Throughout the next couple of weeks we’ll be checking in with some of the nonconference opponents facing off with Big Ten teams in 2016 to provide a better idea of what to expect out of the less-familiar opponents on this year’s league slate. We continue now with the Oregon Ducks.
Opponent: Oregon (at Nebraska Sept. 17)
Offseason storyline: Panic in Eugene? Not quite. But Ducks fans are feeling a little uneasy after their team -- which had ascended into a national power this decade -- had its worst season since 2007. Now, if going 9-4 is nadir, then things are going pretty well. Still, Oregon is once again hoping an FCS transfer can step right in and play quarterback, with former Montana State signal caller Prukop looking to take over where Vernon Adams left off. And the Ducks made a major change on the defensive side, hiring Brady Hoke -- hey, remember him! -- as their new coordinator. Oregon is still a force in the Pac-12 and nationally, but some cracks in the foundation could be showing.
What’s at stake for Nebraska? Optimism is running pretty high in Lincoln this summer, especially for a team that lost seven times last year. But many are expecting Mike Riley and his staff to settle in after a bumpy first season. It was a victory last time out over another high-profile Pac-12 team -- UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl -- that, uh, fostered enthusiasm for the upcoming campaign, after all.
Still, Nebraska still needs some positive momentum, especially early in the season. Nothing would accomplish that quite like a win over a nationally-ranked, highly-respected opponent like Oregon. Just look what beating the Ducks did for Michigan State last year. A loss wouldn't be crippling, but it might again raise questions among Big Red faithful whether Riley is the right guy to lead this program back to glory. As the former longtime Oregon State coach, Riley should have an intimate familiarity with what Oregon will bring to Memorial Stadium.
What’s at stake for Oregon? College football is a rough business. Mark Helfrich is 33-8 as Oregon's head coach, and he took the team to the championship game in the 2014 season. Yet some in the fan base are wondering if he has what it takes to be the leader of their program long term. Yep, following Chip Kelly is not easy. Helfrich does not deserve to be on the hot seat, but a loss at Nebraska -- which should open the season unranked -- certainly wouldn't do much to inspire confidence with the fandom. Losing in Lincoln would also deal a major blow to Oregon's chances of making the playoff, given how difficult it likely will be to get through the balanced Pac-12 without at least one loss. That Italian marble in the football facility doesn't pay for itself.