By now most have heard the sad tidings of the Pac-12 and Big-10 Conferences’ cancellation of all out-of-conference football games for the 2020 season. So much for the opener against pop-Cinderella North Dakota State University. Not to mention the week two clash of titans between the Ducks and the Ohio State Buckeyes, a game that likely would have played host to ESPN’s College Gameday.
In years past, the cancellation of non-conference games would not have greatly impacted the Ducks as they have routinely played cupcake FCS schools to begin the season (last season vs. Auburn being the exception). But this year many predicted that if the Ducks could start 2-0, the table would be set for an undefeated season and a berth in the College Football Playoffs. With the Bison and Buckeyes no longer on the table, that setting is now incomplete.
But let’s not burst our playoff bubbles quite yet. The Ducks have will now be swapping their September 12th game against Ohio State for a tilt against the Utah Utes. While not in the Buckeyes’ class, at least this year, the Utes are always a tough out. And instead of hosting the Buckeyes at Autzen, the Ducks will have to travel and play Utah in the not-so-friendly confines of of Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Despite the loss of a top-5 non-conference opponent, Oregon’s dream of an undefeated season and a college playoff berth is alive and well.
QB1 Catches a Break
The Ducks still have an intense quarterback competition taking place, with red-shirt sophomore Tyler Shough and graduate transfer Anthony Brown as the front-runners. And with the lack of the usual spring and summer practice schedules, that key competition remains unsettled. But with the cancellation of the North Dakota State opener, whoever wins the job will have an extra week to prepare for an opponent in Utah that is far less dangerous than Ohio State.
With the swapping out of the Buckeyes for the Utes, the Ducks offense will no longer face the tall task of trying to outscore Ohio State’s dynamic signal-caller Justin Fields, who is likely a first round pick in next year’s NFL Draft. The Ducks’ QB1 also won’t have to face one of the best cornerbacks in the country in Ohio State’s Shaun Wade, who would likely have blanketed Johnny Johnson III all night.
Instead, the Ducks will face a Utes secondary that lost their two best players in Julian Blackmon and Jaylon Johnson to the 2020 NFL Draft. Utah will be forced to rely on inexperienced guys like Tareke Lewis and other incoming freshmen. Whether it be Shough or Brown, the Ducks’ QB1 should be ready and able to exploit Utah’s secondary.
Utah’s Offensive Dropoff
In addition to the attrition in their secondary, the Utes lost huge pieces of their offense this past year. Last year’s All Pac-12 Conference First Team members Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss both graduated, leaving huge holes at both quarterback and running back.
Huntley threw for over 3,000 yards and 19 touchdowns while running for another five scores. Huntley was a staple in the Utes offense for three seasons and was vital in Utah’s Pac-12 Conference Championship run last year. South Carolina graduate transfer Jake Bentley will have a challenge building the locker room trust that Huntley took three years to create.
The other member of the tandem that made Utah so lethal in 2019 was all-world running back Zach Moss. Moss, who won Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year in 2019, ran for over 1400 yards and 15 touchdowns this past season. His phenomenal senior season was good enough for the Buffalo Bills to select him in the third round of the NFL Draft.
Unfortunately for the Utes, the man pegged to replace Moss, Devin Brumfield, has minimal experience as a lead back. The junior played sparingly his freshman season and only managed to rush for 260 yards and two touchdowns in 2019.
The amount of talent that left Utah’s roster in 2020 is eye-popping, as Coach Kyle Whittingham is being tasked with replacing all-conference players with inexperienced veterans and three-star recruits. While Whittingham always seem to find diamonds in the rough, those diamonds take time to polish, and it’s unlikely they shine brightly in the season opener. In any event, the 2020 version of Utah is just not the same team Oregon faced in the 2019 Pac-12 Conference Championship. With Utah’s attrition and lack of incoming experience, the outcome this year should be even more lopsided than last year’s 37-15 Ducks’ win.
Even though playing in Salt Lake City in September sounds intimidating, it’s not as intimidating as having to play Fields and the rest of Ohio State’s star-studded roster. Although a 2015 National Championship rematch against the real “OSU” at Autzen in September would be sweet, playing a rebuilding Utah team gives the Ducks a better opportunity for an undefeated season and a New Year’s Six Bowl, or perhaps a College Playoff Berth.
And who says we can’t see Ohio State in January?
Top Photo by: Tom Corno
Phil Anderson, the FishDuck.com Volunteer editor for this article, is a trial lawyer in Bend Oregon.
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