Oregon Football: 4 Games That Could Ruin Ducks' 2014 Season
Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich talked at last week's Pac-12 media days about "the importance of preparing for everybody."
As Oregon has encountered in each of the past three seasons, championship pursuits can hinge on a single outcome.
While there's never an opportune time for a letdown, four matchups on the Ducks' Pac-12 slate are the most likely to present potential potholes on their road to Levi's Stadium and the conference championship game.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.
October 11 at UCLA
One of the most highly anticipated dates on the 2014 Pac-12 calendar is Oregon's visit to the Rose Bowl.
The Ducks and Bruins are preseason favorites in their respective divisions, and both appear in the top 10 of the preseason Amway Coaches Poll via USA Today.
Should both navigate through the early portion of their schedules unscathed, hype for this game will be at a fever pitch.
The teams share similarities. Quarterbacks Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Brett Hundley of UCLA are leading preseason favorites for the Heisman Trophy, and both play behind experienced offensive lines.
Last year, Oregon's run game wore down the Bruins with 325 yards, turning a halftime tie into a Ducks' romp. An improved UCLA defensive line should pose a stiffer challenge to the Ducks on the ground.
A single conference loss early in the season would not have the same impact on Oregon's College Football Playoff profile that dropping November games had on its BCS aspirations the last three seasons. Moreover, a loss outside the division would not preclude Oregon from running through the North to set up a potential Pac-12 Championship Game rematch.
But a loss at UCLA would certainly put Oregon behind the eight ball for the remainder of the conference slate.
November 1 vs. Stanford
Stanford stunned Oregon each of the last two seasons en route to Pac-12 Conference Championships. Nevertheless, Pac-12 media overwhelmingly picked the Ducks to win the North in 2014, giving them 37 first-place votes.
The defending champion Cardinal received just two.
"I think [Stanford head coach] David Shaw has rigged first place voting," Helfrich said at Pac-12 media days. "I think they have a Stanford engineer in the background rigging the first-place voting."
Oregon was the preseason pick each of the last two seasons but learned firsthand just how quickly championship aspirations can go awry against the Cardinal. Another November pairing sets a similar scene once more in 2014.
Circumstances are similar to Stanford's last visit to Autzen Stadium. The Cardinal are expected to take a step back because of various departures, but Shaw's teams have a way of surprising.
A healthy Mariota is critical. Playing on an injured knee last year, Mariota's mobility was limited, and the Cardinal front seven was able to exploit it.
Mariota is 0-2 against Stanford in his career. Snapping that skid is key for him to win his first conference championship.
November 8 at Utah
Trap games often have unifying themes: a week before or after a high-profile game, on the road, against a team that plays a contrasting style.
Check, check and check those boxes for Oregon's matchup with Utah.
The Ducks travel to Salt Lake City one week after a much anticipated and likely emotional showdown with Stanford. Upon their arrival, they'll be welcomed by a raucous Rice-Eccles Stadium crowd and likely some cold weather.
Low temperatures should make hits from Utah's hard-nosed defense sting just a little bit more.
The Utes proved capable of ruining a Pac-12 contender's championship aspirations last October in an upset win over Stanford. The Cardinal would have been in the BCS Championship Game conversation were it not for their loss at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
For Utah, that game is motivation when faced with the conference's favorites in a pivotal 2014 campaign.
"It was electric. I'd love to have that feeling every week," wide receiver Dres Anderson said. "Getting big wins like that for our university would be great."
Utah played Oregon close for a half last season before the Ducks blew the game open with three unanswered touchdowns late in the third quarter.
The Utes defense proved capable of slowing uptempo offense in 2013, holding Arizona State to half of its season average. If Utah could do the same against Oregon, the possibility of the lightning that hit Stanford striking the Ducks is real.
November 29 at Oregon State
From 2010 through 2012, Oregon State was no closer than 17 points to rival Oregon. Last year's installment of the Civil War, however, was an instant classic.
Oregon extended its win streak in the series to six games, but not before the lead changed hands six times in the second half. The final lead change came on Mariota's 12-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Josh Huff with just 29 seconds remaining.
"We want to use that as motivation this year," Oregon State linebacker Michael Doctor said.
The Beavers should be improved in 2014 and are dark-horse contenders in the Pac-12 North. They get the Ducks at home in Reser Stadium.
"[Beating Oregon] would mean so much," Doctor said. "For the fans, it's bragging right. But for my teammates, it would be a humbling experience."
Motivation is not lacking from a series with 117 installments, as the Civil War has in its 120 years of existence. But the opportunity for the Oregon State seniors to score the program's first win over their rivals since 2007 ups the ante for the Beavers.
The chance to deny the Ducks a shot at the Pac-12 or national championship also has to add something extra in the Oregon State locker room.