Season openers are often tricky to get right in the world of college football. Teams across the nation take many different approaches every season. Some schedule cupcakes that provide a smooth on-ramp into the season, allowing them to knock off the rust. Others like to jump into the deep end, capturing early-season eyeballs with a top-10 matchup that will either catapult them to the top of the rankings or derail their season early on.
The Oregon Ducks have tested both methods over the past decade or so. I’m not convinced either one is the correct strategy at this point. There are positives and negatives to both, in my eyes.
Last year, the Ducks opened up the Dan Lanning era with a matchup against the No. 1 ranked defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs. It did not go well, to put it kindly. The team was never really as bad as they initially looked in that 49-3 Week 1 loss, but it took more than a month to gain the respect back from a national audience that wrote the Ducks off from the jump.
A year later, in 2023, the Ducks opened up the second season of the Lanning era with a cupcake against Portland State and a subsequent 81-7 win. Though a 1-0 record looks a lot better than 0-1, I’m not sure that the result was any better for the Ducks in the long run.
Did we learn much about the team in either season opener?
I would dare to argue that Oregon’s glorified scrimmage against the Vikings was actually more harmful to the team this year because it not only didn’t prepare the squad for a Week 2 clash with Texas Tech in a raucous environment, but it might have given the players — and certainly the fanbase — false impressions of what the team was at this point in the season.
The Ducks went into Lubbock over the weekend and gutted out a hard-fought 38-30 win over the Red Raiders in a place where few teams leave with a victory. If you took the temperature of the Oregon fanbase afterward, I would say with some confidence that the overwhelming feeling was one of frustration and disappointment. After what they saw in Week 1, and what they had been led to believe based on all of the preseason hype, the Ducks should have blown out Texas Tech. That didn’t happen, though.
Should that reflect poorly on Dan Lanning and the Ducks? I’d argue no. Rather, I think it shows that there were some unrealistic expectations for this team going down into a hostile environment against a solid team.
None of this is meant to dog on the Ducks. I still feel confident that throughout the 2023 season, Oregon will be on the winning side of things far more often than they will be on the losing side. I think there is a great chance that they can make the Pac-12 Championship Game, and I do believe there is a world where they can get a seat in the College Football Playoff.
None of that is up for debate in my mind. What I’m interested in, right now at least, is the scheduling process going forward, and the type of advantages that can be gained from that.
What makes all of this even more difficult is the fact that schedules are often set years in advance — Oregon already has non-conference games on the calendar through 2033 — so it’s impossible to know which future opponents are going to be elite and near the top of the polls or not. However, I would tend to favor the model used by the Washington Huskies in 2023, scheduling games against teams like Michigan State or Boise State early on — a pair of schools that can be very competitive, but will rarely start a year ranked inside the top 10.
If my options are Boise State or Portland State, I’m taking the former. If I get to choose between Georgia and Michigan State, I’m taking the latter.
A year ago, the Ducks got trounced by Georgia in Week 1, and then they turned around and blew the doors off of Eastern Washington and BYU in the subsequent weeks. This year, the Ducks trounced Portland State in Week 1, and then squeaked by Texas Tech in Week 2.
Results aside, did Lanning feel more prepared for the season after Week 1 in 2022, or in 2023?
It’s an interesting question that I’d be really curious to find out the answer to. It’s also a question that could change how Oregon chooses to schedule their non-conference games going into the future.
In 2022, Oregon got a harsh taste of reality to start out the year, and was kicked to the curb from the jump. They rose up stronger and better for it, but had an incredibly long road to climb back to national relevance. This year, the Ducks did the kicking in Week 1, and then almost got tossed to the side a week later because they weren’t prepared for the level of the play, or the hostile environment that would accompany it.
With the jump to the Big Ten in 2024, we know that the Ducks are going to have a lot of marquee games on their schedule, some of which will come early in the season. Will that lead Lanning — and the Oregon scheduling department — to consider a change in how they map out the future games down the road?
It’s got to be worth considering.