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Oregon Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on Their Schedule

Oregon Ducks QB Justin Herbert

Oregon Ducks QB Justin Herbert

Oregon football has a new head coach for the second time in as many years -- something that last occurred when Ducks basketball legend John A. Warren served a one-year stint in the football job between two Tex Oliver tenures. That was in 1942.

Oregon Ducks RB Tony Brooks-James

While first-year head coach Mario Cristobal is in a historically anomalous spot replacing Willie Taggart, his debut campaign should usher in a step back toward the winning ways that defined Oregon since the latter portion of Rich Brooks' tenure in the 1990s.

Quarterback Justin Herbert's return behind center powers what should be an explosive offense. A favorable schedule, including one of the softer non-conference slates anywhere in college football, should ease the Ducks into Pac-12 play.

12. Sept. 8 vs. Portland State

Portland State has a track record for challenging FBS competition in recent years. The Vikings' signature win over Washington State in 2015 -- the Cougars' breakthrough season in an ongoing run of success -- helped fuel their run to the FCS playoffs. It's been rough sledding since, with last year's squad going winless. All the same, Portland State hung tough with BYU in the opener, then took Oregon State to the wire a week later before losing by a field goal.

Bruce Barnum's unconventional run-heavy offense can be difficult to strategize against, but the gap between the Vikings and Ducks is too pronounced to lead to any conclusion other than an Oregon romp.

11. Sept. 15 vs. San Jose State

The nation's next-to-worst rushing defense in 2017 finds itself up against an Oregon ground attack that averaged 5.2 yards per carry a season ago. Royce Freeman and Kani Benoit are gone, but Tony Brooks-James (above, right), Taj Griffin and company will find no shortage of opportunities to pile up yardage in Oregon's final tune-up ahead of conference play.

College Football Rankings: San Jose State

An important date a week later looms, so expect Cristobal and his staff to use starters as sparingly as possible and to keep the play-calling as vanilla as it can be.

10. Sept. 1 vs. Bowling Green

Bowling Green flourished at various times in the 21st century under head coaches with ties to Pac-12 programs: former Utah head coach Urban Meyer, and former Arizona assistant Dino Babers. Babers led the Falcons to a MAC title in 2015 before accepting the Syracuse job, and successor Mike Jinks has a long way to go before restoring the program to such heights.

College Football Rankings: Bowling Green

The good news for Bowling Green is it returns one of the most veteran starting lineups in the nation; the bad news is the core returning finished 2-10. Oregon should cruise in its season opener.

9. Nov. 23 at Oregon State

Last season's edition of the Civil War was a chance for Oregon to exorcise some demons. The 2016 Ducks were manhandled by a physical Oregon State rushing attack, but a receipt came in the form of a 69-10 romp.

College football rankings: Oregon State

Highlighting the Beavers' struggles in 2017 was the midseason departure of head coach Gary Andersen. Jonathan Smith's return to Corvallis provides stability, but Oregon State has a long way to go to contend with the upper echelon of the Pac-12. Despite a recent dip, Oregon's been solidly in that top tier for the better part of two decades.

8. Nov. 17 vs. Arizona State

A revenge game highlighting the Ducks' 2018 calendar falls late on the docket. Arizona State ended Oregon's time in the Top 25 abruptly last September, courtesy of some late-game heroics. Expect Autzen Stadium to be raucous from the onset, and the Ducks to play with an energy that denies the Sun Devils a shot at a final-minute upset.

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Where this falls on the schedule is interesting. Oregon could well be in the hunt for the Pac-12 North at this juncture, and the mystery surrounding Herm Edwards' hire as Arizona State's head coach should have some clarity. As two of an incredible five Pac-12 programs with first-year head coaches, this game is reflective of the general uncertainty shrouding the league in 2018.

7. Sept. 29 at Cal

Before Jim Harbaugh rescued Stanford football from the abyss, Cal and Oregon looked poised to be the budding Pac rivalry capable of wresting control of the conference away from USC. Oregon's 21-17 upset of the Golden Bears in 2003 removed any hope Cal had of contending for the conference crown, and kicked off the stretch in which six of eight matchups were decided by 10 points or fewer.

