The Oregon Ducks had their chances last year to come away with the PAC-12 Championship.
They took out their main nemesis Washington and blew away a solid secondary at Cal. But they were far too inconsistent down the stretch, faltering against other PAC North top-25 teams Washington State and Utah, and surprisingly getting blown out by Arizona.
There is a lot to prove for Oregon this year, and many still believe Washington to be the favorites in the North division. But the Ducks have the most upside of any team in this conference and are at a solid value (+290) on MyBookie.
While Washington is the favorite, and Utah is the clear dark horse for a reason, I believe Oregon is the team to beat in the PAC. And today, I’ll give 10 reasons why that is, any why they matter against the other top teams in the conference.
They range from the potential Heisman winner under center to the philosophy implanted by head coach Mario Cristobal. I’ll go over the playstyle, balance, and skill-play that will help them rise over the competition in their conference.
So here is the first reason why you should wager on the Ducks. You can also check our prediction of the over/under win total for the top PAC-12 contenders.
The Heisman Candidate at Quarterback
Justin Herbert is a potential first-round pick and Heisman candidate for 2019.
Despite the key transfer of Jacob Eason to Washington, the dual-threat capabilities of Tyler Huntley (Utah), and the consistency of K.J. Costello (Stanford), Herbert is this league’s best quarterback.
He had an extremely prolific 2017 when he was healthy, with a 167.5 passer rating in eight games. His completion percentage plummeted in his first full season, though, dropping from 67.5% to 59.4%. It’s some cause for concern, but he was still able to stay away from most mistakes. He only had eight INTs.
He also had 29 touchdown passes, showing the ability to throw the deep ball with ease and being able to make all the NFL-like throws. He’s fairly good out of the pocket and has plus decision-making skills. His velocity makes throws into tight windows possible, while also rarely overthrowing such fastballs.
Herbert has a few steps left to take to be at the top of his game, like remembering not to telegraph who he’s throwing to. And he has to do it without his top target from 2018, Dillon Mitchell.
But he’s a quarterback you can see being on a college football playoff team. He’s also one you could see taking the stage in New York come December.
PAC-12’s Top Offensive Line
Every good quarterback needs a sturdy line to protect him. With Herbert’s injury history, it’s good to know Oregon has the best o-line in the PAC-12.
Just watch the run that earned them an overtime victory against Washington, and you’ll see what I mean.
It’s not often a team has an offensive lineman who is a four-year starter. Oregon has three of them. Right tackle Calvin Throckmorton, center Jake Hanson, and left guard Shane Lemieux should all be in the running for All-PAC honors.
This isn’t counting Penei Sewell, who likely will end up being the most talented of the entire bunch. He’s at the other tackle position and is only a sophomore.
Football Outsiders had Oregon listed as 20th in power success (short-yardage runs) and 35th in stuff rate (runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage). Also, their sack rate on passing downs was ranked 35th as well.
These are all solid numbers that will only get better with another year under all their belts. This is going to be an important unit to watch, especially with a tough matchup against an incredible Utah d-line looming in the potential PAC-12 title game.
The Rise of CJ Verdell
While the line should be given plenty of kudos, rushing for 1,000+ yards as a freshman is a big deal.
CJ Verdell lived up to the hype right out of the gate for the Ducks. At 5’9”-210lbs he packs a punch with his frame.
He had 115 yards on 20 carries against Stanford, another 106 on nine versus Cal, and 11 yards including the winning score against Washington. He stepped up big in big games as a fresh face, and another offseason of maturation could make him one of the league’s better backs.
He may not be an Eno Benjamin (Arizona State) or J.J. Taylor (Arizona) just yet. But he’s an actual contender unlike those two, so he’ll mean that much more. His five yards-per-carry is not far from some of the greats in this league.
With the balance established on this offense, no defense can load the box with numbers to stop Verdell. In fact, they have to compensate more for the deep vertical passing, which opens up more room for the young back.
I look for him to push the 1,200 or 1,300-yard mark this year and be one of the top five rushers in the conference.
An Underrated Receiving Group
Losing Mitchell early to the NFL Draft was a big deal. With him, they would’ve been for-sure favorites in this conference.
