Oregon's Schedule Full Of Opportunity
By John Baker
If you squint your eyes a little, it's not hard to look at Oregon's 2014 football schedule and see a potential perfect season and trip to the College Football Playoff.
It's when you open your eyes a little wider you realize that potential exists, but two important home showdowns and a possible trap game in Los Angeles offer plenty to worry about. Oregon opens with three straight home games and plays seven of its 12 contests in the friendly confines of Autzen Stadium.
The first challenge comes in its second game when Michigan State stops by for a visit Sept. 6. The Spartans have spent the last five years putting top-flight defenses into the top tier of the NCAA statistical rankings. The Spartans are coming off a Rose Bowl victory over Stanford, a team that has been a nightmare for Oregon the last few years.
But in a sign that maybe the football gods are smiling on Oregon, Michigan State will be in the midst of a major rebuilding job on defense. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi got a big raise after last season's outing, but will need to plug some major holes in a defense that loses Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard, linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and safety Isaiah Lewis. While the team's pass rush should be tough again with defensive ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush returning, Narduzzi will be looking to replace some key components. Going on the road to face Oregon's dizzying array of offensive talent and a likely Heisman run from quarterback Marcus Mariota may be a too much, too soon for what figures to be a young, learning defense.
Michigan State, despite some holes, will still be plenty dangerous. Offensively, the Spartans will need to replace three linemen, but will be big up front. Look for encore performances from quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford.
The MSU game is sandwiched by tasty football dining on South Dakota and Wyoming. A trip to Washington State is followed by a home game against Arizona, a game that should involve a bit of payback given the Wildcats' hammering of the Ducks last year. Fortunately, Ka'Deem Carey is gone and the torment he caused along with it. Oregon plays that one on Thursday night and that rest will come in handy as they travel to UCLA the following Saturday, a game that could be the toughest of the season.
The Bruins were young a year ago and return one of the league's most dynamic quarterbacks in Brett Hundley, as well as physical running back-linebacker Myles Jack. A year ago the Bruins played a herd of freshmen along the offensive line and for more than a quarter used a physical running game and hard-hitting defense to stay in the game. Well, a year older is a year better and Oregon will need to be on its toes when it visits Los Angeles this year.
The Bruins are a likely Pac-12 South title contender and there's more than a little talk about Hundley being a viable Heisman contender, so this one has plenty of interesting subplots.
If the Ducks get past the Bruins, they should have little trouble with contests against an offensively-rebuilding Washington team and a young California squad. But there, at the end of that sure-win rainbow, is a familiar nemesis. And don't for a minute think payback isn't on everyone's minds.
Even if the Ducks lose to Michigan State, the loss will be so early and against such a quality opponent, they'll be able to come back and still have a voice in the BCS process, assuming a win at UCLA. But Oregon simply can't do what it wants to do in the Pac-12 or on the national scene until it deals with its Stanford demons.
The Cardinal visit Oregon on Nov. 1. The Ducks have put a premium on getting bigger and stronger this offseason, with hopes of better dealing with Stanford's grind-you-down physicality. Once again, this game could be for a whole sack of marbles within the league and nationally. And with only three games left after this one — against Utah, Colorado and Oregon State — a loss would leave no room for a comeback for the Ducks. The time is too short and the opponents too lacking.
Again, however, the football gods may be smiling on Oregon. Stanford, whose defense has been terrific in the defeats of Oregon the last two seasons, will be in the midst of a major revamp itself. The Cardinal must replace the core of its defense in Ben Gardner, Josh Mauro, Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Jarek Lancaster and Ed Reynolds, not too mention defensive coordinator Derek Mason. And while three-quarters of the season will have been played at this point, it is yet to be determined if the replacements are at the level of their predecessors.
Oregon plays two of its three biggest games at home and the Ducks avoid USC again.
Perhaps it doesn't take a squint to see Oregon playing for a College Football Playoff spot. The schedule sets up extremely well in 2014, requiring a couple key wins and the ability to stay focused and motivated.
Saturday, May 3 -- Spring Game
Saturday, Aug. 30 -- South Dakota (H)
Saturday, Sept. 6 -- Michigan State (H)
Saturday, Sept. 13 -- Wyoming (H)
Saturday, Sept. 20 -- Washington State (A)
Thursday, Oct. 2 -- Arizona (H)
Saturday, Oct. 11 -- UCLA (A)
Saturday, Oct. 18 -- Washington (H)
Friday, Oct. 24 -- California (A)
Saturday, Nov. 1 -- Stanford (H)
Saturday, Nov. 8 -- Utah (A)
Saturday, Nov. 22 -- Colorado (H)
Saturday, Nov. 29 -- Oregon State (A)