Oregon plays a challenging schedule in 2014, drawing four teams that finished the 2013 campaign ranked in the final Associated Press Top 25 Poll. Combine those matchups with the ever-increasing depth of the entire Pac-12, and the Ducks' path to the College Football Playoff is dotted with potential potholes.
Each of the five most important games on the Ducks' schedule poses its own unique test, though all are crucial to Oregon's championship ambitions.
5. Oct. 18, vs. Washington
Rival Washington has not won a matchup with Oregon since 2003, but new Huskies head coach Chris Petersen has a much better recent track record. He won meetings in 2008 and 2009 at Boise State, holding the Ducks to the lowest output of Chip Kelly—eight points—in the latter matchup.
Washington put up a fight in last year's meeting at Husky Stadium, trailing only by a touchdown in the fourth quarter before the Ducks pulled away.
Petersen is well aware of the importance of ending Oregon's stranglehold. Per The News Tribune, at his introductory press conference last December, he was asked, "Are you going to beat Oregon?"
Oregon faces the very real possibility of an emotional letdown on this date, one week removed from a potential top-10 showdown on the road at UCLA.
4. Nov. 29, at Oregon State
Oregon has dominated the Civil War rivalry series with wins in six straight installments. However, the Ducks needed a last-minute scoring drive to fend off a loss in last year's edition.
Despite the Ducks' November struggles leading into that game, the Beavers were struggling even more with losses in four straight. But the Civil War transcends records, as Oregon State defensive tackle Mana Rosa told The Oregonian last November.
"I'd be really happy just coming out and winning that game for sure. It'd definitely make my season," he said.
Motivation will certainly be no issue regardless of the teams' respective standings. However, Oregon State could have more on the line this year than last. The Beavers return a solid, veteran corps led by conference passing record-setting quarterback Sean Mannion.
3. Oct. 11, at UCLA
UCLA joins Oregon as one of two Pac-12 teams ranked in the way-too-early Top 10 in Sports Illustrated. Expectations are high for the Bruins, with Heisman-contending quarterback Brett Hundley captaining the offense and uniquely talented linebacker Myles Jack heading up the defense.
UCLA played Oregon to a first-half stalemate in last season's encounter, but the Ducks blew it open in the second half.
Those third and fourth quarters left UCLA quarterback Hundley with frustration he expressed in his postgame press conference, per GoDucks.com:
We’re not here to be "good enough." We’re not here to earn respect from anybody. We’re here to win games and that’s what we come here to do. At the end of the day, we’re not playing to be close and barely walk away with a win.
Both teams could enter this one undefeated, which would mean a considerable amount of national hype in tow.
2. Sept. 6, vs. Michigan State
Reigning Rose Bowl champion Michigan State is built to slow down the Ducks' potent offensive attack, both on the defensive and offensive ends. The Spartans are stout on both lines and employ a punishing running game capable of taking the air out of the ball on one end.
On the other end, Michigan State features one of the stingiest defenses in college football. The Spartans' defense is not only physically imposing and powerful, but also quick and athletic.
Michigan State's defensive dominance translated to both the run and the pass. Opponents averaged just 2.85 yards per rushing attempt and a paltry 47.5 completion percentage on pass attempts.
The Spartans are the perfect test run for Oregon to gauge how it has improved in the one area that has been most vexing to its championship aspirations in the last two seasons.
1. Nov. 1, vs. Stanford
Stanford knocked Oregon from its Pac-12 perch in consecutive seasons.
"Where we've put ourselves and where our players have put ourselves [the Stanford loss is] obviously magnified," head coach Mark Helfrich told reporters after Stanford's 26-20 defeat of Oregon last November, via GoStanford.com.
The return engagement should be another high-stakes affair. Despite changes on the Cardinal starting lineup and the loss of defensive coordinator Derek Mason to the head coaching vacancy at Vanderbilt, there is enough returning firepower to have them in the hunt for another Pac-12 championship.
The fourth quarter of last year's defeat showed on the scoreboard that the Ducks were beginning to solve the Cardinal defensive quandary, but Oregon effectively moved the ball for most of the seven quarters and overtime prior to that period's 20-point barrage.
The key to Oregon finally getting past the Stanford hurdle in 2014 is converting yards into points.
Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.