Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 college football preseason top 25. A poll that’s guaranteed to be wrong like every other preseason poll out there. Every day in August we’re going to reveal a new team in our top 25 culminating with the reveal of our No. 1 team on Aug. 25. And yes, it’s a team from the SEC.
No. 18 Oregon
2017 record: 7-6 (4-5 Pac-12)
Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
Can Justin Herbert establish himself as the Pac-12’s top QB?
Oregon was 6-2 last year with Justin Herbert starting at quarterback and 1-4 without him. The Ducks started 4-1, but the season derailed after Herbert broke his collarbone. He returned late in the year to get the Ducks into a bowl game, but it was tough not to wonder what could have happened had Herbert stayed healthy.
Now a junior, Herbert, listed at 6-foot-6 and 233 pounds, has the chance to establish himself as the best quarterback in the Pac-12 and a top NFL prospect. And he’ll approach those challenges with a new head coach: Mario Cristobal. Cristobal was Oregon’s co-offensive coordinator last year under Willie Taggart, so he and Herbert have familiarity.
At Pac-12 Media Day, Cristobal gushed about the steps Herbert has taken to improve, especially as a leader.
“I think he was a quarterback last year,” Cristobal said. “And now he’s becoming a field general.
“That guy understands how to flip protections. He knows how to call a tight end, change the running backs and get them a protection opportunity. He understands the run game like a coordinator does. He could get us into advantage runs when we’re not in one or facing pressure or potentially a negative play. In my opinion, that’s the biggest step as a quarterback, when he can look at it like an offensive line coach can and understand, ‘Where can we get hit? Where can we get hurt? How can we make this an advantage if play for us?’”
How good can Jim Leavitt’s defense be?
The Oregon defense was one of the nation’s worst in 2016. In his first season in Eugene, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt turned things around in a big way. The unit allowed 12 fewer points and 149 fewer yards per game than it had the year prior under Brady Hoke. The Ducks played with ferocity and ended up finishing the season in the top 30 nationally in turnovers gained, team tackles for loss and sacks.
Taggart wanted Leavitt and his 3-4 scheme to follow him to Florida State, but the veteran coach decided to stay in Eugene. And with seven starters back, the Ducks have the chance to be one of the better defenses in the Pac-12, provided they give up fewer big plays.
Three starters at linebacker return, led by Troy Dye (107 tackles. 9.5 TFL) in the middle. Jalen Jelks, an end who racked up 15.5 TFLs and seven sacks, is back as well. The secondary has young talent at corner and a potential all-conference performer in Ugo Amadi at safety.
The schedule is soft early, too. That will give the defense a chance to really gel before the Pac-12 slate begins.
The Pac-12 North is loaded; where does Oregon fit in?
Oregon is in the clearly superior division in the Pac-12: the North. And when you look at the way Oregon’s schedule plays out, the team’s toughest divisional games will be played at Autzen Stadium in Eugene — vs. Stanford and Washington — and combine it with the fact they come relatively early in the season, you’re looking at a potential recipe for a highly-ranked Oregon in the middle of October.
The Stanford game comes in Week 4 after a cakewalk non-conference slate: Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose State. Three weeks later, after a trip to Cal and a bye week, the Pac-12 favorite Washington Huskies will visit Eugene. Those two games could ultimately decide the division — and beyond.
Because after that stretch, the Ducks will be favored in almost every game moving forward with trips to Arizona and Utah looking like the two stiffest tests.
Impact player: Tony Brooks-James, RB
While Herbert is getting most of the hype entering the season, it’s important to remember that Oregon was a run-first team last fall, even when Herbert was healthy. That effort was led by the perennially-productive Royce Freeman (5,621 career yards). With Freeman now in the NFL, Brooks-James, a senior, now has the chance to assume lead back duties. As a backup, he’s been very effective: 226 carries for 1,557 yards and 14 TDs. That’s 6.9 yards per carry. The 2018 season will be his time to shine.
Game to watch: Oct. 13 vs. Washington
With Washington considered a College Football Playoff contender by most, Oregon can put itself right in the mix as one of the premier Pac-12 teams by upsetting the Huskies at home.
A 5-0 start ahead of the Washington game is a very real possibility, and a jump to 6-0 with an upset win over UW coming off a bye week could vault the Ducks into the national conversation. Oregon is due to slip up somewhere, especially with so many road games in the second half of the schedule, but a chance for double-digit wins and a North title should not be dismissed.
Losses to Stanford and Washington would really put the Ducks behind the eight ball in the North. From there, trips to Washington State, Arizona and Utah would look a lot tougher. But in the end, the Ducks look like a seven-or-eight-win team at worst as long as Herbert stays healthy.
The schedule draw makes it tougher to find losses on the schedule, but the Ducks will likely slip up somewhere on the road in the second half of the year. A 9-3 regular season and a bowl win in Cristobal’s first season should feel pretty good.