For a long time, the Oregon football program felt like the coolest kid in school. Lavish facilities. A multitude of colorful uniforms. The best apparel brand sponsorship. Most importantly, an innovative, up-tempo offense that almost no one could keep up with. When head coach Chip Kelly moved to the NFL, they promoted offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, and the team somehow got even better. It even looked like Kelly and his magic touch were going to do to the green team from Philly what he did to the green one from Eugene. Quarterback Marcus Mariota won the Heisman. Oregon made it to the very first College Football Playoff Championship game. And in the Pacific Northwest, everyone was second fiddle to the Ducks. They beat Washington every year from 2004 through 2015. They beat Washington State from 2007-2014.
But, seemingly all at once, fissures began to form in the Quack Attack’s otherwise impenetrable façade. Like a bread dough left out on a hot day, they faded almost as quickly as they had risen.
The first warning signs came in the national championship game when they got steamrolled by Ohio State, suggesting that they were not up to the task of competing with a physical team from the Big Ten. Mariota left for the NFL that spring, and the following season, 2015, the Ducks took a step back, not making it to double-digit wins for the first time in almost 10 years (the win over Washington notwithstanding).
2016 was even worse. The Ducks went 4-8, and at the end of the season, they fired coach Helfrich. That year they lost, ignominiously, to Oregon State for the first time in years. Washington, Oregon’s erstwhile doormat, came to Eugene and hung a 70-spot on them. There were also big losses to Washington State and USC that season.
In 2017, the Ducks got clobbered by almost anyone with a pulse—including new sheriff in town, Washington—and fell to fourth place in the Pac-12 North. 2017 was also the strange year of the short-lived Willie Taggart era at Oregon, which did not seem like a good fit for any of the interested parties, most notably the players who found themselves in the hospital as a result of being overworked during winter conditioning.
But the 2018 season felt different. Oregon installed a new head coach, Mario Cristobal. Quarterback Justin Herbert was healthy and turning heads. It took an overtime period to do it, but Oregon beat Washington again and looked like they were on the road to restoring past glory.
That said, they still finished fourth in the division again, proving how hard it is to reclimb to your previous perch when you’ve slid down the mountain some distance.
Football, with its complicated procedures and large numbers of players and plays, is funny like that. They went to the Redbox Bowl and pulled off what might have been the ugliest win in the history of the sport, the 7-6 victory over offense-free Michigan State.
Things look very different now. Justin Herbert has decided to return for his senior year, no doubt with thoughts of unfinished business on his mind, which usually spells trouble for rival teams, woodland creatures, or both (see Beavers, Cougars and Huskies). Even high school players, who probably grew up watching Oregon’s golden era of yesteryear, have taken notice. Oregon wound up with the top recruiting class in the Pac-12 this season, which was good for top-ten status nationally, including the highest individually-rated recruit they have ever had, Oaks Christian (Westlake Village, CA) product Kayvon Thibodeaux, who should provide the defensive line with a major boost.
So we’re looking at a great incoming class, an NFL quarterback, a second-year coach, and some rivals—Washington, Washington State—who have to break in new QBs. Extend the assessment to other Pac-12 teams, and the picture gets even rosier. Stanford looks somewhat suspect as of late, and in the south, the Arizona schools and the southern California schools aren’t inspiring much fear into anyone, leaving just Utah and Colorado, who inspire even less.
The 2019 schedule itself does not look easy, but at least it’s chock full of chances to notch signature wins, like road games at Washington, Stanford and USC.
The big date to circle on the calendar is the first game of the year, August 31, when Oregon travels to Arlington, Texas, to take on Auburn in a massive non-conference, neutral-site matchup. That should give fans a good sense of how legitimate this team can be.
It’s only April—there’s still a whole summer ahead of us—but that doesn’t mean that Ducks’ fans don’t have a sizable to do list to get done by Labor Day. For the away games, make sure your television is functional, amply-sized, and connected to the outer world in all the appropriate ways. For home games, there might need to be the procurement of appropriate tailgating materiel. Tinker with your favorite chicken wing recipe. Monitor the local hop harvest and make sure it’s on time.
There’s a green and yellow army on its way. You’ll want to be ready when it arrives.