Television executives would probably like to do an Oregon vs. Ohio schools scheduling swap this weekend.
Oregon State and Bowling Green might have made for a competitive opener, and a College Football Playoff title game rematch between Oregon and Ohio State would certainly generate a buzz nationally.
Instead, reality is expected to bite Jonathan Smith and the Beavers, who are in Columbus, Ohio, to take on No. 5 Ohio State. The Buckeyes are 38-point favorites and looking to release some frustration after dealing with the distraction of coach Urban Meyer’s suspension.
The 24th-ranked Ducks plan to get off to a flying start against the Falcons from Bowling Green, Ohio, on Saturday at Autzen Stadium.
Oregon is a 32-point favorite over Bowling Green, a team picked to finish fifth in the East Division in the preseason Mid-American Conference media poll.
After losing his official debut as head coach to Boise State last December in the Las Vegas Bowl, Mario Cristobal doesn’t really care who comes out of the visiting tunnel.
Let the 2018 games begin.
“I’m dialed into the game and making sure that everything … I won’t reflect on that until after the season,” Cristobal said when asked what his emotions will be in his first home game leading the Ducks. “Part of me is lying. Of course it’s a high-emotion situation. Football for all of us has been such a big part of our lives, always will be for so many reasons.
“Emotions are always going to be high, intensity is always going to be high, but never taking you off track of your focus of what you need to do.”
Oregon has won 13 consecutive home openers dating back to a 30-24 loss to Indiana on Sept. 11, 2004.
The Ducks have averaged 57.1 points during the streak, which included a narrow escape in Chip Kelly’s home debut in 2009 (38-36 over Purdue) and lopsided wins for Mark Helfrich in 2013 (66-3 over Nicholls) and Willie Taggart in 2017 (77-21 over Southern Utah).
When Justin Herbert was healthy during Taggart’s one-and-done season, Oregon went 6-2 and averaged 49.1 points.
With the 6-foot-6, 240-pound junior quarterback leading Cristobal’s team, the Ducks could emerge as a serious threat to reigning North Division champion Stanford and preseason Pac-12 favorite Washington. The Cardinal and Huskies both visit Autzen this season.
Herbert, the former Sheldon High standout, said it will be easy to stiff-arm all of the attention coming his way as a projected Heisman Trophy candidate and first-round NFL draft pick.
“Fortunately, I’ve got enough guys around me that keep me humble,” Herbert said. “They deserve my best, and I’m going to give it to them. They’d be disappointed with me if I took my focus away. So I’m going to give them my best when we play this year.”
Herbert will be playing behind a veteran offensive line led by three-year starters Calvin Throckmorton, Jake Hanson and Shane Lemieux. Alabama graduate transfer Dallas Warmack and freshman phenom Penei Sewell are expected to join the starting unit, but Cristobal has a list of other big men he’s confident in rotating throughout the season.
Tony Brooks-James will replace Royce Freeman, who may be the opening day starter for the Denver Broncos, at running back with a list of talented underclassmen also expected to get a lot of action this season.
Herbert developed a strong chemistry with wide receivers Dillon Mitchell, Johnny Johnson, Jaylen Redd and Brenden Schooler over the summer. Wake Forest graduate transfer Tabari Hines, speedy sophomore Daewood Davis and dynamic true freshman Bryan Addison add some much-needed depth.
“(Herbert) can do it all,” Bowling Green coach Mike Jinks said. “He’s just a physically gifted young man and he’s a competitor. I’m looking at it, and they were averaging 52 points a game last year when he was playing, and when he wasn’t it dropped down to 15. So he’s definitely an elite player, and we’re going to have our hands full.”
Carl Pelini is in his first season as Bowling Green’s defensive coordinator. The Falcons ranked 125th in points allowed (40.7 ppg) and 126th in yards allowed (506.6 ypg) during a 2-10 finish last season.
In 2012, Cristobal coached Florida International to a 34-24 victory over Pelini’s Florida Atlantic team when both programs were in the Sun Belt Conference.
“There’s plenty of familiarity with having seen him before in the Sun Belt Conference,” Cristobal said. “Very disciplined defense. Their safeties are heavily involved in the run game. Their front is going to move and mix and stunt a lot. They’re going to bring all kinds of pressure. They have a very unique and exotic third-down package that’s going to test your protections, test your quarterbacks. They want you to get rid of the ball quick.”
Bowling Green has some intriguing young pieces in play on offense, headlined by sophomore quarterback Jarret Doege, who completed 63.8 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions last season.
Running back Andrew Clair, another sophomore, averaged 6.8 yards per carry. Senior wide receiver Scott Miller had 722 yards receiving and four touchdowns.
The Falcons also return an experienced offensive line.
“That’s been distorted because they haven’t been able to play decent defense,” Oregon defensive line coach Joe Salave’a said of Bowling Green’s recent struggles. “But they’ve got a lot of guys coming back, and those guys had a tremendous offseason it sounds like. We’re looking forward to the opportunity. Our guys are going to be excited for the chance to see what we have. We’ll find out soon.”
The Ducks have an experienced front seven led by productive defensive end Jalen Jelks and linebacker Troy Dye. Senior safety Ugo Amadi anchors a young secondary that will be tested against Bowling Green’s version of the “Air Raid” offense.
“We’re just going to play to our keys and keep it real simple,” outside linebacker La’Mar Winston said. “I don’t think we need to do anything out of the ordinary as far as the defense. As long as we make sure we handle our responsibilities, I think that we should be fine.”