Oregon Football: Power Ranking Ducks' 2014 Schedule from Easiest to Toughest
Oregon's road to a College Football Playoff berth is paved with several noteworthy stops along the way. The program faces one of the toughest nonconference games of any team in college football, a daunting cross-divisional road trip and a chance at two years' worth of revenge.
The Ducks' 2014 season starts with a tune-up, but the action revs up to the red line by Week 2 when reigning Rose Bowl champion Michigan State comes to Eugene.
Pac-12 competition presents several intriguing matchups, not the least of which is the return engagement with Stanford. The winner in this burgeoning rivalry has claimed the conference championship every season since 2010. The 2014 campaign could bring more of the same—unless up-and-coming Pac-12 South power UCLA has anything to say about it.
The Bruins get a crack at the Ducks early in the season in a marquee showdown.
12. Aug. 30 vs. South Dakota
The South Dakota Coyotes have a countdown clock that reads "Beat Oregon" in their locker room that ticks down to Aug. 30 and their date with the Ducks.
Coyotes head coach Joe Glenn told Ryan Thorburn of The Register-Guard that South Dakota's goal is probably more compete than beat:
We take it for what it is: A chance to play one of the top teams in the United States, widely known for scoring 50, 60 points a game. It’s a memory a lot of our guys will enjoy for the rest of their lives. It’s a chance to compete against some of the best players in the country. It’s a challenge, and one we accepted by signing the contract.
FCS upsets of nationally ranked FBS are not impossible. Appalachian State scored the most famous one over Michigan in 2007, and last year Eastern Washington trumped Oregon's in-state rival Oregon State.
However, both Appalachian State and Eastern Washington were FCS title contenders. South Dakota is a program that is still building since its move up to Division I just seven years ago. The paycheck and memories are likely all the Coyotes will take home from Autzen Stadium.
11. Sept. 13 vs. Wyoming
First-year Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl faces some considerable rebuilding in his debut campaign. He built three-time FCS national champion North Dakota State on a foundation of power, run-based offense and tenacious defense.
We’re better at running back than what I anticipated. I think we’ll have a shot to be pretty competitive at that spot, and in our system we highlight that player. It’s good to have some guys in there that have some experience, and what I’m seeing is ability. We haven’t had pads yet, but there’s enough that I’ve seen that I’m encouraged by that running back spot.
Alas, the latter facet of Bohl's outstanding North Dakota State teams is sorely lacking at Wyoming. The Cowboys gave up 36.7 points per game last season, ranking No. 110 in the FBS. That's not exactly a great omen for a unit that will be pitted opposite the Oregon offense.
10. Oct. 24 at Cal
Neither rain, sleet nor a young Cal team could stop Oregon from rolling to a 55-16 blowout in the Golden Bears' visit to Autzen Stadium last September.
Of course, the 55 points and 39-point margin of victory were the Ducks' lowest at that juncture of the 2013 campaign. The torrential downpour made for a sometimes sloppy contest.
But it did extend Oregon's combined advantage over Cal to a staggering 99 points in the last three meetings.
Regardless, if the projected El Nino expected to hit the West Coast comes to fruition, Cal can expect a deluge of a different kind from the Oregon offense. The Golden Bears surrendered 45.9 points per game in 2013. Only Idaho was worse.
9. Nov. 22 vs. Colorado
Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, center Hroniss Grasu and the rest of the Oregon seniors bid farewell to the Autzen Stadium faithful in this one, the Ducks' last home game of 2014.
The Buffaloes are also likely the last opponents that quarterback redshirt junior Marcus Mariota will face at home in his illustrious Oregon career.
Look for the departing players to go out in style against a team that they have dismantled by a combined 140 points each of the last three seasons.
Oregon will be hard-pressed to match the 70 points it scored when Colorado last came to Autzen Stadium—the Buffs are much more competitive now than the historically bad 2012 squad. But Colorado poses no real threat to the Ducks in 2014.
8. Sept. 20 at Washington State
Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday can and will throw frequently, as Oregon learned a season ago. His 89 pass attempts against the Ducks set an FBS record.
He is entering his fourth year of meaningful contribution for the Cougars and third in head coach Mike Leach's pass-happy, Air Raid offense. His experience and a deep, talented receiving corps mean a 2014 with some pretty gaudy numbers is almost assuredly ahead.
But as it pertains to playing Oregon, the Cougars' uptempo style is not best suited to countering the Ducks' own high-paced attack. Oregon thrives on quick changes of possession, using them to build insurmountable advantages—such as the 62-24 lead it established on Washington State last year, before the Cougars tacked on two garbage-time touchdowns.
7. Oct. 2 vs. Arizona
Arizona stunned the college football world last November, bludgeoning Oregon from the opening whistle and not relenting until it won 42-16.
"Very sluggish in every phase" is how head coach Mark Helfrich described it in the postgame press conference, per ArizonaWildcats.com. "That is 100 percent my fault. I have to figure out exactly which levers to pull and which buttons to push on."
The Ducks have 12 days to find the right buttons and levers in preparation for the Wildcats this year. Arizona comes to town on a Thursday night, following a bye week.
This year's Arizona team will have a much different look with both running back Ka'Deem Carey and quarterback B.J. Denker gone. But an improving defense and stacked wide receiving corps promise to make the Wildcats a tough out in Oregon's quest for the Pac-12 championship.
