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5 Things To Watch: Oregon vs. Georgia

Sep 2, 2022

A new era of Oregon football begins Saturday when the Ducks take the field for the first time under new head coach Dan Lanning.

Coming off the program's third straight appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game, 11th-ranked Oregon opens the 2022 season with a premier nonconference matchup against defending national champion Georgia — for which Lanning was defensive coordinator on the way to last season's College Football Playoff title.

The Bulldogs enter this season ranked No. 3 nationally. The Ducks have faced Georgia once previously, a 27-16 victory for the Bulldogs in Oregon's 1977 season opener.

Some factors to watch when the game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. PT on ABC …

1. The UO football program has been energized since the arrival of Lanning, following his national championship run in January with Georgia. The 35th head coach in Oregon's history combines youthful vigor with a culture of accountability and brotherhood, bolstered by the credibility of his success working for some of the most formidable names in the college football coaching ranks.

One of those names is Kirby Smart, the current head coach at Georgia. Presumably, both head coaches will see some familiar elements in each team's defensive scheme Saturday. But, Lanning pointed out this week, "ultimately, Kirby Smart's not going to play a single snap, and neither is Dan Lanning. It doesn't really matter what I know. It matters what my players know, and what they can execute."

Adding to the familiarity this week is the presence of Bryan McClendon on Georgia's staff. McClendon was Oregon's receivers coach the past two seasons, and he served as interim head coach for the Alamo Bowl loss to Oklahoma in December. After briefly following Mario Cristobal to Miami, McClendon instead opted to join the Bulldogs' staff in February.

2. Offensively, Oregon led the Pac-12 in explosive plays of 20 or more yards in 2021. But also, the Ducks' total of 67 was the program's lowest in more than a decade. Enter new offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham.

A year ago at Florida State, Dillingham helped the Seminoles average five plays per game of 20 or more yards. That was a tick better than Oregon's average per game. The desire among the Ducks' skill position players is for Oregon to more consistently create explosive plays the way they did in the Alamo Bowl, when they had touchdown pass plays of 66, 34 and 30 yards in the second half alone.

The players who caught those passes — Dont'e Thornton, Kris Hutson and Troy Franklin — are all back this fall. The ranks of the skill positions have been bolstered by players back from injury, or new to the program via the transfer portal. And they'll be protected by a very experienced offensive line.

3. Oregon's defensive players watched the CFP championship game with heightened interest after Lanning was hired. They saw Lanning's defense causing havoc on the way to victory, and now they're excited to take the field in a similar system with the Ducks on Saturday.

Despite the loss of top-five NFL draft pick Kayvon Thibodeaux, the defensive front seven for the Ducks is deep in experienced, talented players. And the secondary is long and athletic, with some proven playmakers in the back end.

Along with explosive plays, turnovers are one of the biggest determining factors in the outcome of college football games these days. Defensively, the Ducks on Saturday will look to limit big plays and create takeaways.

4. Of course, a game can turn on a big play by the special teams, or a miscue in the kicking game. Lanning and coordinator Joe Lorig have created ample opportunities in practice this preseason to refine Oregon's special teams, in terms of kicking, returns and coverage.

The Ducks didn't have a return touchdown in 2021, but guys like Hutson and Seven McGee showed the ability to break one if the blocks are there. On the other side of the coin, long returns allowed by Oregon contributed to a couple of the team's late-season losses, and the Ducks will look to minimize that Saturday.

One thing we know for sure is that the punter will be a new face. Transfers Adam Barry and Ross James have battled it out at that position in this preseason camp.

5. The Ducks on Thursday travelled across the country to take on one of college football's elite programs in a hostile environment, and the echoes of last season's trip to Ohio State are hard to ignore.

Though the Ducks have one of the youngest rosters in the nation, with 96 underclassmen, several played big roles in last season's win over the Buckeyes. From DJ Johnson and Ryan Walk, to Bradyn Swinson and Moliki Matavao, to Bennett Williams and Noah Sewell, there are still plenty of Ducks on this year's team who contributed to that win.

"You know, every year is different," Lanning said. "We haven't spent a lot of time talking about the past or the future. We're trying to live really right now, in the present. But I think our guys have supreme confidence in their ability."