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By Jason Vondersmith/Portland Tribune/A special win can kick-start special season for Oregon

COURTESY PHOTO: WADE RACKLEY/AUBURN ATHLETICS - Seth Williams figures to be a leading receiver this season for Auburn, which opens against Oregon.After blowing a 31-0 lead and losing the Alamo Bowl in December 2015, and then going 4-8 with Mark Helfrich, 7-6 with Willie Taggart, and 9-4 with Mario Cristobal, it's time for the Oregon Ducks to take the next step in their recent evolution.

Improvement to 10-2 and a berth in the Pac-12 title game could happen this season. I'll shy away from "should" happen, because it wouldn't be prudent, given UO's opening game against the Southeastern Conference's Auburn and, arguably, its four toughest Pac-12 games, all on the road.

The Ducks have an experienced and pro prospect quarterback in Justin Herbert and a good offensive line, although the offense had one drive for seven points at last sighting in the Redbox Bowl. And the defense has a new coordinator in Andy Avalos, and a lot of depth and talent.

Other than the road schedule, three early concerns would be whether Cristobal and offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo can effectively game-plan and make adjustments against good coaching, a lack of explosiveness on offense — meaning game-changing running back and big-play receiver — and does the defense really jump from 55th nationally to be a force in the Pac-12?

Will the Ducks rise up and be national players? It's still unknown.

Center Jake Hanson stated outright: It's the Ducks' year, finally.

"We've talked about how it's very realistic that we can win the conference and get to the (national) playoff," Hanson said.

But, whereas the Ducks could go 7-0 at home, it's all about road performance, starting with Auburn at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Linebacker La'Mar Winston said the Ducks have to step up away from Autzen Stadium, plain and simple. "You want to be in those positions," he said. "Those (winning) teams dominate and execute in those realms."

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn was the offensive coordinator against the Ducks in the 2011 national title game, and brought a competitive Arkansas State team to Autzen a few years later. He's generally regarded as an offensive guru, and he took over calling plays for Auburn's bowl game last December and the Tigers beat Purdue 63-14. Yes, Malzahn will call plays against the Ducks.

A dual-threat true freshman, Bo Nix, starts at quarterback, after beating out redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood. But he doesn't appear to be a typical true freshman. He had more than 12,000 career total offense and 161 total TDs — both Alabama prep records — and led Pinson Valley to consecutive Alabama Class 6A state titles. The 6-2, 205-pound Nix, the son of former Auburn QB Patrick Nix, has been groomed to be an Auburn quarterback, stating: "It's a goal of mine that I've had ... as far as I can remember all the way back to throwing the football in the yard with my dad."

Nix participated in spring ball, which gave him an early start on preparing to be the Auburn QB. Malzahn praised his attention to detail, intangibles and "giving us the best chance of being successful."

Cristobal watched high school film of Nix: "He does it with his arm and feet. As a competitor, he fights for every single inch. He has tremendous command of offense; a great system fit (for Auburn)."

The Tigers, who sport experienced offensive linemen, want to run the ball to take heat off Nix. Oregon linebacker Troy Dye said "the game knows no age," but defensive back Deommodore Lenoir said Auburn starting a true freshman makes him happy, and "I want to welcome him to college football ... (with a) pick-six."

Auburn has a good defense, led by defensive linemen Derrick Brown, Big Kat Bryant, Tyrone Truesdell, Nick Coe and Marlon Davidson. It'll be a challenge for UO's offensive line.

"I don't recall seeing a defensive line as good as this in a long, long time," Cristobal said. "They're massive human beings, very explosive and very technically sound."

The D-line anchors an Auburn defense that "is about as impressive as you'll see," the UO coach added.

So Herbert and his offensive crew have their challenge. The Ducks will need to establish the run game — C.J. Verdell, Travis Dye, Cyrus Habibi-Likio, Darrian Felix, etc. — and the Tigers expect Herbert to test them downfield. (Although it remains to be seen who steps up at receiver for Oregon).

A tough road schedule starts Saturday against Auburn, but I'm of the thinking that Oregon and its experienced quarterback, solid offensive line and improved defense will set the tone for the season by beating the Tigers.

And the Ducks are, after establishing a physical identity, bigger and stronger on their lines.

Now, there could be some "woulda, coulda, shoulda" — one of Helfrich's favorite lines — after the game, but if Oregon wants to make its season special, it starts Saturday against a good SEC team.

THE PICK: Oregon 31, Auburn 27

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