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Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: No. 15 Oregon can make it three in a row in the Pac-12

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

No. 15 Oregon

Over the past decade, Oregon has won the Pac-12’s championship game four times, including the last two conference titles in 2019 and 2020. Can the Ducks make it three in a row? Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux is one of the nation’s best — and, thanks to NIL, reportedly one of its better compensated — defensive players. And Oregon has retained enough talent from the offense that averaged 31.3 points per game. But the Ducks might not just be looking to be the team to beat out West. They have a marquee matchup against Ohio State on Sept. 11, and a victory in Columbus could turn this team into a national title contender.

Oregon was ranked 10th in our preseason poll last year. The Ducks finished 25th in the final CFP poll and weren't ranked by The Associated Press or the coaches.

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Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, left, celebrates a stop against Arizona in 2019. Thibodeaux earned All-American honors last season and should be a top pick in next spring's NFL draft.

About the Ducks

2020: 4-3 overall, 3-2 in the Pac-12. But what a year — the Ducks finished third in the North behind Washington and Stanford, yet ended up in the conference title game anyway. They finished their season with a loss at Oregon State, a loss at Cal, a canceled game against Washington, a 31-24 upset over USC in the title game and a 34-17 loss to Iowa State in the Fiesta Bowl. 

Coach: Mario Cristobal, 52-27 in nine seasons at Florida International and Oregon, including a 25-10 mark with the Ducks (three years).

Returning starters: 15 (8 offense, 7 defense)

Shoes to fill: OT Penei Sewell (drafted 7th overall, Lions), QB Tyler Shough (transfer, Texas Tech) and four DBs taken in the draft — S Jevon Holland (Dolphins, 2nd), CB Deommodore Lenoir (49ers, 5th), S Brady Breeze (Titans, 6th) and CB Thomas Graham Jr. (Bears, 6th); DC Andy Avalos (Boise State HC)

Catching up

Five Ducks were taken in the NFL draft, including four defensive backs and Sewell, who opted out last season but went No. 7 overall. That gave Oregon a top-10 player for the second straight year. ... After Avalos left, Oregon tabbed veteran defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter to replace him. DeRuyter, 58, has previously been DC at Ohio (twice), Navy, Nevada, Air Force, Texas A&M and Cal. ... Oregon's 2021 recruiting class ranked No. 6 nationally; there weren't any five-stars in it, but there were 19 four-stars — the most among any of the top-10 classes.

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Returning leaders

Passing: Anthony Brown 15-23-164, 2/0 (2nd on team) 

Rushing: Travis Dye 64-443-1 (led team), CJ Verdell 65-285-3 (2nd)

Receiving: Devon Williams 15-286-2 (led team), Jaylon Redd 25-281-1 (2nd), Johnny Johnson III 19-267-2 (3rd)

Tackles: ILB Noah Sewell 45 (T-1st), S Verone McKinley III 41 (3rd)

Sacks: DE Kayvon Thibodeaux 3 (led team), ILB Noah Sewell 2 (T-2nd)

Interceptions: S Jamal Hill 2 (led team)

Returning all-conference

Offense: OL Alex Forsyth (2nd team), OL Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu (hon. mention), OL T.J. Bass (hon. mention), RB Travis Dye (hon. mention), WR Johnny Johnson III (hon. mention)

Defense: ILB Noah Sewell (defensive freshman of the year), CB Mykael Wright (1st), S Jamal Hill (hon. mention)

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Oregon coach Mario Cristobal, right, has led the Ducks to back-to-back Pac-12 championship game victories. Last season they backed into the title game when the two teams that finished ahead of them in the Pac-12 North, Washington and Stanford, were unable to play because of COVID-19.

FYI

How the pandemic affected Oregon: The Ducks weren't even sure if they would play football in 2020. The Pac-12, however, cobbled together a season. Oregon had a six-game schedule, but the regular-season finale against Washington was canceled because of the Huskies' issues with positive tests and contact tracing. But Oregon's 3-2 record was still good enough to represent the North in the Pac-12 title game because Washington and Stanford could not.

Secondary to none: Four of the five Ducks who were drafted were defensive backs — two cornerbacks and two safeties. Opposing quarterbacks shouldn't get too excited about the mass exodus, however. Three of those DBs (Holland, Breeze and Graham) all opted out of the 2020 season anyway, opening up plenty of playing time for Ducks such as Mykael Wright, Verone McKinley III and Jamal Hill, each of whom started at least six games. Wright was an all-conference pick.

A new quarterback: Since Shough has transferred to Texas Tech, Oregon will open this season with a new quarterback. Anthony Brown got some playing time last season and was actually the team’s leading passer in its loss to Iowa State in the Fiesta Bowl. Brown and freshmen Jay Butterfield and Robby Ashford all threw a touchdown pass during the spring game in May.

2020 national stat rankings

Where Oregon ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Ducks ranked in 2019.

Scoring: 42nd (2019 — 16th, -26 spots)

Scoring defense: 59th (9th, -50)

Total offense: 49th (40th, -9)

Total defense: 62nd (22nd, -40)

Passing: 47th (41st, -6)

Pass defense: 66th (53rd, -13)

Rushing: 61st (51st, -10)

Rush defense: 70th (13th, -57)

Sacks: 91st (16th, -75)

Interceptions: 80th (2nd, -78)

Red zone offense: T-39th (T-96th, +57)

Red zone defense: 64th (23rd, -41)

Turnover margin: T-121st (5th, -116)

Time of possession: 118th (103rd, -15)

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels have plenty of firepower to work with

No. 24 Washington: Huskies back for more after 3-2 season

No. 23 Louisiana: Ragin' Cajuns out to prove that they belong

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions want to keep the momentum going

No. 21 Oklahoma State: Cowboys have offensive questions, for a change

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes hope this is the year to bump the Buckeyes

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Upstart Chanticleers look here to stay, ready or not

No. 18 Texas: Longhorns are starting over at coach, quarterback, offense, defense

No. 17 Wisconsin: Badgers eager for a bounce-back season in Big Ten

No. 16 Miami: Hurricanes banking on D'Eric King's return from injury

No. 15 Oregon

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 14 team. Want a hint?

This school has produced 39 draft picks over the past five years — third-most in the country.