When Mario Cristobal was promoted to head coach after Willie Taggart left for Florida State in late 2017, the pieces for Oregon's return to Pac-12 title contention had already started to come together. The offensive line was developing into a strong unit and when Cristobal, previously the co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, got the top job, the identity of the new Ducks regime started in the trenches. 

He's backed up that line-of-scrimmage-focused mentality with success on the recruiting trail that calls to mind his four years with Nick Saban at Alabama, where in addition to coaching the offensive line and serving as associate head coach, Cristobal was the recruiting coordinator. The Ducks have landed the top recruiting class in the Pac-12 in back-to-back cycles, including splash five-star signings like Kayvon Thibodeaux, the No. 2 overall prospect in 2019, and Justin Flowe, the No. 6 overall prospect in 2020.

So now Oregon is coming off a Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl win, looking to take the next step in its ascension the top of college football. There are opportunities for major statements ahead and a ceiling that includes a return to the College Football Playoff in 2020.

2019 rewind

Final ranking: No. 5 in the CBS Sports 130 | Achievements: Pac-12 champions, won Rose Bowl 28-27 vs. Wisconsin

There's two views of Oregon's season. One mostly focuses on the hardware, with the Rose Bowl win against Wisconsin and Pac-12 Championship Game romp of Utah as highlights of a season that affirmed the Ducks were back in the driver's seat of the conference for the first time since Marcus Mariota. That's a really successful season and one that will prove to be pivotal in the growth of the Oregon program under Cristobal. 

But there's also the side that can't believe how close the Ducks were to playing for a national championship in the College Football Playoff. Oregon lost two games by a combined nine points, leading in the third quarter against Auburn in a 27-21 loss and coming short in a furious fourth quarter comeback effort at Arizona State. If the Ducks could have held on in Arlington against Bo Nix and the Tigers and/or gotten that offense going just a little bit earlier in Tempe under the lights, Oregon probably makes the playoff. 

Key departures

QB Justin Herbert: A four-year contributor who finished his career with 30 consecutive starts, Herbert fulfilled much of what was expected when the Eugene native arrived on campus. In 2019, he became just the second player in Oregon history with 3,000 yards passing in back-to-back seasons and rated as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country, ranking sixth nationally in passer rating among players with at least 400 pass attempts on the season. Herbert leaves with school records for pass completions and pass attempts in addition to his Rose Bowl Offensive MVP, with his legacy centered on leading the program back to Pac-12 title contention. 

LB Troy Dye: Herbert was more of a name because of NFL Draft hype and intrigue, but his teammate was arguably the most important player during their college careers together. Dye is the only player in Oregon history to lead the team in tackles four consecutive seasons and one of just nine FBS players since 2000 with career totals of at least 15 sacks and five interceptions. He was the heartbeat of the defense from the linebacker position and a three-time All-Pac-12 selection. 

Four OL starters (Shane Lemieux, Jake Hanson, Dallas Warmack, Calvin Throckmorton): This is where things get tricky for Oregon's efforts to repeat as Pac-12 champions and compete for the College Football Playoff. Herbert's efficiency and a solid rushing attack in 2019 were all thanks to one of the best offensive lines in the country. Now that group, which has been the spark for offensive success in 2018 and 2019, loses 177 combined career starts between these four studs up front. We use the phrase "reloaded" or "rebuilt" offensive lines when previewing teams that have to change out a majority of their starters, but at Oregon it feels more like an overhaul with how long players like Lemieux and Throckmorton have held down their spots on the depth chart. 

OC Marcus Arroyo: Hired originally by Taggart as co-offensive coordinator, Arroyo held the job down by himself after Cristobal's promotion to head coach in late 2017. As the primary voice in the quarterbacks room, Arroyo gets credit for helping in the development of Herbert into a top-10 NFL Draft pick and the Ducks' success in his time on staff contributed to him getting hired as the new coach at UNLV.  

Who's back?

OT Penei Sewell: While four starters are gone from last year's offensive line, the group's star remains after a breakthrough season in 2019 that saw him become the first Oregon player and first sophomore offensive lineman to win the Outland Trophy, awarded to the best interior lineman (offense or defense) in college football. His consensus first team All-America honors put him in exclusive company with LaMichael James (2010) and Mariota (2014), and it's projected that he'll not only be the first offensive lineman taken in the 2021 NFL Draft but potentially as a top-five pick. According to Oregon, Sewell has allowed just one sack over 1,376 snaps the last two seasons. 

DE Kayvon Thibodeaux: Any conversation of Thibodeaux's explosive 2019 debut is paired with immense anticipation for what's to come in 2020 and beyond. The Pac-12 coaches named him the Freshman Defensive Player of the Year after setting a program freshman record with 9.0 sacks in a full 14-game effort that included just five starts. One of the best indicators of Thibodeaux's game-changing ability was his impact in pivotal moments, racking up eight of his nine sacks after halftime during Oregon's 12-2 season.  

