Never mind the pandemic — Pac-12 football is coming.
The season is starting a bit later than usual, with a truncated schedule, and with no nonconference games, but Duck fans will soon be able to watch Oregon take on its Pac-12 rivals over seven weekends in late fall.
Just not in person.
After deciding in August to postpone all fall sports through 2020 because of the pandemic, Pac-12 leadership reversed course six weeks later, in part because it reached a deal with a testing company that will provide rapid COVID-19 test results for athletes.
In a nod to the shortened season, here are seven things to look for in the 125th season of Oregon football, with one big caveat: The virus could still yet turn this pandemic season upside down.
Countdown to kickoff: Games will begin the weekend of Nov. 6-7, with the Ducks opening at home against Stanford that Saturday. Each team will play its five division rivals, plus one game against a team from the other division. The Pac-12 title game will take place Friday, Dec. 18, with the other 10 teams not in the title game playing cross-division schools the next day. There are no bye weeks, leaving little room for adjustment if a team suffers an outbreak.
Grab the remote: The fan experience this season will largely occur through a screen. The only fans allowed to attend Pac-12 games will be families and guests of players, subject to approval from public health authorities. Tailgating will not be allowed at Autzen on game days, either. All Pac-12 games will be broadcast on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, Fox and FS1, kickoff times TBA.
But even if fans can’t be at Autzen in person, they can be there in spirit, and in avatar, by purchasing their own Duck fan cutout that will be installed in the stadium.
Ready to rumble: Despite losing key players from last year’s 12-2 team, Oregon is loaded with talent and figures to be a strong contender in conference play.
The 2019 Ducks won the Pac-12 championship and the Pac-12 title game, then beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and finished ranked fifth in the nation.
Two stalwarts from that squad, quarterback Justin Herbert and linebacker Troy Dye, both four-year starters and team leaders, are now playing in the NFL, Herbert with the San Diego Chargers and Dye with the Minnesota Vikings.
Herbert’s big protector at left tackle, Penei Sewell, opted out of this season and is getting ready for next spring’s NFL draft, where he is expected to be a high pick. Five other veterans on the offensive line also are gone.
On defense, the Ducks need to replace Dye, Thomas Graham Jr., Brady Breeze and Jevon Holland.
But despite the turnover, the Ducks are ranked 12th in the country, and Pac-12 writers have picked Oregon to win the North Division and the conference.
Fresh start on offense: The Ducks are rebuilding with a new quarterback, a new line and a new coordinator, while also bringing back experienced talent at running back and receiver.
At quarterback, Tyler Shough is the likely starter. He has some big cleats to fill, but the 6-foot-5-inch, 221-pound sophomore from Chandler, Arizona, has looked good in limited action, completing 12 of 15 passes for 144 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in five games last year. Boston College transfer Anthony Brown is expected to be his backup and could get some playing time as well.
The Ducks are set at running back with returning juniors C.J. Verdell, coming off consecutive 1,000-yard seasons: Travis Dye, with 1,092 all-purpose yards in 2019; and Cyrus Habibi-Likio, who had 10 touchdowns in 2019.
Returning wide receivers Johnny Johnson III, Jaylon Redd and Mycah Pittman lead a deep and talented receiving corps.
Joe Moorhead is the new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Known as one of the best play callers in college football, Moorhead spent the last two two seasons as head coach at Mississippi State and served as offensive coordinator at Penn State, Connecticut and Akron.
Strong on D: Last year’s Pac-12 defensive freshman of the year, defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, is back and ready to wreak more havoc against Pac-12 offenses. Duck fans are hoping for more performances like he had against Utah in the Pac-12 championship game: 2.5 sacks, five tackles and a blocked punt. D-lineman Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu also return, giving Oregon a formidable presence up front.
With Dye gone to the NFL, the linebacking corps will have a new look, led by Isaac Slade-Matautia, the Ducks’ top returning tackler.
With the departure of Breeze, Graham Jr. and Holland, senior cornerback Deommodore Lenoir and senior Nick Pickett lead a young group of defensive backs.
How it plays out: The Ducks will play three home games and three road games, with most kickoff times still to be determined. The Ducks have two Friday games: Nov. 20 at home vs. UCLA, their lone game against a South Division school, and Nov. 27, the day after Thanksgiving, at Oregon State.
Oregon will cap the regular season at home against Washington on Dec. 12. The Pac-12 championship game will be played Friday, Nov. 18. The College Football Playoff committee meets that same weekend to set the slate of the major bowl games.
Let’s go bowling: And then? Barring disaster, the Ducks head to a bowl game. Depending on how their season plays out, they could play in one of the New Year’s Six bowl games — Orange, Fiesta, Peach or Cotton, with the Sugar and Rose bowls hosting the playoffs and championship — or perhaps, they could be one of four teams picked to play in the College Football Playoff.
—By Tim Christie, University Communications