But Oregon isn’t nearly as a pedestrian at the receiving positions as many might think. For one, Jacob Breeland will be a mismatch for most defenses at tight end. He gets lost in the shuffle of solid players at that position in the PAC but has a great set of hands.
He will be a valuable target after transferring from Penn State. He was banged up and suffered hiccups hanging on to the ball last season. But he works his 6’4”-230lb frame very well and had 731 receiving yards in 2017.
The Ducks also bring back the five other guys besides Mitchell who had over 200 yards last season. So there is quite a bit of experience here. It’s a unit with both speed and size. They just need to cut down on the drops at the WR position.
There’s enough sheer talent here to blow plenty of good secondaries out of the water.
The Physicality to Match the Finesse
Ever since the days of Mike Bellotti coaching Oregon in the 2000s, the Ducks have a reputation of being a flashy team.
Their speed killed teams, and they looked even better doing it with the endless Nike color schemes from booster Phil Knight. But when Cristobal replaced Willie Taggart as head coach when the latter went to Florida State, he brought an attitude to the table Oregon didn’t previously have.
A team built of finesse suddenly had the physicality to go with it. They were winning trench wars instead of just spreading everyone out. They were tackling with better form instead of trying to win a track meet all the time.
It’s a huge reason why they finally beat Washington and Chris Petersen. Not because of any trickery, but because they simply pushed their defensive front aside and ran right down the Huskies’ throat for the winning score.
It will be tougher this year as they’ll be going to Washington, to Stanford and USC. But they are far more equipped to do so with a rugged group of players. That comes from the philosophy of Cristobal, and also from the way he’s recruited.
You can always count on Oregon having great skill players on offense and a quarterback with capabilities in and out of the pocket.
But Cristobal has begun to build a great status in California on the recruiting trail. And he’s bringing in some studs on the defensive side of the ball as well.
Guys like Mase Funa (8th-ranked strongside defensive end in 2019) and CB Mykael Wright (top-five player in terms of position and California) are proof of Cristobal’s efforts. But the biggest signing of all was Kayvon Thibodeaux.
He was ranked as the second-best player in this past year’s class and is competing for a starting role right away. Adding a five-star talent to a defense with Troy Dye (115 tackles in 2018, All-Conference pre-season) and nose guard Jordan Scott (330lbs run-stuffer, 2nd team All-Conference) makes things extra compelling.
Two or three years down the road, this defense could be one of the best in college football. But they have the most balanced unit right now than they’ve had in years. They are by no means pushovers on the backend of the D either. They ranked 31st on passing downs last season and will only improve with three returning starters.
Washington’s Losses on Defense
Washington is one of those teams that is never truly rebuilding. But this year will be a little bit of a “bridge year” in terms of defensive standard.
And that’s not because they aren’t one of the league’s better defenses. It’s just that they are replacing some all-time contributors.
Safety Taylor Rapp and corner Byron Murphy were both All-conference performers who were suffocating in coverage. They weren’t afraid of a lot of contact either.
Replacing those two will be next-to-impossible. There will only be two returning starters on this entire defense, and there will be more than one freshman forced straight into the action. Their linebacking unit is especially green and will more than likely face a learning curve in 2019.
With that said, Verdell could have an even bigger game than last time versus UW. And with Oregon already winning the trench war when it mattered most last season, they should definitely have the advantage this season.
A whole crew of returners against a front-four with one is going to swing the game in the Ducks’ favor.
Their Edge Over Utah
I have Oregon and Utah squaring off in the PAC-12 title game. As stated before, the big matchup will be the offensive line of the Ducks against the d-line of the Utes.
Utah not only has great star talent there but an unprecedented amount of depth for non-traditional powerhouse school. But if Oregon can offset some of Utah’s most important attacks, this team could be well-off in the neutral setting.
This is where I have to decide between a team that seems solid across the board or one that has more skill and upside. And I’m taking the latter because I believe by then the Ducks will have sorted out the kinks like dropped passes.
The Utes also lose the prized kicker (Matt Gay) who knocked in six field goals, making the difference in a 32-25 game, a road contest for the Ducks.
With Utah RB Zack Moss (6.1 per-carry) presumably healthy this time around, it will be an added burden for the Ducks. But with added beef upfront with a talent like Thibodeaux, they’ll be up for the challenge.
Oregon will win the PAC-12, and possibly a spot in the College Football Playoff.