The Oregon Ducks have kicked off the 2013 campaign about as well as they possibly could have, obliterating their first three opponents by a combined margin of 184-27.
In fact, that is one of the best starts in school history, nearly reaching the incredible start that the team experienced in 2010 when it defeated its first three opponents by a combined score of 186-13. That year, the Ducks finished the regular season undefeated and appeared in the National Championship Game.
While Virginia and Tennessee are not exactly weak opponents, competition always seems to pick up when conference play begins. The Pac-12 is one of the deepest conferences in the country, and even the weakest team is a threat to pull off an upset during any given week.
This year, the Ducks open Pac-12 play when they host Cal this weekend. The Golden Bears’ record may not reflect it, but they have been a tough team over the past couple of years. They fell only a touchdown short of beating Ohio State in 2012, and nearly upset Northwestern to open this season. Experience and consistency are what the team lacks, not talent.
With all that being said, recent history shows that Oregon is extraordinarily successful in its conference openers. In fact, over the past 30 seasons, the Ducks are 23-7 in their Pac-12 debuts, including a run of 14-2 from 1997 through 2012.
It is important to note, too, that those two losses since 1997 came against ranked teams, including a No. 1-ranked USC, in 2004 and 2005. This was a two-year period during which Oregon’s program was in a bit of a lull compared to the preceding success of Joey Harrington’s teams and the following Chip Kelly-led teams.
In 2011, the Ducks won big over Arizona 56-31, led by what was then a school record-setting performance by running back LaMichael James, who managed to post 288 yards on the ground (Arizona head coach Mike Stoops said after the game, “We just couldn’t find a way to stop him.”).
Last season, Oregon had one of its greatest wins in a conference opener, defeating Arizona 49-0. This was a Wildcats team, mind you, that finished the 2012 season at No. 7 nationally in total offense, averaging 526 yards and 38 points per game. On top of shutting them out, the Ducks allowed the Wildcats only 243 yards on 84 plays, less than half of their season average.
This year, the Ducks look to continue that success against the season’s first conference opponent, Cal. With a bye giving Mark Helfrich an extra week to prepare his team for the Golden Bears, Oregon should be ready to go, come Saturday. While no one should sleep on this Cal team, led by intriguing freshman quarterback Jared Goff, Oregon’s history against the Bears should be comforting to fans.
Since 1980, the Ducks have faced Cal in their conference opener six times, and have won four of those games. However, the two losses were both on the road, and were each by three points or fewer.
On top of that, the last time the Ducks hosted the Bears at home for a conference opener was in 2009. As most Oregon fans will remember, this was one of the biggest and most significant wins in school history. That day, the Ducks won 42-3 over a No. 6-ranked Cal team, propelling the program to an elite level that it has yet to leave.
California last defeated the Ducks in 2008. Since then, Oregon has won four straight in the series by a combined score of 159-48. Even more encouraging is the fact that Oregon has won seven straight conference openers against any opponent.
In fact, to find the last time the Ducks lost a conference opener against an unranked team, one must go all the way back to 1996 when the team fell to Washington State 44-55.
At this point, these trends are just that – trends. The result of the game will come down to preparation and execution. Nonetheless, there is something to be said for Oregon’s ability to prepare for the step up into conference play and take down Pac-12 foes year after year.
These patterns are especially encouraging given the opponent of Saturday’s matchup. The Golden Bears always put up a good fight, but Oregon’s recent success in conference openers combined with the fact that Cal is 1-2 and is still in the process of adapting to its new “Bear Raid” offense, trends in recent history bode well for the Ducks.
The game kicks off in Autzen Stadium at 7:30 p.m. PT, so be sure to tune in.