6. Nov. 8 at Utah
Head coach Kyle Whittingham has pulled a few aces out of his sleeve in his nine years as Utah's head coach. Last year's was an upset of eventual Pac-12 champion Stanford.
Wins do not often come easily in Rice-Eccles Stadium, and Utah's hard-nosed defense could challenge the Oregon offense. The Utes return standout defensive back Eric Rowe, who put forth an amazing individual effort last year at Autzen Stadium.
Also back in the mix for the Utes are defensive end Nate Orchard and linebacker Jason Whittingham, cornerstones for a tenacious front seven that hung tough through the first half against the Ducks in 2014.
With its style of play and a unique home-field advantage, Utah could be a potential trap game for the Ducks late in the season.
5. Oct. 18 vs. Washington
New Washington head coach Chris Petersen steps into an ideal situation. The Huskies are on the brink of returning to contention in the Pac-12, finishing in the Top 25 after going 9-4 last year.
But one of the program's highest hurdles to clear before it can again be a national power is border rival Oregon. The Ducks have owned the series for a decade with 10 consecutive wins dating back to 2004.
Washington was game for three quarters a season ago, but Mariota turned on the jets in the final period to lead the Ducks to a 45-24 rout.
Oregon is one of only three teams to beat Washington in Seattle since 2011, and the Ducks did it twice. The Huskies are much different away from home, so traveling to Autzen Stadium for this year's edition of the annual rivalry makes the possibility of Oregon win No. 11 very realistic.
Washington's best hope is the talented defensive duo of end Hau'oli Kikaha and linebacker Shaq Thompson finding ways to harass Mariota and disrupt the running back tandem of Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall, which is easier said than done.
4. Nov. 29 at Oregon State
The flag flying over the state of Oregon has been green and gold for several years now. The Ducks have claimed the Platypus Trophy from rival Oregon State six straight years—though last year, they had to squeak it out in the final minute.
Mariota's touchdown pass to Josh Huff preserved Oregon's win streak in the Civil War and extended the program's run of regular seasons with 10-plus wins to four.
Last year's back-and-forth affair was the first Civil War decided by single digits since the 2009 installment, which also happened to be a de facto conference championship game.
The 2014 installment may or may not be a play-in for the Pac-12 Championship Game, but Oregon State could be a dark-horse contender in the conference.
Quarterback Sean Mannion paces new offensive coordinator John Garrett's restructured system. The arrival of the NFL veteran coach Garrett should introduce a more reliable run game to support the prolific passer Mannion.
3. Nov. 1 vs. Stanford
While two games rank ahead of this Pac-12 North showdown in terms of toughness, no game on Oregon's 2014 docket may be as important as its date with Stanford.
The Cardinal have twice denied the Ducks a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game and ostensibly a shot at the national title.
Last year's 26-20 Oregon loss featured key, uncharacteristic red-zone misfires that proved costly.
"They went out and executed. We just weren't able to finish drives. We had some missed opportunities, but that happens. It's part of the game," Mariota said afterward, per GoStanford.com.
Eliminating that part of the game could be the difference in making the College Football Playoff for the Ducks next season.
2. Sept. 6 vs. Michigan State
College football may not have a team that is more the antithesis of Oregon than defending Big Ten champion Michigan State. The Spartans often won ugly in 2013, failing to break out of the 20s in six of their victories.
In fact, Michigan State's point-per-game average for the entire season was just 29.4—a full 16 points less than Oregon's output.
Nevertheless, the Spartans won 13 games, including the Rose Bowl, on the strength of a smashmouth defense. Despite losing some stars including linebacker Denicos Allen, defensive end Shilique Calhoun anchors a unit that should see zero drop-off.
Combine that with an offense that should be much improved in Connor Cook's second season running it, and the Spartans are realistic national title contenders.
The Michigan State offense poses an intriguing challenge to Oregon, pitting the hard-rushing running back Jeremy Langford against a front seven that new defensive coordinator Don Pellum spent the spring practice season working to solidify. Langford's style is reminiscent of Tyler Gaffney and Ka'Deem Carey, two backs who gave the Ducks fits in 2013.
This styles clash is precisely why Oregon vs. Michigan is ranked No. 1 atop Sports Illustrated reporter Stewart Mandel's most anticipated nonconference dates of the 2014 season.
1. Oct. 11 at UCLA
From the most highly anticipated nonconference game of 2014 to perhaps the biggest Pac-12 date on the schedule, Oregon's championship aspirations take an early-season detour in Pasadena, California.
UCLA hosts the Ducks in the Rose Bowl—a fitting location, given its stature in college football. The Rose Bowl is the pre-eminent venue in the West, and Oregon vs. UCLA has the opportunity to be the pre-eminent game in the Pac-12's 2014 season.
Both look like early favorites to win their respective divisions. A Heisman-contending quarterback leads each offense: Mariota for Oregon, Brett Hundley for UCLA. Paving the way for both are two of the most veteran offensive lines in the Pac-12.
The Bruins and Ducks are also loaded with returning talent on the defensive side. UCLA linebacker Myles Jack and Oregon cornerback Ekpre-Olomu are two of the most celebrated defenders in the nation.
Indeed, this one has all the ingredients for an instant classic.
Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.
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