Darren Carrington denied Utah's bid for the Pac-12 South title. The Oregon upset of a nationally ranked Utah bunch also scored a measure of revenge for one of the Ducks' more embarrassing losses in recent years: a 62-20 Utes rout in Autzen Stadium in 2015.
Utah returns to the scene of that beatdown with a typical Kyle Whittingham-coached team: stacked on defense and special teams, and built to contend in the South. Oregon would love to play spoiler to the Utes once again.
2. Oct. 14 at Stanford
From 2009 through '15, every Pac-10/12 championship went through either Stanford or Oregon. The conference title implications cranked up the heat on what was the West's most exciting rivalry.
The series gets a new ingredient added in 2017. New Oregon coach Willie Taggart is a former colleague of Stanford head coach David Shaw, the two having worked alongside each other on the Farm from 2007-09.
Stanford's physical style of football provided the perfect contrast to Oregon's up-tempo play. That element remains, but Jim Leavitt's reshaping of the Ducks' defense will give Oregon an element more reminiscent of Stanford — eventually.
1. Nov. 4 at Washington
There may not be a more acrimonious rivalry in the Pac-12 than this border war between Oregon and Washington. The state-line bragging rights belonged to Oregon for over a decade, but Duck dominance came to an emphatic end in 2016. Washington's 70-21 deluge in Autzen Stadium signaled a change-of-the-guard atop the Pac-12 North power structure.
Washington figures to again be the team to beat in the North in 2017. But, with the rivalry coming on the home stretch of the regular season, Oregon has a prime opportunity to intensify the already heated matchup by complicating the Huskies' championship aspirations.
That means slowing down Jake Browning, the Washington quarterback who was a one-man wrecking crew of the Oregon defense a season ago.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.