After capping a 12-2 campaign with a dramatic Rose Bowl victory, Oregon moved up two spots to No. 5 in the season’s final Associated Press poll.
LSU and Clemson were obviously No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, after the Tigers from the SEC defeated the Tigers from the ACC on Monday night in the College Football Playoff championship game.
No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Georgia are the other teams ahead of the Ducks. The only other Pac-12 team in the AP poll is No. 16 Utah, which Oregon pummeled 37-15 in the conference title game.
Despite losing four-year starting quarterback Justin Herbert, the Ducks will enter the 2020 season as the Pac-12 favorite after winning the conference for the first time in five years.
In a sampling of “way too early” top-25 rankings, Oregon is slotted No. 5 by ESPN, No. 6 by USA Today, No. 7 by CBS Sports and No. 8 by The Athletic.
The Ducks return 32 of the 44 players from the Rose Bowl two-deep (14 on offense, 18 on defense), and coach Mario Cristobal has significantly improved the program’s overall talent and depth during the last three recruiting cycles.
The offensive line will have to be rebuilt around Outland Trophy winner Penei Sewell, but Oregon should have one of the nation’s best defenses with draft-eligible juniors Thomas Graham, Austin Faoliu, Deommodore Lenoir and Jordon Scott making the joint decision to return to lead the way.
“Good teams can always be good with talent and good coaching, but great teams and elite teams will always have to be built from the inside out,” Cristobal said. “By that I mean the locker room and what comes out of there. They’ve had a chance to experience really good leadership.”
With the experience and momentum generated by 21 wins over Cristobal’s first two seasons, the Ducks appear to be the Pac-12’s best hope for inclusion in next year’s College Football Playoff.
The winter strength and conditioning program is set to begin next week, so here are five questions entering the offseason:
How good is Oregon’s defense going to be?
The Ducks should be even better than this past season, Andy Avalos’ first as defensive coordinator, when they finished ninth nationally in points allowed (16.5 per game) and led the Pac-12 in sacks (43).
Scott and Faoliu will rejoin Pac-12 defensive freshman of the year Kayvon Thibodeaux as the incumbent starters on the defensive line with quality depth developing behind them.
Starting inside linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia quietly had a strong sophomore season while Troy Dye was basking in the glow of his senior year and leading the team in tackles for the fourth time. Five-star linebacker prospects Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe are expected to make an immediate impact.
And the secondary, which helped Oregon lead the nation in interceptions (20), is scary good with starting cornerbacks Graham and Lenoir returning along with primary backups MyKael Wright, DJ James and a safety rotation that includes Jevon Holland, Brady Breeze, Nick Pickett, Verone McKinley and Steve Stevens.
“I just hope that this last year with all of us, we all just come together and forget our differences, forget all that,” Graham said at the press conference with the three other 2017 recruits that flirted with leaving for the NFL before opting to stay and lead the 2020 Ducks. “When you see me messing up, get on me, and vice versa, so we can end our senior year the way we want to. Otherwise, we’ll be sitting sad, like, ‘Wow, this is probably a bad decision I just made.’
“Let’s just make it to where we don’t have that opportunity because we pushed ourselves to the limits; now we’re going to reach goals Oregon has never touched before.”
Who is Joe Moorhead?
The former Mississippi State head coach and Penn State offensive coordinator is expected to be hired as Oregon’s next offensive coordinator.
On Tuesday night, Stadium reported that Cristobal has tabbed Moorhead as Marcus Arroyo’s replacement. The former Fordham quarterback and head coach has a great reputation in the profession.
“It has to hit on all cylinders,” Cristobal said Monday on what he was looking for in a candidate. “Not only a guy that’s a great X’s and O’s guy, not only a guy that can recruit really well. It has to be a great person. It has to fit the culture, has to be bought in completely.
“It has to be something that really generates the same type of momentum that we’re generating and is completely in.”
Apparently Moorhead checks all the boxes. His new boss is looking for an upgrade at the position after the Ducks were 16th in scoring (35.4 points per game) and 39th in total yards (433.1 per game) under Arroyo, who is now the head coach at UNLV.
Who will replace Herbert?
Tyler Shough is the clear front-runner after backing Herbert up this season. The 6-foot-5, 219-pound redshirt freshman has the arm, size and leadership skills to win the job, but Cristobal is looking forward to the open competition this spring.
The quarterbacks from the 2019 (Cale Millen) and 2020 (Jay Butterfield, Robby Ashford) recruiting classes will also have an opportunity to start fresh with Moorhead.
Cristobal is looking forward to seeing how the young signal-callers compete against Avalos’ stacked unit.
“That’s the best way to develop your quarterback and your wide receivers — put them against the very best,” Cristobal said. “All these guys that are up here, we feel they are the best in the conference and beyond.”
Can Sewell strike the pose?
Sewell, the starting left tackle, was a unanimous all-American this season and is considered to be the best offensive lineman in the country.
That’s a pretty nice building block to start with as Oregon auditions replacements for graduated starters Shane Lemieux (left guard), Jake Hanson (center), Dallas Warmack/Brady Aiello (right guard) and Calvin Throckmorton (right tackle).
At least two Heisman voters had Sewell on their 2019 ballots. An offensive lineman has never won the award, but the grassroots campaign for the 6-foot-6, 325-pound junior-to-be could gain traction if the Ducks are in the College Football Playoff discussion again.
“It’s like when Moses parted the Red Sea. That’s how I would describe it,” running back CJ Verdell said of Sewell’s blocking. “He’s one of my best friends on the team. We’re roommates and everything, so I talk to him a lot. It’s a pleasure running behind him.”
Can Oregon beat Ohio State?
The Ducks had better worry about North Dakota State first. The Bison are coming off a 16-0 season capped with the program’s eighth FCS championship in the last nine years.
Following the Sept. 5 opener against NDSU at Autzen Stadium, Oregon hosts the defending Big Ten champion Buckeyes on Sept. 12.
Quarterback Justin Fields, a preseason Heisman front-runner, will test Avalos’ defense. Oregon’s retooled offensive line won’t have to deal with NFL-bound defensive lineman Chase Young, who is projected to be the second overall pick in the draft behind LSU quarterback Joe Burrow.
Ohio State is expected to contend for the national championship, which means the Ducks will be underdogs.
However, Oregon is 13-1 at Autzen since Cristobal took over. So yeah, a victory, which would almost certainly vault the program back into the AP top-five entering Pac-12 play, is possible.
Follow Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @RGDuckFootball and email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Oregon sports coverage, visit DuckSports.com.