Saturday Out West Crystal Ball: Predicting every Oregon football game for 2023
Editor’s note: Saturday Out West’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series will preview every team in the Pac-12. Today: Oregon.
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The confluence of events that landed Kenny Dillingham at Arizona State has put Oregon in a strange spot heading into the all-important 2023 season.
In some ways, it feels like a redo, or, at least a fresh start for head coach Dan Lanning. Gone are Dilly and offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, as well as 4 starting offensive linemen. Gone are guys like linebacker Justin Flowe, one of the program’s top recruits in history, and wideout Dont’e Thornton.
But back are the 3 who matter most: Lanning and the Killer Bs: Bo Nix and Bucky Irving.
And in comes another innovative young offensive coordinator Will Stein, just 33 years old. If he and Nix come together quickly, the Ducks will fly high. If not, a daunting month awaits. That month will be the difference between a potential College Football Playoff berth and a light regression.
What does Bo Nix do for an encore?
Nix arrived in Eugene last year with minimal fanfare, courtesy of an overhyped, up-and-down career at Auburn, full of injuries and inconsistencies. But he also arrived with Dillingham, his former OC with the Tigers in 2019, his freshman year. Their friendship blossomed quickly. In his first game as a freshman for Auburn, coincidentally against this very same Oregon squad, Nix tossed a 26-yard touchdown pass with 9 seconds left to upend Justin Herbert and the No. 11 Ducks, 27-21, at AT&T Stadium.
For the year under Dillingham’s tutelage, Nix had 2,542 yards and 16 touchdowns, the best numbers of his 3-year Auburn career.
So when they both arrived in Eugene, there was room for optimism. But even the rosiest-colored glasses could not have seen Nix’s 2022 campaign coming:
He threw for 3,593 yards on 72% passing, with 29 passing touchdowns and 7 interceptions, while adding 510 rushing yards and 14 more scores. He even caught 2 passes for 36 yards and a touchdown. Most important, the Ducks went 10-3.
With Dillingham gone, all eyes will be on Nix and his play this year. If he pulls off a smashing sequel, he’ll play himself into the first round of the 2024 NFL Draft.
Will the offense skip a beat under Will Stein?
It’s not only about Nix, though. Stein is under the microscope as well.
For Lanning, it’s a bit of a gamble. Stein was a quality control coach at his alma Louisville in 2014 and with Texas from 2015-17 before becoming offensive coordinator at QB factory Lake Travis High (Texas). Stein joined the UTSA staff in 2020 as passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. He was bumped up to co-offensive coordinator last year and the Roadrunners flourished.
UTSA ranked 9th nationally in total offense (486.1 YPG), 12th in scoring offense (38.7 PPG) and 12th in passing offense (308.6 YPG). Quarterback Frank Harris flourished under Stein, ranking No. 2 in the nation with 4,453 total yards of offense and No. 6 with 40 total touchdowns.
A similar showing by Nix would erase any questions.
Can the Ducks survive 1 brutal stretch?
On Oct. 14, the real party starts for the Ducks, who should be 5-0 and fresh coming off a bye week. Between that day and No. 11, Oregon will face Washington, Washington State, Utah, Cal and USC, with the Huskies and Utes coming on the road.
If the Ducks somehow navigate that terrain with 1 loss, they should still be in the Playoff chase. Two losses is more realistic. It feels foolish to claim that Oregon’s season will come down to one stretch, but it will.
Week 1: vs. Portland State (W)
Oregon has a 99.0% chance to win this one, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. That’s all? Not 99.1?
Week 2: at Texas Tech (W)
The Red Raiders rolled into the offseason on a high, winning 4 straight games, including an impressive 42-25 Texas Bowl win over Ole Miss. Texas Tech ranks 4th in the Big 12 with 14 returning starters and 5th in offensive returning production (75%). That is a big reason the Ducks head to Lubbock as light underdogs according to the FPI, which gives the Ducks a 49% chance. That’s crazy to me. Oregon wins going away.
Week 3: vs. Hawaii (W)
OK, back to reality. Oregon’s favored in this one, 96.4-3.6, even though Hawaii has won 3 straight in the series. Granted, that last win came in 1994 — almost 6 years before Nix was born.
Week 4: vs. Colorado (W)
The Ducks are also overwhelming FPI favorites in this one, 94.2-5.8, as they’ve won 9-of-10 in the series and 3 straight, including 49-10 last year.
But this is a new Colorado team that Deion Sanders brings into Autzen Stadium, a complete enigma heading into the season. With back-to-back games against TCU and Nebraska to kick off the season, we’ll know a lot more about the Buffaloes by Week 4. But for now, it’s safe to predict an Oregon win at home, even if the margin is a mystery.
