THE MATCHUP: You've waited since January 2, and game week is finally here. The defending Rose Bowl champion Oregon Ducks take on the Arkansas State Red Wolves with many changes that are sure to make the non-conference slate interesting despite a lack of marquee opponents. Chief among those is Marcus Mariota. Oregon's new starting quarterback is somewhat of a mystery man as nobody outside the team has seen him do anything with the exception of his fantastic performance in the spring game, where he showed a skillset that shows the potential to be Oregon's most complete quarterback in some time. There are changes galore to Mariota's supporting cast as well. LaMichael James is a San Francisco 49er. Former quarterback Daryle Hawkins and Jesuit grad Keanon Lowe join Josh Huff as starting receivers. And there is the challenge of replacing David Paulson at tight end. This is Oregon's first opportunity to see how the new offensive pieces will work together.
Arkansas State isn't your typical 36 point underdog. This is a team that won ten games and went undefeated in Sun Belt play last year, and is led by a new coach in Gus Malzahn who just an offseason ago was considered the hottest coaching prospect in the country. Dual threat QB Ryan Aplin was the Sun Belt POY last season, and passed for nearly 3700 yards and rushed for another 600. However, despite Aplin's return, the Red Wolves have a lot of rebuilding on both sides of the football, especially the defensive end where they return only four starters. Add that two of Aplin's receivers have been thrown off the team in just the last week, and you can see why Oregon is expected to have little trouble with this one.
THE INJURIES: The major injury for Oregon is guard Carson York, who is still not completely recovered from his knee injury suffered in the Rose Bowl, and will not play in the season opener.
THE VENUE: Autzen. Woo.
THE COACHES: Gus Malzahn has a reputation as an offensive wizard, and was the offensive coordinator at Auburn when they beat Oregon in the national championship game. That he returned home to coach Arkansas State came as somewhat of a surprise, as many expected him to be a hot candidate for BCS openings.
KEY PLAYERS FOR ARKANSAS STATE:
QB RYAN APLIN: The reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year has started games at Virginia Tech and Auburn, so he won't be overwhelmed by the atmosphere at Autzen. Unfortunately for Aplin, Arkansas State was crushed in both of those games. Aplin having the game of his life may be the Red Wolves' only chance to avoid the same fate here.
LB NATHAN HERROLD: The senior linebacker had 66 tackles last season en route to 2nd team all-Sun Belt honors. He is the unquestioned leader of a defense that returns only four starters from last year's squad.
WR TAYLOR STOCKERMEYER: Stockermeyer is the Red Wolves' most dangerous returning thread, averaging 15.8 ypc on his 48 catches last season with seven touchdowns.
KEY PLAYERS FOR OREGON:
QB MARCUS MARIOTA: Mariota's first start comes at home against a depleted defense from the Sun Belt. Hard to think of a better game to get one's feet wet.
WR DARYLE HAWKINS: There is a lot of speculation that Oregon will throw the ball more this season. Hawkins is a big target at 6'4", but can he avoid the drops that kept him from getting more consistent playing time last season?
S BRIAN JACKSON: Jackson is the new starter on the team with the most experience, having been in the DB rotation last season. However, an opener against a pass happy offense is a good chance to show everyone that it will be a seamless transition.