Oregon coach Mario Cristobal gave a direct vision for what the two-time defending Pac-12 champions want heading into the 2021 season:
The Ducks want to get back to the big time.
“We want nothing but the absolute biggest and greatest accomplishments on the biggest stage under the brightest lights,” Cristobal said at Pac-12 Media Day on Tuesday. “We’re honestly going to work at it until we get there.”
Oregon might not have the Los Angeles lights of Pac-12 South favorite USC, but the Ducks have been the most consistent program in the conference since the start of the College Football Playoff era. The Ducks are one of only two Pac-12 teams to make the four-team playoff, and the only school with a winning percentage better than 70 percent the last three seasons.
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Oregon won’t have to wait long for its close-up in 2021.
Those lights will be of the early-morning variety, at noon ET on Sept. 11, in a showdown at Ohio State. It’s a return game of last year’s matchup that was canceled by COVID-19. A strong argument could be made this will be the biggest game on the Pac-12 schedule: Win there, and Oregon is reborn as a national championship contender. Lose, and the conference takes the same-old hits.
Cristobal didn’t mention Ohio State once in his news conference, perhaps because the season opener is against Fresno State on Sept. 4. It’s OK to assume Ohio State-Oregon will be the marquee game of Week 2. And it’s worth knowing that current offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead held the same position at Penn State in 2016, when the Nittany Lions beat the Buckeyes en route to the Big Ten championship.
Oregon returns most of its offensive production, including Boston College transfer Anthony Brown, who played behind Tyler Shough last season. Shough transferred to Texas Tech, and Cristobal said Brown will be the starting quarterback entering fall camp.
“Anthony will start with the ones,” Cristobal said. “He has earned that. He’s done a very good job from a performance standpoint, leadership performance, taking on Coach Moorhead’s offensive scheme.”
Running backs CJ Verdell and Travis Dye also return along with the top three receivers in Devon Williams, Jaylon Redd and Johnny Johnson III. The offensive line returns all five starters despite losing Penei Sewell, who opted out of last season before being selected by the Detroit Lions with the seventh pick of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Cristobal has used Sewell as an example for the rest of the offensive line to follow.
“The best thing is talk to Penei,” Cristobal said. “Been playing left tackle. He gets drafted (seventh) overall. What does he do right away? Right tackle. Versatility is important for the current situation, our football team, and for their career going forward.”
The defense, of course, revolves around future first-round pick Kayvon Thibodeaux, a Sporting News preseason All-America selection who has taken advantage of the early NIL opportunities at Oregon. He is a dominant pass-rusher who could be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
“I think any time you sign a player that has that five-star status, you want his work ethic, his demeanor, his leadership qualities to be that of a five-star as well,” Cristobal said. “He has that.”
Thibodeaux and former five-star linebacker Noah Sewell combined for five sacks and 16 tackles for loss in 2021; that duo could be further enhanced with the addition of Justin Flowe, another five-star linebacker recruit who missed last season with a torn meniscus. Add in an experienced secondary, and the Ducks are quietly loaded on defense.
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This is Oregon’s most talented team since the College Football Playoff runner-up in 2014. That team lost 42-20 to the Buckeyes in the championship game, and the program has faced a long road back to this spot. But Cristobal has built toward this.
Losses to Auburn and Arizona State — by a combined nine points — kept the 2019 team from an undefeated season and likely playoff berth. A 41-38 upset by rival Oregon State derailed last season after the Ducks started 3-0. Yet Cristobal said this was the team’s “best offseason” since he arrived.
The opener against Fresno State won’t be overlooked, and USC is among the primary challenges in the Pac-12 (one the Ducks don’t have to face in the regular season). Then there’s that game against the Buckeyes in one of those big-stage, bright-light moments.
Oregon might just be ready for the re-emergence the conference desperately needs.
“What excites me the most is we’re throwing some serious adversity and challenges at these guys,” Cristobal said. “We’re pushing them hard. The only response has been, ‘Bring it.'”