Just over two weeks remain until the Oregon Ducks open their season in a program-defining showdown against the Auburn Tigers. That game will be a strong indicator of what to expect from the Ducks in 2019. But it’s not the only tough matchup on their schedule.
In advance of such a critical season opener, it feels like a good time to dissect the three toughest games on the Ducks’ 2019 schedule. Winning the following three games will likely mean a conference championship appearance for Oregon, and could even put the Ducks in playoff contention. Losing them could cause a dream season to turn into a nightmare.
This one is obvious. Oregon opens the season against a top-15 opponent for the first time since 2011.
Auburn fields what will easily be one of the top-5 defensive lines in college football, along with a stout defense on the other two levels. Added together, that is the recipe for a top-10 defense.
The Tigers will be playing for their lives, as it is wholly possible that Gus Malzahn’s job will hinge on the result of this contest. Malzahn has struggled to find consistency as Auburn’s head coach, and this season is key to his retention. Another underwhelming season of offense would be disastrous for the seventh-year head coach and offensive playcaller. The pressure should be a cause for concern for Malzahn, as the Auburn offense is not set up for success in 2019.
The Tigers were ranked in the top-10 heading in to 2018, with a veteran defense and an NFL talent at QB in Jarrett Stidham. Despite the elite quarterback, Auburn could only muster 30 points per game on the season.
Now the Tigers are breaking in a new QB against a veteran secondary and an aggressive front seven. Auburn only scored 19.7 points per game in conference games, with three non-conference games severely inflating the season scoring average. Without Stidham to bail the tigers out of bad situations, the Tigers’ lackluster offense should take an additional step back.
Oregon should be able to move the ball after returning arguably the best offensive line in the country, a top-3 QB in Justin Herbert and a solid stable of running backs.
The situation at wide receiver is less promising, as Oregon will be breaking in three to four new receivers in the rotation, including the likely No. 1 option in Juwan Johnson. The receiving corps struggled to get open and catch balls in 2018, but the additions of Johnson, Mycah Pittman and Josh Delgado have upped the competition level in fall camp, leading many to believe that 2019 will be a resurgent year for the beleaguered corps.
The Ducks’ defense looks to be their best in years, with the aforementioned secondary ready to assert themselves as potentially the best on the West Coast. High-production veterans and highly touted youngsters are scattered among the other two levels of the defense.
The combination of the Ducks’ highly touted offensive and defensive units should be enough to overwhelm the Tigers, but will the desperation of coaching for his job lead Malzahn to a possibly career-saving victory?
The Huskies lost their all-time leading passer and their all-time leading rusher to graduation, and lost nine starters on defense, including multiple NFL draft picks. For any other team on the schedule, this would be marked as an easy win. Washington, however, has mastered the art of replacing players.
While they lost Jake Browning at QB, they have former Georgia starting quarterback Jacob Eason, along with several other viable young players fighting for a starting spot. At running back, Washington will likely use Salvon Ahmed — previously their No. 2 option at running back — as the primary rushing option. Defensively, Washington has a plethora of young, talented youngsters in line for a start. All things considered, Washington should have a talented, albeit young, team that is capable of playing with the best teams in the country.
Will the Ducks be able to exploit a young Husky roster to take their winning streak in the series to two, or will Chris Petersen assert himself as a premier coach in college football?
This pick will spark some controversy, but Washington State currently sports a four-game winning streak against the Ducks.
The Cougars, like the other two teams on this list, will be breaking in a new QB in 2019. How, with a new quarterback, is this going to be one of the three toughest games on the Ducks’ schedule? Simple. Mike Leach and his staff are the best recruiting group in the country — not at getting the best players, but at getting the right players.
Wazzu has been the developmental team for position coaches throughout the Pac-12, with Oregon taking several of their coordinators, and yet the Cougars have persisted. Leach coached them to their most wins under his tenure in 2018 — another year with a new QB.
Washington State typically employs an extremely aggressive defense, providing a chance to change the game on every single play. That sort of defense is conducive to a young QB’s success, as the offense often takes over with favorable field position and loads of momentum.
This team’s pass-happy offense and shifty, complicated defense have given the Ducks fits for several years. The Ducks’ seniors have never won a game against the Cougars, and they’ll be looking to go out with a win in their last chance.
Will the Ducks be able to snap their losing streak, or will the Cougars make it half a decade of beating Oregon?
The Ducks will field their best roster since 2014, but UO was dealt an extremely difficult schedule. They could rise to the level of the 2014 roster, or turn in another promising but ultimately disappointing campaign in 2019. The result of these three games will go a long way in determining how the Ducks fare this season.
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Natalie Liebhaber, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in the financial technology industry in Bozeman, Montana.
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