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2021 Preview: No. 17 Oregon Has Dark-Horse Potential

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Seven months after the confetti fell on national champion Alabama, a new college football season is nearly here. As part of Sports Illustrated's 2021 preview content, we're rolling out scouting reports for all of SI's preseason top 25 teams, featuring all the names, storylines and big games you need to know. Starting with No. 25 Nevada and running through No. 1 Alabama, we'll be featuring five teams per day from Monday through Friday.

The Big Story: Oregon

It was unconventional, but 2020 saw a second consecutive conference title for the Ducks despite posting a mere 4–3 record. Oregon’s two regular-season defeats came by four points or fewer, and its conference title game win over USC was a seven-point game, so there was a high-wire feel to the season. Mario Cristobal has key pieces to replace—namely at quarterback—but the Ducks have as much elite talent as anyone else in the Pac-12.

Can't Miss: Kayvon Thibodeaux

National anonymity has unfortunately become part and parcel of the Pac-12 experience in recent years, but defensive end Thibodeaux is certainly worthy of being a household name. Thibodeaux was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the class of 2019, and he has been among the nation’s most disruptive players ever since he stepped onto the field. Thibodeaux has 12 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss in 20 career games, with six pass deflections. He’s generated 68 pressures in his career so far, including a ridiculous 23 in his last three games of 2020. Another productive season would put him in contention for the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft.

Mario Cristobal

Key Question: Who will start behind center?

Tyler Shough excelled in the first half of last season before tailing off in the second. The offense lacked sharpness, with the Ducks finishing 118th nationally with a minus-nine turnover margin. Shough lost time to Boston College transfer Anthony Brown late in the season and eventually transferred to Texas Tech, leaving the starting job wide open for 2021. Brown attempted only 23 passes last year but has thrown for nearly 5,000 yards with 42 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in his career. He’ll battle with true freshman Ty Thompson, a 6’ 4” bluechip prospect who won the Gatorade Player of the Year Award in Arizona. Whoever emerges as the starter will have a lot of weapons to work with, along with a mountain of expectations.

X-Factor: QB play

In his first year as Penn State’s offensive coordinator, Joe Moorhead guided a Nittany Lions offense that finished ranked 21st nationally in both yards per play (6.5) and points per game (37.6). He upped those ranks to 14th (6.58) and 6th (41.1), respectively, the following year, though he did so with a returning starting quarterback in Trace McSorley. Now, he’ll have to find a way to innovate with a new signal-caller, though the Ducks return nearly every skill player and the entire offensive line. Oregon has established itself as the most physical team in the Pac-12 under Cristobal, and that should remain the case in 2021. Merely adequate quarterback play can elevate the team’s ceiling from conference-title contender to college football’s upper echelon.

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Date to Circle: Sept. 11 at Ohio State

This one’s easy. Few nonconference matchups carry as much weight as this one. A win would signal the Ducks as a legitimate contender to snap the Pac-12’s four-year playoff drought, though a loss certainly wouldn’t eliminate Oregon from the equation. The Buckeyes lost a lot from last season’s squad but will surely be among the most talented teams in the country. Whether Oregon can pull off an upset will depend largely on how prepared the eventual starting quarterback is for the big stage.

The Bottom Line

Oregon has recruited at an elite level under Cristobal and has top-level talent at every position. If the Ducks can clean up their mistakes—particularly on the turnover front—they’ll have a realistic shot at the College Football Playoff.

More Top 25 Team Previews:

No. 25 Nevada
No. 24 UCF
No. 23 Texas

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