Oregon spring football preview: Can the Ducks make a CFP push?

Oregon coach Mario Cristobal has a loaded team and a chance to win a Pac-12 title in his second season. Steve Dykes/Getty Images

The promotion of Mario Cristobal from offensive line coach/co-offensive coordinator to head coach at Oregon last year following the departure of Willie Taggart was met with mixed reviews. But, entering his second spring, Cristobal has arguably the Pac-12's most talented roster.

The Ducks started 2018 6-1 (and probably should have beaten Stanford), but they finished 9-4 and fourth in the Pac-12 North.

With 17 starters back (10 on offense and seven on defense), including a quarterback who might have been the No. 1 overall pick in this year's NFL draft, Oregon has a chance to get back into the national spotlight, and maybe into the College Football Playoff.

2018 record: 9-4

Spring practice start date: March 7

Spring game date: April 20

Biggest offseason position battle: All eyes will be on Ducks receivers this spring, but don't forget about the hole at middle linebacker. The Ducks lost senior starter Kaulana Apelu, but there are a few options here. Junior Sampson Niu went from unknown to starting four games last season when Apelu went down with an injury. Niu registered 23 tackles, including three for loss and a sack. Redshirt sophomore Isaac Slade-Matautia was Apelu's first replacement last year, but he missed the final six games with a shoulder injury. Still, he'll get every opportunity to battle Niu for the starting spot. Dru Mathis, the No. 7 juco outside linebacker prospect, will also get a look in the middle this spring, as will ESPN 300 early enrollee Ge'Mon Eaford. ESPN 300 member Mase Funa isn't on campus yet, but if he's fully healthy (knee) for fall camp, he'll push for the starting spot, too.

Strength heading into spring: The Ducks might have the Pac-12's best offensive line, with all five starters coming back. Left guard Shane Lemieux, center Jake Hanson and Calvin Throckmorton, who has played four positions up front during his career, were 2018 All-Pac-12 members. Sophomore Penei Sewell earned all-league honorable mention -- despite playing in just the first six games during the regular season -- and became the first Oregon true freshman offensive lineman to start the season opener since 1997. Oregon allowed just 22 sacks last year, and its starters return almost 4,000 snaps from last season. The Ducks have solid depth (nine to 10 deep), too, starting with Brady Aiello, who started the last seven games at right tackle. More than 150 starts return, but freshman Jonah Tauanu'u will compete for the starting right tackle spot this fall, and No. 1 juco guard Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu will get a shot inside, as well.

Question mark heading into spring: After losing Dillon Mitchell, who set the school's single-season record for receiving yards (1,184), the Ducks are very young and not very productive at receiver. Getting Penn State grad transfer Juwan Johnson earlier this month was big, but there's still a lot of development they need at wideout. Outside of junior Jaylon Redd -- who caught 38 passes for 433 yards and five touchdowns last season -- only senior Brenden Schooler returned at least 20 catches from 2018 (21). Redshirt freshman Bryan Addison is intriguing, with his 6-foot-5 size and the fact that he was a former ESPN 300 member. Early enrollee and former ESPN 300 member Josh Delgado will get valuable time this spring, but all eyes will be on fellow ESPN 300 freshmen Mycah Pittman and Lance Wilhoite once they get on campus.

Instant impact addition: When the No. 1 recruit in the country enrolls early, you're going to figure out a way to get him ready to play ASAP. Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux is the highest-rated signee in Oregon history and arrived in Eugene at 6-foot-5 and 243 pounds. He's already tweeted -- and deleted -- about how he's better than Von Miller, so there's that. The uber-athletic Thibodeaux recorded 54 sacks over his high school career, including 18 with five forced fumbles as a senior. He was going to play this fall regardless, but with end Jalen Jelks gone, Thibodeaux has a chance to see immediate playing time for the Ducks.

2019 game to get excited about now: Clearly it's the season opener against Auburn at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. This certainly isn't a make-or-break game for the Ducks when it comes to the Pac-12 title, but it could be for a shot at the playoff. If you want to make an early impression in a conference desperate for any sort of positive national attention, you have to win this game, Ducks. The Pac-12 didn't get off to a great start when Auburn beat Washington in Atlanta last season, and this is a chance to restore some credibility. It's a major test for the Ducks' offense, especially up front and for quarterback Justin Herbert, and a win over an SEC team on national television would go a long way for the Ducks' confidence in 2019.

Spring storyline to watch: What will be the evolution of coordinator Marcus Arroyo's offense? The Ducks lost just one starter on offense (Mitchell) and still have Herbert behind center. However, there's room for this offense to improve. Last season, Oregon was third in the Pac-12 in total offense (427.2 yards per game) and second in scoring (34.8 points per game). Both numbers were down from the previous year, but not by much. Still, this offense was held to 20 points or fewer three times (twice in Pac-12 play) last season. Fans were hard on Arroyo, but the offense certainly wasn't terrible. Arroyo still has to figure out how to better tailor his offense completely around Herbert's skill set. What will change and how will Arroyo adapt?