Posted on August 2, 2021
Each preview is comprised of nine sections: Overview, Best-Case Scenario, Worst-Case Scenario, What Should Happen, What Must Happen, Greatest Strength, Biggest Concern, Deciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.
Nothing is set in stone as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer. In the end, preseason prognostications often prove to be no better than good guesses at best.
The 2020 season was nothing like anyone expected, but Oregon’s 4-3 record may have been the most surprising result of the shortened year.
COVID opt outs were arguably the driving force behind the Ducks’ defeats, particularly along the defensive side of the ball, leading to UO’s most points allowed per game since the 2017 season.
And after sputtering in the final games of the year, quarterback Tyler Shough transferred to Texas Tech, leaving Anthony Brown in the driver’s seat to win the starting role in 2021.
But with what might be the Pac-12’s strongest one-two punch in the backfield, an All-Conference linebacker corps, and arguably the leading candidate for the Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, Oregon is primed for a run at its third-straight Pac-12 Championship.
Brown starts every game of the season, constantly improving as true freshman Ty Thompson guns for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart.
The quarterback battle in practice leads to dominance on game day, as Brown’s decision-making in Run-Pass options separates himself from Thompson.
The threat of a running quarterback paralyzes opposing defenses, caught between defending the pass and the scamper. The real benefit is to the running backs, CJ Verdell and Travis Dye, who exploit open holes with the linebackers and defensive backs focused on the eyes of the quarterback.
And in the red zone, Brown uses his legs and accurate passing to propel the Duck offense to the top of the Pac-12 in efficiency.
Although falling short at Ohio State in Week Two, Oregon rattles off an 11-win season with a spot in the Playoff on the line in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Worst Case Scenario
The defensive issues prove to be more than a COVID-fluke, leading to conference losses against Washington and Utah on the road, along with shaky performances against Stanford and California.
Despite the strength of Kayvon Thibodeaux along the line, Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe on the second level, and Mykael Wright in the secondary, first-year defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter struggles to implement his system.
The growing pains are highlighted with a blowout defeat to Ohio State in Columbus, as the fan base is left to reminisce about the 2019 defensive prowess the Ducks once had.
Despite the defensive struggles, the offense saves the day on most Saturdays, leading to a nine-win season and Alamo Bowl appearance, where the Ducks reach 10 wins.
What Should Happen
After missing almost the entire 2020 season due to a torn meniscus, Flowe proves to be the missing link on the UO defense.
Rated as the nation’s No. 1 inside linebacker in the Class of 2020, Flowe anchors DeRuyter’s system along with Sewell, shutting down opponents from Week One.
The duo’s strength make Oregon one of the country’s top third-down defenses, forcing punts at one of the highest clips in nation.
Taking advantage of the extra opportunities, Brown consistently punches scores into the end zone with a highly efficient red zone offense. Leading the Pac-12 in both third down defense and red zone offensive efficiency, the Ducks are almost unstoppable.
Dominating time of possession week-in and week-out, only miscues on offense keep opponents within striking distance.
But stepping up on the brightest stages, the Oregon defense find ways to win close games, as the Ducks win their third-straight Pac-12 Championship.
What Must Happen
The issues on defense last year were well documented, and remedying the flaws are arguably Priority No. 1 in Eugene. Assuming Mario Cristobal handles those problems as expected, the attention turns to the quarterback.
The Ducks return four starters along the offensive line and are the beneficiaries of consecutive elite recruiting classes, adding depth to both sides of the ball.
And despite the transfer of short-yardage specialist Cyrus Habibi-Likio out of the backfield, Verdell and Dye are more than capable of leading the UO rushing attack to the top of the Pac-12.
While on the edges, Mycah Pittman, Johnny Johnson III, Jaylon Redd, and Devon Williams make up what might be the strongest receiving corps in the Conference of Champions.
But all that could be washed away with poor quarterback play.
In limited action, Brown was efficient passing the ball and effective running, yet he was only utilized in select situations designed for him to succeed. It might be a different animal when opponents game plan to slow him down, learning his tendencies and weaknesses all week long leading up to kickoff.
In a perfect world, Thompson would swoop in, take the reins, and light the world on fire. But relying on a true freshman quarterback when a grad transfer is unable to get it done is a dangerous gamble.
No matter which player starts, he will have the weapons around him to win. In many ways, there’s no excuse for failing to get the job done.
Cristobal’s offense is arguably the most complete in the Pac-12.
Other than the questions under center, there isn’t a flaw to point to. Injuries in the backfield hampered the run game at times last season, but the expectation for the quarterback to run the ball masks any qualms about depth in the run game.
At the same time, the Oregon receivers are dynamic.
Speedy and experienced, the wideouts provide deadly options that open the field for what might be the most overlooked weapon on the Duck offense: its tight ends.
D.J. Johnson is a truck who caught three touchdowns last year, apparently destined for a breakout season in ’21 after the departure of Hunter Kampmoyer.
With an offense that’s primed to be deadly efficient in the red zone, Johnson should be utilized with success. And with depth along the line, the Oregon offense should scare any opposing coordinator it faces.
Giving up 405.9 yards per game in 2020, the UO defense can’t have a repeat of last year.
Former defensive coordinator Andy Avalos is now the head coach of Boise State, and DeRuyter has been brought in after revamping the Cal defense over the past several seasons.
DeRuyter’s track record raises expectations in his first season in Eugene, primarily because Oregon has higher caliber athletes to work with. Clamping down on the 5.4 yards per play is arguably Step One, and it all could begin along the defensive line.
Thibodeaux leads the way, but a second and third All-Conference talent must emerge. With a talented secondary and linebacker group, the improvement might be most needed up front.
Oregon’s strong recruiting classes arguably come with a double-edged sword: personnel decisions.
The depth brought in by buckets of four-star recruits puts a premium on talent evaluation by the coaching staff. Navigating the egos and determining what’s best for the team could make the difference at the end of the season.
With so many highly regarded players, someone’s feelings are going to get hurt. If the coaching staff starts playing favorites or doesn’t react quickly enough to poor performances, cracks could begin to form among certain position groups.
Blame could be thrown around after defeats, as players feel they are being short-changed.
Decisive leadership at the top might be needed at times, and messages may need to be sent to starters who are slacking.
It’s a tough business, but the staff might have to make it clear that nobody’s starting role is secure.
Nonconference play begins in Eugene with a matchup against Fresno State. Cristobal’s team will be ready to go, but all thoughts will likely be on the matchup with Ohio State in Week Two.
One of the few games that will have a direct impact on the Playoff, the true road game at The Horseshoe figures to be a bellwether for the strength of the Pac-12.
A lopsided defeat wouldn’t be as shocking as an Oregon victory, and keeping the game respectable might be the most realistic expectation.
A cupcake matchup against Stony Brook follows, giving UO the chance to rest starters and break in Thompson.
The conference season begins with an easy test against Arizona in Eugene, and a road game against Stanford the following week. Although somewhat of a trap game on The Farm, the Ducks should start the season no worse than 4-1.
Winnable games against California, UCLA, and Colorado follow, leading to a November showdown with Washington in Seattle. With the potential to be 7-1, the game at Husky Stadium might end up as the deciding-battle for the North Division championship.
And after dominating the series over the past two decades, an Oregon victory is expected.
Washington State comes to Eugene next, with a road test against Utah following. The season ends with the traditional rivalry against Oregon State.
If the Ducks play as expected, the games for concern are Ohio State, UW, and Utah. Each are on the road, and all three could end in defeat. But with a defense primed to rebound and an offense set to carry the torch, a 10-win regular season is a fair expectation.
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