Oregon did not appear in the Associated Press’ final poll released after Monday’s national championship game.
But the Ducks are projected to enter the 2019 season as the highest-ranked team from the Pac-12.
Clemson and Alabama will be heavy favorites to meet in the College Football Playoff title game again next year, despite the Tigers’ resounding 44-16 dismantling of the Crimson Tide at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
In a sampling of “way-too-early” top-25 projections from national publications, Oregon is penciled in at No. 12 (ESPN), No. 10 (Sports Illustrated) and as high as No. 7 (CBS Sports).
The return of quarterback Justin Herbert, coupled with the addition of a top-five recruiting class, has created great outside expectations for coach Mario Cristobal’s second season.
The Ducks (9-4) closed an up-and-down season with three consecutive wins, capped off with the 7-6 slugfest over Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl.
“I think it’s about to take a big turn for the better,” nose tackle Jordon Scott said of the direction of the program. “I’m ready to do whatever I can to help my team win.”
Six members of the Ducks’ historic recruiting class, including five-star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, have already enrolled at Oregon.
There is a buzz about the influx of talent — Thibodeaux was ESPN’s top-ranked overall prospect in the 2019 cycle and chose the Ducks over Alabama — but the freshmen-to-be will still have to prove themselves, beginning with winter workouts and spring practice.
“Man, I don’t care what you’re ranked. You can be ranked first, second, third or 135th,” outside linebacker La’Mar Winston said after leading the team with 10 tackles against the Spartans. “All I know is if you come with consistent effort and consistent execution and with a consistent mindset of wanting to be successful, I’m excited to have you. That’s all we can ask for.”
Thibodeaux will have an opportunity to make an immediate impact with the graduation of defensive end Jalen Jelks.
Oregon must also replace senior standouts Justin Hollins (outside linebacker), Kaulana Apelu (inside linebacker) and Ugo Amadi (safety).
Troy Dye, the team’s leading tackler in each of the last three seasons, has not announced whether he will return to school or enter the NFL draft. The deadline for underclassmen to declare is Jan. 14.
Two linebackers from the incoming class, Ge’Mon Eaford and Dru Mathis, have enrolled early.
During Jim Leavitt’s second season as defensive coordinator, the Ducks finished 48th nationally in points allowed (25.4 ppg) and 55th in yards allowed (385.9 ypg).
In 2017, Oregon allowed 29.0 points per game (81st) and 369.2 yards per game (46th), which was a dramatic improvement from the 2016 season when Brady Hoke’s defense ranked 126th in points (41.4) and yards (518.4) allowed per game.
“(The bowl game) showed what we have,” Scott said. “Then bringing in those recruits, the coaches have done a great job recruiting, so I think it’s going to be even better. More depth equals more big plays and people aren’t tired.”
The offense will return 10 starters, including the entire offensive line, but Herbert will be looking for a new No. 1 wide receiver with Dillon Mitchell deciding to leave a year early for the NFL draft.
Despite leading the Pac-12 and setting a single-season Oregon receiving record with 1,184 yards and 10 touchdowns, Mitchell is not ranked as a top-10 wide receiver prospect by prominent national draft experts ahead of the NFL Scouting Combine.
Oregon returns three players with starting experience — Jaylon Redd (433 yards, five touchdowns), Johnny Johnson (215 yards, four touchdowns) and Brenden Schooler (203 yards, one touchdown).
Bryan Addison, a physically gifted 6-foot-5 freshman, was able to retain his redshirt after playing in only four games in 2018. Josh Delgado, one of four wide receivers in the 2019 recruiting class, is on campus looking to establish a rapport with Herbert.
Oregon’s top two running backs, CJ Verdell (1,018 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Travis Dye (739 yards, four touchdowns), will be sophomores next season.
The Ducks will also have two seniors, Jacob Breeland and Ryan Bay, leading a tight end group that will add 6-6 prospects Spencer Webb (redshirt freshman) and Patrick Herbert (true freshman, Justin’s younger brother) to the competition.
“Man, it’s crazy,” Verdell said of Herbert’s decision to come back to lead the team. “Great dude, Justin. He’s going to help us take this thing to the next level next year. I know that for a fact.”
After Oregon had 11 first downs, 11 punts and only 203 total yards during the Redbox Bowl, Cristobal said changes to the offensive approach will be studied during the offseason.
Offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo was the play-caller as the inconsistent Ducks finished 25th in scoring (34.8 ppg) and 41st in total offense (427.2 ypg).
The coaching staff understands the importance of making the most of Herbert’s senior year while developing redshirt sophomore Braxton Burmeister, redshirt freshman Tyler Shough and true freshman Cale Millen behind the potential Heisman Trophy candidate.
“By the time a quarterback is a senior you want them to be like an offensive coordinator, where he could call it himself. He’s vastly approaching that,” Cristobal said of Herbert. “He’s also continuing to step up as a leader, which every quarterback, it’s essential to be a leader in the room.”
Oregon, which will likely be voted the Pac-12 favorite in the preseason media poll in July, opens the season against Auburn on Aug. 31 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The Tigers, who were not among the six SEC teams in the final AP poll, are projected to be ranked entering the 2019 season. Auburn opened last season with a win over eventual Pac-12 champion Washington and closed the uneven campaign with an 8-5 record.
"We've had some ups and downs this year," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told reporters after his team set a bowl record with 56 first-half points en route to a 63-14 demolition of Purdue in the Music City Bowl. “This was a big win for us."