Week 5: at Stanford (W)
Yet another game in which Oregon is heavily favored against a team in flux. The Cardinal have moved on from the long and mostly successful David Shaw Era to Troy Taylor Time, and the verdict is out on if they can embrace the new kumbaya culture. Stanford is in rough shape for this year, with just 34% of its offensive production returning — losing QB Tanner McKee and some talented pass-catchers will hurt — and just 34% on defense, two of the lowest numbers in the conference.
Coming off a 45-27 win in Autzen Stadium last year, the Ducks will cruise into their bye with a win.
Week 6: Bye
Week 7: at Washington (L)
And now it begins, Oregon’s month of fury, kicking off with the loaded Huskies. UDub brings back 74% of its production on offense and 73% on defense, with the star power to match. Michael Penix Jr., Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan, Bralen Trice — that’s a ton of talent. Plus the Huskies have to feel good after a rare win in Autzen last year, a 37-34 thriller that was one of the best Pac-12 games of the year. The win snapped a 3-game Oregon winning streak in the series, which Washington leads 61-48-5. Penix outduels Nix again was Washington wins back-to-back games in the series for just the 3rd time in 21 years.
Week 8: vs. Washington State (W)
Aside from a 4-game Washington State winning streak from 2015-18, Oregon has gone 12-0 against the Cougars since 2007. This sandwich game has some upset potential, though, as the Ducks could be caught looking behind at Washington and ahead to Utah. Those 2 road games will define the Ducks’ season, after all. Nix threw for a career-high 428 yards with 3 TDs to rally the Ducks last year from a 4th-quarter deficit last year at WSU. He’ll have another big day this time in Round 2 vs. Cam Ward.
Week 9: at Utah (L)
Having met twice in the Pac-12 title game since 2019, with Oregon winning in ’19 and Utah winning in ’21, this rivalry is hot and heavy. They’ve split the past 6 meetings, with Oregon narrowly escaping last year, 20-17, on a day the Utes largely contained a banged-up Nix. The FPI gives Oregon a 40.8% chance to beat the 2-time defending conference champs, even with Utah returning 83% of its offensive production and 69% on defense. Much will depend on the health and wellness of Utes QB Cam Rising.
Week 10: vs. Cal (W)
This rivalry has been remarkably close, and not just geographically, with a 42-42-2 split. But the past dozen-plus years has been entirely Oregon, which has won 12-of-14 since 2009. With the Cal offense in a near-constant state of change, Nix and the Ducks should have little trouble. Nix recorded his 2nd career 400-yard day against the Bears last season, accounting for 6 TDs (3 pass/3 rush) in a 42-24 blowout.
Week 11: vs. USC (W)
Autzen Stadium is the best gameday atmosphere in the Pac-12, and a sacred place for the Ducks, as Oregon has not lost more than one home game since the disastrous 4-8 campaign under Mark Helfrich in 2016.
Yet USC is favored on the road in this one, with the FPI giving the Trojan a 54-46 edge. The Ducks will have to try to contain Caleb Williams and an offense that returns 75% of its production from a year ago. They haven’t met since the 2020 Pac-12 Championship Game.
The hype will be undeniable — could College GameDay visit? — and Nix will outduel Williams in a showdown with Heisman and Pac-12 title implications.
Week 12: at Arizona State (W)
This one has a little extra spice as Lanning heads to Tempe to square off with Dillingham. Much was made of Dillingham’s relationship with Nix, but he was also pretty tight with Lanning. Forget friendship, though — when it comes to football, Oregon has a clear edge. The Sun Devils return a meager 61% of offensive production and 45% on defense.
Week 13: vs. Oregon State (W)
Despite trailing big in the lifetime series, the Beavers have won 2-of-3, including yet another game of the year candidate in 2022, a 38-34 win at a rollicking Reser Stadium. It’s not too long ago, though, that Oregon won 11-of-12 in the rivalry.
With both teams vying for double-digit wins, if not the conference title, this should be yet another slugfest. Oregon is favored by nearly two-thirds (65.9-34.1), despite the Beavers bringing back 78% of their offensive production and adding DJ Uiagalelei.
This game will be personal for Nix and the Ducks. Last season, Oregon led 34-17 in the 4th quarter, mere minutes from securing a spot in the Pac-12 title game. OSU scored 21 unanswered points to help eliminate the Ducks. Nix was stuffed on a key 4th-and-1 call that set up OSU’s winning TD.
He and the Ducks won’t be denied this time.
2023 Projection: 10-2 (8-2)
The sky is the limit for the Ducks, who are looking to build on Lanning’s terrific debut season. The star-studded Oregon offense should be in good hands even though its switching hands, so much will come down to a defense that needs to put more pressure on the quarterback.
After losing Gonzalez to the NFL, the Ducks need an entirely new defensive backfield to come together quickly. If I was in the pass-happy Pac-12, I don’t think I’d want to be breaking in 4 DB transfers and 1 true freshman.