The Oregon Ducks are a team searching for an identity entering the fourth week of the college football season.
The Ducks are 3-0, ranked No. 20 in the nation, boast one of the country's best run defenses and have a sure-fire first-round draft pick at the quarterback position. But, a lot of those accolades come on the strength of Oregon's non-conference schedule, which is considered one of the weakest in college football.
Nobody knows how Oregon will react when faced with adversity. How will the Ducks react when they're punched first, or have to drive for a game-changing score late in the fourth quarter?
Come Saturday night, the Ducks may find out.
No. 7 Stanford (3-0) is one of the best teams in the nation and has been a thorn in the Ducks' side since its meteoric rise to stardom over the past decade. Not only will Oregon discover a lot about itself, the rest of the nation will as well since kickoff is at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.
"I think you acknowledge it as one of the reasons you come to Oregon," Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said. "To be on the biggest stage, on the national spotlight. Recognize the ultimate honor, but at the same it is still about playing the game. All the outside elements don't have anything to do with the result of the game or the results of our process."
There will be potential NFL talent aplenty on the field Saturday night, from Oregon's Justin Herbert and Jalen Jelks to Stanford's Bryce Love and Alijah Holder. Altogether, as many as eight of the top-100 prospects for the 2019 NFL Draft will be on the field this weekend.
"To me he's been the best corner in the Pac-12 for a long time and I hope people are starting to see that," Stanford senior cornerback Alameen Murphy said of Holder.
Love is Stanford's star, the runner-up to the Heisman Trophy last year. After sitting out last week's game against UC Davis with an undisclosed injury, Love is more than ready to take on a Ducks' defense among the best in the nation at stopping the run.
Oregon is ranked in the top-10 in rushing defense (ninth), rushing touchdowns (eighth) and yards per rush (fifth). Jelks and outside linebacker Justin Hollins might be the most dangerous outside duo in the Pac-12 while nose tackle Jordon Scott doesn't get enough credit for the job he does in the trenches.
Finally, NFL scouts will get to see if Herbert is worthy of all the hype he's been receiving. He possesses all of the physical traits he needs to be successful in the NFL but he's yet to get a signature win. He can kill two birds with one stone by beating Stanford, a top-10 team and one with multiple NFL prospects on the defensive side of the ball.
"It starts with their defensive front," Cristobal said. "They play what they play, and their scheme (is) sound, but they're also very disruptive. I think when they bring in their two outside linebackers and use them as edge rushers, they create a lot of problems."
Stanford isn't perfect, despite what its record says.
The Cardinal's 17-3 victory over USC two weeks ago appeared to be a marquee one but then the Trojans got dismantled by Texas. Most recently, the Cardinal beat FCS-team UC Davis 30-10, a closer score than expected.
"It wasn't perfect, but we played well. I told the team we're not going to act like we lost because we didn't win by as much as we wanted to," Stanford head coach David Shaw said after the UC Davis win. "We are still growing -- we have flashes of being really good and some flashes of not being really good."
This game has so many future implications in it despite being so early in the season. The winner will be the front-runner for the Pac-12 championship and announce its presence as a college football playoff contender. It's the national stage and regardless of what happens, clarity will be had once the clock strikes zero.
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