Ducks reloading for another Pac-12 run

The presence of dynamic young playmakers like De'Anthony Thomas are why expectations are still high for the Oregon Ducks despite key personnel losses. Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

After a third straight conference title in Eugene, many people are expecting the Oregon Ducks to be knocked off their place atop the Pac-12 in 2012. With USC returning the majority of their lettermen, the prevailing thought is that the only team to leave Autzen Stadium with a victory in the Chip Kelly era is the clear favorite in 2012. While Oregon has handled itself very nicely with a target on their back in recent years, longtime Oregon fans know that the Ducks have a history of blossoming when others expect them to take a step back.

Is this the year the Ducks prove that they truly belong among the truly elite programs? Another run to the BCS after the loss of some of the best players in program history will speak volumes about where the Ducks truly stand.

The Ducks have to travel to Los Angeles to face USC in November, but the early season schedule sets up very nicely for the defending Rose Bowl champions. In seasons past, any double-digit-win campaign was considered a great season in Eugene, but times have changed and the Ducks have bigger plans.

An early look at the schedule makes the USC game the obvious choice as the game of the year out West, if not nationally. Both teams should be undefeated heading into the match up at the Coliseum, but a lot can happen between now and then. So what exactly will make the 2012 season a success for the Ducks?

Many programs would suffer a big drop off after losing its most successful quarterback and running back at the same time, but this Ducks team is loaded with young talent ready to step in for Darron Thomas and LaMichael James. The loss of the two stars has played a big role in the perception that the Ducks will take a step back in 2012, but the schedule sets up nicely for some experimentation and practice before hitting the meat of the schedule in the second half of the year.

A stretch of four straight home games to start the season versus Arkansas State, Fresno State, Tennessee Tech and Arizona appears to be a breeze for the high-flying Ducks. The easy stretch to start the year will allow either quarterback, Marcus Mariota or Bryan Bennett, to become adjusted to game action in a familiar environment.

The first trip outside of Autzen Stadium is to Seattle. Not to play the rival Huskies, but to face off against an up-and-coming Washington State team at CenturyLink Field. Led by new head coach Mike Leach, Washington State will be looking to make a statement against the Ducks, but Oregon is likely to have as many fans at the game as the “host” Cougars.

Speaking of the Huskies, the Ducks will host the Huskies the following week in an attempt to extend their streak of blowout wins versus their hated rivals to the north. Washington has made strides under Steve Sarkisian but have yet to solve the Ducks fast-paced attack.

A road game to an Arizona State program in transition and a home date versus a struggling Colorado program are the remaining roadblocks for the Ducks before the November 3 date with the Trojans. If things go as planned to that point, the Ducks will be in line for a return trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game regardless of what happens in the Coliseum if they can walk away with back-to-back wins against the Bay Area schools in the weeks following the battle with USC.

A trip to California is always tough and will be a big test coming off the USC game. Even if the Ducks were to lose back-to-back games to USC and Cal, they will most likely have a chance to secure the Pac-12 North title with a win at home the following week against Stanford. Stanford also lost major pieces of its back-to-back BCS teams, but look like the most likely program to challenge Oregon in the north.

While most predictions have Oregon losing at USC and again to the Trojans in the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Ducks are eager to prove the doubters wrong. Never before have the Ducks had so much young talent stockpiled on their roster and never have they been more equipped to reload instead of rebuild.

For Ducks fans the question will be, is 10 wins enough to make it back to the BCS and enough to keep the fan base happy? What about 11 wins? The Oregon football program seems to have finally reached a truly elite level. As a newcomer to the elite of college football, what do the Ducks need to do in 2012 to remain in the conversation of college football's elite?