The Decade of the Duck. That’s what it was supposed to be. The years between 2010 and 2020 were shaping up to be a decade of dominance by the University of Oregon, and in particular by the Oregon Ducks football team.
The early 2010s saw the program’s meteoric rise to college football’s national stage justified. The latter-half? A regression that led to plenty of questions about whether this decade is, as Oregon Athletic Director Rob Mullens once put it, the Decade of the Duck.
Now just days away from their opener, the 2019 Oregon Ducks football team has an opportunity to cap the decade with what could be one of the most memorable seasons in program history. They could also end it with a season that raises more questions than provides answers.
THE DECADE OF THE DUCK…OR ALMOST
Making an appearance in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game after an undefeated 2010 season to open the decade, Oregon appeared in three BCS Bowls and the inaugural College Football Playoff between 2010-2014. They were a top-10 finisher from 2010-2014 and started the decade with a 60-8 record, with statement wins in two Rose Bowls, one Fiesta Bowl and one Alamo Bowl.
Then, the stutter.
Oregon’s fall from college football’s spotlight was not drastic. They still managed a 9-4 record in 2015 and have seen just one losing season, 2017, since. The biggest difference between the early and latter parts of the past decade has been that of identity. Oregon has seen three head coaches in the past three years and just as many defensive coordinators. They haven’t been able to assert themselves against opponents like they used to, and road woes have proved troublesome for the Ducks. It hasn’t been the earth-shattering fall from grace those who oppose Oregon like to think, but it hasn’t been pleasant either.
A POSITIVE OUTLOOK
That said, expectations for the 2019 Oregon Ducks football team are high. There’s plenty of justifications for such expectations, too. Head coach Mario Cristobal, now in his second year in the role, has shifted the culture in Eugene back to one of confidence and winning ways, and senior quarterback Justin Herbert is a Heisman candidate and future first round NFL Draft pick. But the biggest buzz surrounding Oregon football this year comes from the potential it has to be a complete, dominating team on both sides of the ball.
Offensively the Ducks are primed to get back to their potent ways. Under Justin Herbert’s leadership that shouldn’t be a problem, as he’s led the Ducks to an average of 38.3 points per game in 28 starts. He’ll be supported by the nation’s top offensive line, a stable of talented running backs and a wide receiver corps that is talented yet unproven. The biggest question mark surrounds the aforementioned receiver corps. The unit struggled with drops throughout 2018 and lost its most productive receiver, Dillon Mitchell, to the NFL. Though it added Penn State graduate transfer Juwan Johnson in the offseason, questions surround whether Oregon’s wealth of young talent at the position will be able to live up to expectations. Should Jaylon Redd, Bryan Addison, Johnny Johnson III and more play to their potential, Oregon will be one of the most potent offenses in college football.
On defense the 2019 Oregon Ducks football team will be implementing a new scheme under new defensive coordinator Andy Avalos. Avalos, coming from Boise State, replaces Jim Leavitt and brings with him a base 3-4 scheme that utilizes multiple looks and aggressive tendencies to pressure and confuse opposing offenses. As Leavitt also utilized a base 3-4, Avalos already has a roster well-suited for his needs. The defensive front seven is captained by senior linebacker Troy Dye and has an intimidating presence in junior nose tackle Jordon Scott to disrupt the line. In the secondary Oregon is also well-equipped, with the unit being one of the more under-the-radar units in the nation. Expect players such as redshirt freshman Verone McKinley III and junior Deommodore Lenoir to have big years in Avalos’ defense.
It is a combination of veteran talent and young potential that lead many to believe Oregon will come back in 2019 to secure the Pac-12 North and challenge for the Conference Championship. Whether they’ll be able to do this depends on the Ducks being able to navigate a tough conference schedule.
The Pac-12 may have a reputation problem but there is no skirting the fact that Oregon’s 2019 schedule is tough. Opening the season with a primetime, College GameDay matchup with the Auburn Tigers, Oregon faces its toughest tests of the season on the road, where they have not been impressive in the last few seasons. Outside of facing Auburn at the neutral Cowboy Stadium, the 2019 Oregon Ducks football team has tough matchups at Stanford (09/21), at Washington (10/19), at USC (11/02) and at Arizona State (11/23). If they’re going to win the Pac-12 North they’re going to have to do so on the road.
KEYS TO THE SEASON
To see potential realized the Ducks need a complete team effort. With that said, there are a few key areas they should focus on to improve their odds. The first is the play for their wide receivers. Already mentioned above, Oregon’s receivers are, for the most part, unproven. There is a lot of talent at the position but that talent hasn’t made its presence felt. If Oregon is to achieve what it wants to achieve, the receivers will have to step it up.
On the opposite side of the ball, Oregon’s secondary need to prove their worth. They are an underappreciated unit and have done a lot of big talking throughout camp. If they can back that talk up Oregon’s offense won’t be the only thing we’re talking about.
Finally, running back CJ Verdell and his supporting cast must bring back the explosive plays. The sophomore back has added some size to carry more of the load, and adding this to his speed creates the potential for this young back to have a statement year.
Fast. Hard. Finish. Those three words adorned the sideline of Autzen Stadium earlier this decade and were synonymous with Oregon football. And though the mantra has been replaced by new graphics, the 2019 Oregon Ducks football program looks to be just as fast, play just as hard and finish just as strong as they did in the past.
2019 brings with it a lot of potential for Oregon. They could make this a banner year in program history or see it as another season not fully realized. Every season is important but 2019 may be even moreso. It’s the turning point for the program and a chance to finish the decade strong, to cap it with a reason as to why the 2010s should be known as The Decade of the Duck.