From the end of the aughts into the 2010s, the annual meeting between the Oregon Ducks and Stanford Cardinal defined the Pac-10/12. One of the two won every conference championship from 2009 through 2015 and accounted for two Rose Bowl, a Fiesta Bowl, and an Orange Bowl win over that time.
While not a traditional rivalry, both the stakes of their matchups and the contrast in their styles gave Oregon-Stanford the feel of a rivalry. Meanwhile, the identity of the Pac-12 can be traced through the success of each program.
Mike Bellotti's hire of Chip Kelly as offensive coordinator in 2007 was a game-changer, elevating a good Oregon program to national title-contending in short order. The Ducks' hyperspeed offense prompted a wave of like-minded coaching hires around the Pac-12 in the early part of the last decade, with Arizona adding Rich Rodriguez, Arizona State bringing in Todd Graham, Cal looking to Sonny Dykes, and Washington State tabbing Mike Leach.
But as Stanford rolled off three conference championships in four seasons, other programs took notice of the Cardinal's hard-nosed approach. Washington brought in Chris Petersen in 2014, Cal hired Justin Wilcox in 2017, and when Willie Taggart unexpectedly left Oregon after one year, UO brass promoted Mario Cristobal.
With Cristobal employing elements from his time alongside Nick Saban at Alabama, Oregon returned to the peak of the Pac-12 in 2019 using a physical brand of defensive ball and punishing opponents at the line of scrimmage on offense. The contrasting portion of the Oregon-Stanford series is no longer a factor, with the Ducks style more closely emulating that of Cardinal coach David Shaw. But the stakes are again high with the early tone being set in the Pac-12 North race.
Stanford at Oregon
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 7 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Stanford -10
When Stanford Has the Ball
The story of Stanford's uncharacteristically poor 2019 begins with its offensive line. Typically the strength of any Cardinal team, injuries piled up early in the season — most notably potential All-American Walker Little. The situation became so grim that midway through the campaign, Shaw and his staff sought walk-ons to add up front.
The front five is more of an uncertainty heading into 2020 than it was back in the spring, the result of Little opting out. Still, the unit should be much improved from a season ago all the same. That's to the benefit of quarterback Davis Mills, thrust into the lineup after another high-profile injury last year to K.J. Costello. Mills is more than competent and has an outstanding corps of pass-catchers to lean on: Michael Wilson, Connor Weddington, and Simi Fehoko. Fehoko came on strong late in 2019 and showed off big-play ability reminiscent of former Stanford standout J.J. Arcega-Whiteside.
Paramount for the Cardinal offense, however, is establishing a consistent run. Doing so has ironically been an albatross for the program after a decade straight of featuring some of the best rushing attacks in the country. Although the Oregon front seven is undergoing some change — most notably replacing four-year starting linebacker Troy Dye — Jordon Scott and Kayvon Thibodeaux make for one of the most fearsome line tandems anywhere in the country.
If Stanford cannot get any ground game working on them, the reliance on the pass could spell turnover opportunities for a talented secondary. That includes veteran Deommodore Lenoir, an initial opt-out who decided to return in October.
When Oregon Has the Ball
Oregon's first conference championship since 2014 and the emotional Rose Bowl Game defeat of Wisconsin marked the culmination of an outstanding career for some noteworthy Ducks. Quarterback Justin Herbert said goodbye in style after four years leading his local team, and an excellent offensive line put their hands in the turf together for the last time.
Were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, the cornerstone of that line — potential No. 1 overall draft pick Penei Sewell — would provide the foundation for a largely rebuilt unit. Instead, it's going to be a much different look up front for the Ducks. How the new group acclimates in real-time, against a Stanford front that includes outstanding pass rusher Thomas Booker, will dictate the pace of Saturday's contest.
So, too, will the adjustment to a new starting quarterback. Herbert's now thriving in the NFL with the Los Angeles Chargers, leaving Tyler Shough to run the show. Shough's drawn praise for his skills, but has no high-stakes experience. The Ducks may need to rely on running back C.J. Verdell a lot early, but only if the line can create holes for the talented running back.
Last year's Oregon win was a rock fight, a war of attrition that would have been ideal for a Stanford win back in the days of Shaw vs. Kelly. Instead, the physical and low-scoring affair benefited the Ducks. Another similarly paced contest could be in store on Saturday with both teams feeling out their offenses.
Stanford could have an edge with its more experienced quarterback and standout wide-receiving corps, but Oregon boasts the more experienced defense. If the Cardinal's offensive line issues from a season ago persist, it's Thibodeaux's time to feast.
Prediction: Oregon 24, Stanford 17
Podcast: Week 10 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.