CU opponent preview: Oregon aiming for return to elite status

Buffs face off with the Ducks on Oct. 11 in Eugene, Ore.

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Oregon running back CJ Verdell and his teammates celebrate an overtime win against Washington on Oct. 13.

For a lot of programs, three bowls in four years and a nine-win season a year ago would constitute a pretty good run of success.

For Oregon, pretty good just isn’t good enough.

From 2008-14, the Ducks won 10-plus games every year and twice played for a national title. In the four years since, they are 29-22, with no 10-win seasons and three head coaches.

This month, BuffZone.com is previewing each of Colorado’s opponents, with this installment focusing on Oregon, which will host the Buffaloes on Oct. 11 in Eugene, Ore.

The last time the Buffs saw Oregon, the Ducks were closing in on their low point. In fact, CU’s stunning 41-38 victory in Eugene on Sept. 24, 2016 – a victory that catapulted CU to a resurgent season – may have been the first signal around the country that Oregon was no longer the powerhouse it once was. Oregon finished 4-8 that season.

The Ducks (9-4 in 2018) have come a long way since that day, however, and entering head coach Mario Cristobal’s second season, might actually be good enough for national championship hopes once again.

“We haven’t spent too much time worrying about that right now, senior quarterback Justin Herbert told reporters after the Ducks’ spring game. “That’s one of the things that coach Cristobal has emphasized. We’re not going to let this outside pressure affect us and we’re not going to worry about anything that anyone else is saying. We’re going to focus in-house and just worry about what we have to say.”

Led by Herbert – who made his collegiate debut a week after the loss to the Buffs in 2016 – Oregon has one of the most talented and experienced teams in the Pac-12 and the country. Herbert likely would have been a top-10 NFL draft choice this spring had he elected to forego his senior year. His return gives the Ducks a real shot at returning to national prominence.

Typically known for its offense, the Ducks could be dynamic on that side of the ball. In addition to Herbert, the Ducks have 1,000-yard rusher C.J. Verdell and a loaded group at receiver, especially after Juwan Johnson transferred in from Penn State. To top it off, Oregon might have the best offensive line in the country. Six linemen started at least seven games last year and three are entering their fourth seasons as full-time starters.

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Defensively, eight starters are back, led by All-American candidate Troy Dye, a senior linebacker. Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, rated by some as the No. 1 prospect in the 2019 class, is expected to be a dominant force right away.

Thibodeaux highlighted what was considered the best recruiting class in Oregon history, which means Oregon isn’t likely to dip to 2016 level any time soon.

Entering head coach Mario Cristobal’s second, however, the Ducks have the tools to return to their elite status in college football.

The Ducks, however, aren’t getting ahead of themselves.

“We’ve got big goals, but I think just getting better from where we were last year and improving on things that we’re doing, that’s our biggest goal,” Herbert said on the Pac-12 Network this spring.

Oregon Ducks

Date with CU: Oct. 11, 8 p.m. MT, at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore.

Head coach: Mario Cristobal, 2nd year (9-4; 36-52 career)

Series: Oregon leads 12-9

Ducks in 2018: 9-4, 5-4 in Pac12; Beat Michigan State, 7-6, in Redbox Bowl

Returning starters: 20 – 12 on offense, 8 on defense

5 offensive players to watch (2018 statistics):

TE Jacob Breeland, Sr. (24 catches, 377 yards, 2 TD)

QB Justin Herbert, Sr. (240-of-404, 3,151 yards, 29 TD, 8 INT; Rushing: 81 att., 166 yards, 2 TD)

WR Juwan Johnson, Sr. (25 catches, 353 yards, 1 TD at Penn State)

RT Calvin Throckmorton, Sr. (13 starts, second-team All-American)

RB C.J. Verdell, So. (202 att., 1,018 yards, 10 TD; 27 catches, 315 yards, 2 TD)

5 defensive players to watch:

LB Troy Dye, Sr. (115 tackles, 2 tackles, 6 TFL, 7 PBU)

CB Thomas Graham, Jr. (56 tackles, 18 PBU, 3 INT)

S Javon Holland, So. (44 tackles, 6 PBU, 5 INT)

NT Jordon Scott, Jr. (29 tackles, 2.5 TFL)

DE Kayvon Thibodeaux, Fr. (true freshman)

Notable: Herbert’s 28 career starts are the most among Pac-12 quarterbacks (one more than Colorado’s Steven Montez). … In his career, Herbert has 63 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions. … Herbert has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 28 consecutive games – the longest active streak in the country. … Johnson was a two-year starter at Penn State, catching 79 passes for 1,053 yards in those two seasons. … Oregon is 12-2 at home the past two seasons, including an overtime loss to Stanford a year ago. … The Ducks haven’t finished higher than fourth in the Pac-12 North since 2015. … Oregon’s offensive line has a combined 153 career starts coming into the year. According to Phil Steele’s preview magazine, that’s the most in the FBS since SMU’s line came into 2011 with 158 starts. Throckmorton and left guard Shane Lemieux have started all 38 games the past three years, while center Jake Hanson has started 37 of those games. … After allowing 41.4 points per game in 2016, the Ducks allowed just 29.0 in 2017 and 25.4 last year. … In the offseason, Oregon hired Andy Avalos as defensive coordinator. A former Colorado graduate assistant (2006-08), he spent the previous seven years at Boise State, including the last three as defensive coordinator.