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DUCKS BEAT: Talented Oregon is Pac-12 favorite, but with roster turnover title push might be a year away

PMG FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Led by junior CJ Verdell, Oregon has one of the deepest groups of experienced running backs in the country.Since the Pac-12 called a reverse and decided to try to pull off an abbreviated football season, the Oregon Ducks have been viewed as the conference's best (perhaps only) team with a shot at participating in the College Football Playoff.

But, that seems like an extremely long shot.

To qualify for the playoffs, Oregon (or USC/Arizona State?) would have to go 7-0 and, given the lack of national respect for the conference, also need the chaos that is 2020 to impact other contenders.

The national championship is a fine goal for the Ducks under Mario Cristobal, who enters his third season guiding a program that won the Pac-12 and the Rose Bowl last season.

But it shouldn't be the main goal in 2020. Far from it.

Perhaps if Outland Trophy winner Penei Sewell had returned, national aspirations would make sense. But Sewell, the best lineman in the country, decided to opt out. The decision makes sense for a projected high NFL draft pick.

As Cristobal has noted, Oregon has one of the youngest — perhaps the youngest — roster in college football. So there was going to be a learning curve in 2020 even before the pandemic.

Instead of a national title, the Ducks and their fans should count 2020 as a success if they get in a seven-game season, and win most of those.

I'm not arguing that Oregon shouldn't target a title. But the season scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7, against Stanford without fans at Autzen Stadium is best viewed as a launching point for legitimate national championship contention in 2021 and beyond.

On the field, the quarterback and five offensive linemen are new starters — and Pac-12 champions traditionally have experience at those positions. Add in the arrival of Joe Moorhead as the offensive coordinator, and the learning curve figures to be challenging.

The role of Moorhead, who replaces Marcus Arroyo (now head coach at UNLV) as OC and quarterbacks coach, is perhaps the most intriguing storyline in this abbreviated season. The Ducks offense sometimes underachieved under Arroyo. More proof of that can be seen in Justin Herbert's dynamic play for the L.A. Chargers. Bringing in a coach of Moorhead's experience — he was the play-caller for some very productive offenses, and comes to Oregon after two seasons as head coach at Mississippi State — might have been the biggest recruiting win of a very productive offseason for Cristobal.

Here, in no particular order, are storylines of interest heading into the opener:

Will youth prevail? — Oregon might have fewer than 10 seniors in its regular rotation on offense and defense, depending on how position battles play out. Thus the reason some believe these Ducks are overrated — though until we see some action, predictions are little more than guesswork. Therein lies the argument that, no matter how many games the Ducks win this fall, the experience for young players up and down the roster will be valuable and show us if this really is a program ready to be a national player.

Offense filling big shoes — All eyes are always on the quarterback, and after playing all of 61 snaps over eight games in mop-up duty behind Justin Herbert, redshirt sophomore Tyler Shough appears to have earned the starting job after a competition with senior transfer Anthony Brown. An official announcement had not been made at the time this is being written, but Shough practiced with the No. 1 offense throught fall camp.

COURTESY PHOTO: OREGON ATHLETICS - Tyler Shough (left) and Anthony Brown battled throughout camp to be the Ducks starting quarterback.Brown was the Boston College starter for three seasons. Don't be surprised if his mobility gets him onto the field in certain situations — though Cristobal said there is no plan to play guys at any position just to give them experience.

For Shough, this is a chance to make the job his before one of the Ducks' high-caliber recruits — true freshman Jay Butterfield or 2021 five-star Ty Thompson, perhaps — have an opportunity to impress.

The transition at quarterback will only be as successful as the transition along the offensive line. It's not so much a matter of talent — the Ducks have recruited well and have proven coaching. The question is: How well, and how quickly, the new O-line can mesh?

Cristobal, who knows a thing or two about offensive line play, has praised the effort and versatility he's seen in fall camp.

In the middle of the offensive line story is West Linn's Alex Forsyth. A redshirt junior, Forsyth is expected to take over at center. Forsyth has played 91 snaps (none at center) over the last two seasons, but Cristobal recently praised the 6-4, 305-pound Forsyth for his leadership and ability to communicate — a huge part of the center's job.

Redshirt sophomore Steven Jones appears to be the first to try to replace Sewell at left tackle, always a vital position for protecting the QB's blindside.

Can Oregon create explosion plays?

With juniors CJ Verdell (2,238 rushing yards), Travis Dye (5.7 yards per carry) and Cyrus Habibi-Likio (17 rushing touchdowns) all experienced running backs, figure the Ducks will rely on their ground game to set the tone and wear down defenses. But to separate themselves, the Ducks will need to be able to generate chunk plays, something Oregon struggled with last season.

Senior receivers Johnny Johnson III and Jaylon Redd and sophomore Mycah Pittman lead a receiving group that includes intriguing newcomers such as sophomore Devon Williams and true freshman Kris Hutson.

How good can the D be?

I'm guessing quite good.

Sure, the Ducks graduated top tackler and four-year starter Troy Dye, but the eye-popping influx of young linebacker talent should be fun to watch and a second year under defensive coordinator Andy Avalos should make Oregon more efficient, too.

Among those helping the transition at linebacker are senior Dru Mathis, junior Isaac Slade Matautia and sophomore Mase Funa, with true freshmen Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe among those pushing for time.

Other than running back, Oregon's most experienced position is the defensive line, where senior Jordon Scott's 37 starts is by far the most for any Duck. His 95 tackles (11 for loss) don't begin to explain the significance of Scott's ability to win the line of scrimmage since he arrived from Largo, Florida. 

PMG FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Austin Faoliu (99), along with fellow senior Jordon Scott, gives the Ducks a strong foundation on the defensive line.Next to him, senior Austin Faoliu has made 16 starts, and that pairing is one reason the defensive line is one of the most settled positions for the Ducks.

Uber-talented sophomore defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux said his goal each week this season is to grade out perfectly. That is unlikely, but his presence will give pause to opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators.

The defensive backfield was hit hardest by players opting out, with safeties Brady Breeze and Justin Holland and cornerback Thomas Graham forgoing the season.

But with Deommodore Lenoir deciding to play after initially opting out, the Ducks have a cornerback who has made 27 consecutive starts and is motivated to be among the best in the nation at his position.

The departures in the secondary open the door for talented sophomores Mykael Wright, Verone McKinley and Jamal Hill to step up. Same for senior Jordan Happle, the Jesuit High grad who recently transferred from Boise State.

Can Oregon take advantage of its schedule? Whether intentional or not, the Pac-12 did the Ducks a favor with the schedule.

On paper (and we all know what that's worth), Oregon's three tougher games among the six are the last three. Sure, Stanford's David Shaw is a good coach who has had his share of success against the Ducks. But the Cardinal had major roster turnover even before the pandemic, so catching them in the first game is probably good timing.

Washington State on the road and UCLA at home follow. The Cougars have a new coaching staff and the Bruins have struggled to recruit under Chip Kelly. Certainly it's a better cross-divisional matchup than USC, ASU or Utah.

If the Beavers are healthy come the day after Thanksgiving, I expect the battle formerly known as the Civil War will be a test in Week 4.

Cal, the team seen most likely to challenge Oregon in the North, plays host to the Ducks Dec. 5. And the six-game schedule wraps up with Washington at Autzen Stadium.

Of course, there's a reasonable chance COVID-19 will have a say in how many of these games happen. So, yeah, the Ducks can dream big. But the measure of success in 2020 might end up being the amount of football played and how the Ducks can use it to strengthen future championship aspirations.


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