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Oregon won every game from 2009-15, mostly in blowouts to end the burgeoning rivalry feel the series had taken on in the previous half-decade. An overtime Cal win in 2016 restored some of that old feeling. Despite a loss in his first installment, former Ducks assistant (now Cal head coach) Justin Wilcox has a lineup capable of knocking off Oregon again in UO's first road game of 2018.

6. Oct. 27 at Arizona

Penalties and chippy play defined Oregon's authoritative win over Arizona a season ago. The Ducks contained Wildcats star quarterback Khalil Tate in a manner no other defense had since Tate's ascension to the starting job two months prior.

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With Tate captaining an experienced offense -- overseen by Pac-12 veteran coordinator Noel Mazzone -- Arizona will aim to pay Oregon back for last year's lopsided loss. This matchup pits the Ducks head-to-head against Kevin Sumlin, Arizona's first-year head coach and a popular name during the Ducks' short coaching search last season.

5. Nov. 3 vs. UCLA

Autzen Stadium crowds rarely need extra incentive to get rowdy, but the Nov. 3 audience will have added motivation when UCLA comes to town. The Bruins' first visit to Eugene since 2014 also marks the return of Chip Kelly, the former Ducks head coach who won three conference championships and appeared in a BCS Championship Game in his tenure. As offensive coordinator, Kelly also implemented the high-powered offensive style that has been Oregon's signature trait for the past decade.

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UCLA is yet another Pac-12 team with an uncertain forecast ahead of the season. Kelly's return to college coaching after a six-year absence coincides with a pivotal quarterback change in Westwood. The Bruins' identity should be more fleshed out after two months of action, and they might be surprise contenders in a wide-open Pac-12 South.

4. Oct. 20 at Washington State

Washington State has had Oregon's number in recent years. An overtime win at Autzen Stadium in 2015 kicked off an ongoing, three-game winning streak that included Cougars victories of 18 and 23 points the last two seasons.

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Even before Washington State began this winning streak, Mike Leach's teams had a knack for playing Oregon tough. The 2018 season is a pivotal one for the Cougars, with considerable roster turnover after three strong finishes from '15-17. Still, with this date in Pullman and coming fairly deep into the season, Washington State should be tuned up and primed to extend its winning streak to four.

3. Nov. 10 at Utah

After stunning Utah late in the 2016 season, Oregon again shocked the Utes a season ago with a 41-20 bludgeoning in Eugene. The Ducks' two wins scored some measure of revenge for an ugly loss to Utah in 2015, the Utes' last victory in the series.

NCAAF Top 25 Rankings: Utah

Kyle Whittingham -- the longest tenured head coach in the conference -- might have his best team since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. The preceding few months will provide some clarity to that end, but if Utah has the offensive chops to go with its always-stout defense, the Utes should be in the race for the divisional title when Oregon comes to Rice-Eccles Stadium.

2. Sept. 22 vs. Stanford

Oregon's rise to national prominence in the late 2000s/early 2010s coincided with the emergence of Stanford from Pac cellar-dweller to perennial contender. The Ducks and Cardinal made for great rivals, in part due to the very different styles each implemented. Oregon's explosive offense found a counter in the aggressive defensive style former coordinator Derek Mason implemented and since left under Lance Anderson's guidance.

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With Cristobal bringing Alabama influence to Oregon, the Ducks should have more similarities to David Shaw's Cardinal. But that won't mean any less intensity in the budding rivalry. Oregon can score its first signature win of the Cristobal era in the Ducks' Pac-12 opener.

1. Oct. 13 vs. Washington

The bitter border rivalry between Oregon and Washington began in 1900, and the 2018 installment is the series' 111th. Despite its long history and very real vitriol, the rivalry goes through stretches of being one-sided. Washington dominated from the latter-half of the 1970s into the first portion of the '90s, and Oregon reeled off 12 wins from 2004-15.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

The Huskies' two blowout wins in 2016 and '17 reversed course, signaling the shifting power dynamics of the Pac-12 North. With Chris Petersen and the Dawgs poised to contend for a national championship in 2018, Oregon is at risk of falling into the wrong end of a new trend in the rivalry. The flip side of that is if the Ducks can take advantage of home field and stun a loaded Washington bunch, they will be at the forefront of the Pac-12 title race at the midway point.

Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast: Games. Games. And more Games!

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