There’s a buzz building in Eugene. The Ducks have gotten off to a 3-0 start, and are welcoming College Gameday back to Eugene for the first time since 2014.
Fans and prognosticators alike are beginning to jump on the Oregon bandwagon, and many have the Ducks pegged as a sleeper for a conference championship or even a playoff berth.
There’s good reason to buy into the hype. The Ducks have many elements of a championship contender. They have promising skill-position players, a powerful offensive line, an aggressive defense and a coaching staff that looks to be hitting its stride.
Best of all, the Ducks have Justin Herbert, a superstar quarterback who has fans envisioning a Heisman trophy. Herbert hasn’t been perfect this season, but overall he’s put up big-time numbers, and he’s definitely lived up to his lofty preseason expectations as one of the best players in the country. Having such a difference maker at the most important position on the field makes the Ducks a threat to challenge even the best opponents.
Furthermore, a title run is very conceivable when considering the Ducks’ road is devoid of serious challengers. The PAC-12 lacks many true title contenders, and if the Ducks can take care of business against the Huskies and the Cardinal — the only ranked teams on their schedule — they’ll be heavily favored to run the table.
With their three overmatched non-conference opponents in the rear view, the Ducks are flying high, and expectations are mounting. However, standing in the way of a return to glory is a familiar foe — one who is no stranger to spoiling the Ducks’ visions of grandeur.
A Matchup Against Stanford
There is no school that sends shivers down the spines of Duck fans the way Stanford does. Yes, the Huskies are the Ducks’ arch-nemesis, but since the start of the century, they have served as little more — until their recent resurgence — than a punching bag for the Ducks. This decade, there have been two schools that have run the PAC-12: Oregon and Stanford.
In 2010, during the Ducks’ run to the national championship game, Oregon welcomed College Gameday to Eugene. The game featured the most electric offense in the country going against a workmanlike Stanford team fielding Andrew Luck, the best NFL quarterback prospect in a generation. The Ducks’ 52-31 blowout of the Cardinal propelled them to a conference title and their best season to that point in program history.
Of course, the Cardinal got their revenge in 2012 against perhaps the best Oregon team of all-time — featuring a young, promising Marcus Mariota — in a matchup that will forever live in infamy for Duck fans. That night, Stanford used a bullying defense and a ruthlessly efficient ball-control offense to stymie the high-flying Oregon attack, cementing an upset that kept the Ducks from taking Alabama’s spot in the 2013 national championship game.
These teams have since traded championship-crushing defeats and backbreaking blowouts. It’s fitting that when they meet this Saturday, it will again be with championship aspirations and national relevance on the line.
What This Game Means For the Ducks
Saturday’s matchup will go a long way towards revealing how far the Ducks have come since their well-documented demise under Mark Helfrich. While the Ducks have their highest AP ranking since 2015, they have faced little resistance so far this season. This game will determine whether or not that fast start has been merely a mirage.
Stanford has the talent to compete with Oregon’s blistering speed and overwhelming size for the first time this season. The Cardinal have one of the best playmakers in the country in running back Bryce Love, last year’s Heisman Trophy runner-up. Love is every bit as good as advertised, with sprinter’s speed and uncanny vision. So far this season teams have bottled him up, but what better time to start another Heisman-worthy campaign than against the Ducks, with Lee Corso and the Gameday gang front and center?
Furthermore, Love is now joined by more talented athletes than the Cardinal have ever assembled. A particular concern is physical phenom J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, a 6-3, 222-lb. freight train at wide receiver, who runs like a gazelle and high-points passes better than anyone else in the country.
Of course, the Cardinal also have their renowned defense, led by a nasty front seven, which seems to have rebounded from the uncharacteristic struggles of the past couple of seasons. The Ducks’ new-look offense will get its biggest test to date, playing against a defense that has historically smothered even the most dynamic offenses.
If the Ducks are able to best the ultra-talented seventh-ranked Cardinal, it will be a resounding declaration that their national-title-contending days are back. It will also be a signature win for Cristobal’s inaugural season, and it would vault the Ducks into serious playoff contention.
However, a loss would cripple the momentum that the Ducks have been building all year long. Another soul-crushing defeat at the hands of the Ducks’ most notorious foe would not only give Cardinal fans bragging rights for another twelve months, it would put quite a dent in the Ducks’ title aspirations this year.
It would be overstating the case to say that the Ducks’ season hinges entirely on their performance tomorrow, but this is a critical period for Oregon football, and the Ducks’ game against Stanford will say a lot about the program’s trajectory. After falling off the national radar, the Ducks have worked hard to rebuild the program, and this game will show whether they are ready to return to the spotlight.
Saturday night, after the dust has settled and the clock strikes zero, we’ll know whether the Ducks of old are back.
Morgantown, West Virginia
Top Photo by Eugene Johnson
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