It’s a strange time of year in the Northwest. The days are long and sunny. Summer, ostensibly, has a lot of life left in it. But for football fans, fall can’t come quickly enough. And though most teams have not begun their fall training camps, opinions are already forming among the commentator class about who will lead the Pac-12.
The prohibitive pick is for Oregon to come out on top. How does a team that went a perfectly pedestrian 9-4 last year, finishing fourth in the conference, suddenly jump to top-dog status?
It has a lot to do with what’s going on with other teams in the conference. When certain teams are expected to take a step back, other teams are thrust into the fore.
Before diving right into the Ducks, consider what’s happening with many of their opponents.
Let’s start with Washington, last year’s conference champion. Most won’t automatically anoint the Huskies as repeat champions, mainly because they lost some key pieces from last season. After four years under center, Jake Browning has exhausted his eligibility. Sure, Jacob Eason transferred in from Georgia, but he is a somewhat unproven commodity, and any time a player transfers due to lack of playing time, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask questions. They also lost star running back Myles Gaskin. Sure, there are plenty of other backs on the roster, some who have even seen the field quite a bit. But those are still big shoes to fill.
How about Washington State? They are in a similar position, having lost star quarterback Gardner Minshew (and his mustache) to the NFL. On the one hand, the Cougs have seemed to pluck transfer quarterbacks out of thin air for several years in a row—and this year it will likely be Eastern Washington transfer, Gage Gubrud—but that’s hardly reason to expect them to win the conference.
Then there’s Stanford. Sure, they have superstar quarterback KJ Costello back for another year, but have lost running back Bryce Love—along with a host of other starters from both sides of the ball. Even with Love on the team last year, the Cardinal didn’t look nearly as good as they were in previous years. Expect Stanford to take yet another step back, or to stay about the same, which was only good for third best in the Pac-12 North in 2018.
In the Pac-12 South, the consensus pick is … checks notes … Utah? That’s right. Many have the Utes not only winning the Pac-12 South but contending for the entire conference.
Are they really that good? Well, the Utes being good is as much about the power vacuum in the Pac-12 South as it is about their own team. That said, their own team should be very good, with lots of talent returning, including a starting quarterback and running back, plus a monster defense. A couple of games that should tell us a great deal: when the Utes travel to the Coliseum to take on the Trojans on Friday night of week four; and, when they travel to Montlake to play the Huskies on November 2nd.
Which brings us, finally, to Oregon, and the context in which they are expected to excel, which may seem like a roundabout way of discounting what the Ducks have, though it’s not intended to be. Their primary asset is Justin Herbert, a 6’6”, nearly 240-pound specimen of a quarterback. A senior, Herbert almost went into the draft after last year, and some projected him to be the first quarterback taken. He’s the kind of player who has a bright future ahead, and he should be able to take over almost every game on the Ducks’ schedule.
The Oregon defense should also be stout, and all eyes will be on freshman defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, the highest-rated recruit that Oregon has ever signed.
We won’t have long to wait to have a good sense of what Oregon has this year. On August 31st, the Ducks travel to Arlington to take on Auburn in the marquee night game of week 1. It’s essentially a neutral-site game, but Texas is much closer to Alabama than it is to Oregon. Also know that Auburn has been down for years and desperately wants to compete for relevance again. Texas is a long way to go, travel-wise, and a slow start could spell death for the Ducks’ chances. Lose that game and they can still win the Pac-12, but a season more special than that will likely be off the table.
Get your picnics, hikes, and trips to the beach out of the way while you can. Before you know it, the air will turn, the clouds will come, and it will be that time of year that some of us refer to as hot wings and hops season—otherwise known as football.