RB CJ Verdell: There is no skill player on the 2020 roster who compares to Verdell as he enters the year as one of just seven players in all of FBS to rush for 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons. As a sophomore in 2019, Verdell was an All-Pac-12 second-team selection and the Pac-12 Championship Game MVP after totaling 208 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries against Utah, one of the best rushing defenses in the country. How he fits into the new scheme is yet to be determined, but there's no question that he's going to be at the center of what the Ducks want to accomplish on offense.   

Fresh faces

OC Joe Moorhead: After leading Mississippi State to two bowl games in two seasons, the Bulldogs parted ways with Moorhead in a move that proved timely for Cristobal and Oregon. Prior to Mississippi State, Moorhead was considered among the top offensive coordinators in the nation at Penn State and those dynamic Nittany Lions offenses lay the groundwork for high expectations in 2020. 

QB Anthony Brown: A three-year starter at Boston College immediately eligible for 2020 as a graduate transfer, Brown says he "wasn't promised anything" when recruited by Cristobal and Moorhead, and that "nothing guaranteed" message helped solidify his commitment to the Ducks. Brown was limited by injuries in 2017 and 2019, but when healthy has shown flashes of potential that made him among the most intriguing quarterbacks in the transfer portal this offseason.  

LB Justin Flowe and LB Noah Sewell: Both five-star freshmen were key pieces to the Ducks' 2020 recruiting class that ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 12 in the country. Flowe ranked as the No. 6 overall player in the class and Sewell comes in with plenty of program familiarity as the younger brother of star offensive lineman Penei Sewell. With linebacker identified as one of the few positions losing major contributors on defense, these new faces will have a good chance at making an instant impact early in their college careers.

Critical games

Week 2 vs. Ohio State -- Sept. 12: It just doesn't get much bigger than two top-10 teams facing off in the first month of the season. We get less than a handful of these games every year, and they always seem to set the stage for the College Football Playoff race for both teams with the winner picking up some margin for error in conference play and the loser needing to run the table in order to feel good about its chances to finish in the top four. For example: if Oregon holds on to win against Auburn in the opener a year ago, the Ducks are probably playoff bound as 12-1 Pac-12 champions. 

Week 5 vs. Washington -- Oct. 3: If Oregon is going to the playoff, it's going to have to be as Pac-12 champions and it's not likely that the Ducks can win the Pac-12 without beating Washington. The Huskies had established themselves as the team to beat in the Pac-12 North under Chris Petersen with three straight division titles and Jimmy Lake, now leading the charge as Petersen's successor at head coach, is looking to reclaim that position. 

Week 7 at Cal -- Oct. 17: In a season where the schedule sets up well with several of the biggest matchups at home, a road trip to Cal represents one of the Ducks' toughest tests. Expectations for the Bears range from "bowl bound" to "Pac-12 title dark horse" and with that variance it's impossible to know what to expect other than the Bears' best effort with the preseason Pac-12 favorites in town. 

Week 10 vs. USC -- Nov. 7: Oregon embarrassed USC in the Coliseum last season, running up the score in a 56-24 win that affirmed the Ducks role in the Pac-12 title race. The Trojans will be looking for revenge no doubt, but also playing with Pac-12 title hopes on the line in what could be a preview of the 2020 Pac-12 Championship Game. 

2020 outlook

Few teams in the top 10 of our preseason rankings have the variance in terms of best and worst-case scenarios. Oregon has taken over the top spot in the Pac-12 pecking order, but it does not have the clearance that a Clemson or Ohio State have in their respective conferences. Play it out in the best-case scenario and you see the Ducks as an 11-1 team that has taken advantage of getting several key matchups in Autzen Stadium to win the Pac-12 and content for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

But with several questions, the most significant of which is how effective the Ducks can be on offense, the worst-case scenario involves a three or four-game swing. Moorhead will be rushing the install of a new system with a new quarterback and four new offensive lineman. It's not a stretch to predict a step back for the Ducks on that side of the ball, and that step back could be the margin for error against the rest of the Pac-12 title hopefuls. Oregon might be playoff ready, but Washington isn't too far removed from being the class of the conference itself, Cal is on the upswing and USC has the most explosive offense in the league. 

The defense should be championship caliber, and the program depth is built out with the arrival of another stellar recruiting class. The 2020 season will be another year of growth, but whether that comes with growing pains or more hardware for the trophy case will depend on how effective the Ducks can be offensively with two of the top defensive units in the country on the schedule in the first five weeks of the season.