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Tough games at Autzen in Ducks’ favor

While Oregon football coach Chip Kelly was sitting in front of the bright lights taking questions from members of the media Friday morning, I sat thinking about the possibilities this season holds. Sometimes it’s frustrating when players and coaches say they aren’t thinking about anything further than the next game, so I’ll take care of the rest for you.

Trust me, this could be a big season for Oregon football.

Let’s first start with the team. Ten returning starters from both sides of the ball doesn’t usually make for high expectations, but with outstanding athletes at the skill positions and a promising young line, the Ducks have the makings of a great team. Jeremiah Masoli is the clear favorite at quarterback, and with 1,000-yard running back LeGarrette Blount as the No. 1 rusher this year, the rushing game is again going to be top-notch. But with a few offensive linemen graduating, some young guys will have to step up.

On the defense, the secondary and the linebacking core are rock solid and full of veterans, but it’s going to be the line that again draws the scrutiny, as Nick Reed is gone. Head coach Chip Kelly isn’t worried, though. He says the depth they have from getting guys into the bowl game will be key.

But where I think the Ducks are going to shine is in the schedule. They have the Pacific-10 Conference’s hardest-rated schedule, according to Phil Steele, because of their trip to Boise State, then home games with Purdue and Utah. The trip to Boise will be tough, but if the Ducks win their first three games it will put them in position to run the table in conference, thanks to the way the schedule falls. All the tough games are at home.

California, USC and Oregon State will travel to Eugene to play in Autzen.

Those three matchups are consistently the toughest games on the Ducks’ schedule, so it’s very interesting that they are all coming to Eugene this year. It’s a boon for Oregon because combined, the team has only four wins away from Autzen against those three teams in the last decade. USC is ripe for the picking with having to replace a lot of the defensive starters and training a new quarterback. Yes, they are always loaded, but bringing a young, inexperienced quarterback to Autzen Stadium is scary, especially when you’re a highly ranked team. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Duck fans tend to get hyped up for big games.

But the Golden Bears very well could be Oregon’s biggest test. The Ducks play Cal Sept. 26 in the first Pac-10 game of the year, and a loss would be a huge setback. The team hasn’t beat the Bears in a few years, so a win would set the ball rolling and the Ducks will have a shot at the Pac-10 crown if they pull it off.

For those who think that having these games at home doesn’t matter, just think about it. Not only do you not have to travel, but the comfort you have with the field, the crowd and the conditions takes out a few variables. It gives players an extra boost that is hard to quantify, but it’s there all the same.

Add in when you’re playing a team and the schedule becomes tantamount to success.

This year, the Ducks play USC on Oct. 31. Remember another mid-season upset involving the Trojans last year? The Beavers beat them in Corvallis. The year before, Stanford and the Ducks got them. USC traditionally has problems with one or two games in the middle of its schedule every single year. Sometimes the Trojans still win them all, but the last three or so years, it has been that one game that’s killed them from going to the national championship game. I’m again predicting that the Trojans will falter in the middle of the season, this time against Oregon.

In the end, it’s all about moments: when you play a team, where you play, your ranking at the time, etc. College football is the sum of these variables coming together for the perfect storm. This is the year Oregon football transcends to the BCS level. There may be question marks about the team in some regards, but overall they have the talent, willpower and coaching to do it.

It’s going to be a fun year in the press box.

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