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Toughest stretch: Oregon Ducks

All fans can look at their teams’ schedules and identify the stretches that will likely determine whether the season will be a success.

That’s our objective as we examine the schedules of all 12 Pac-12 teams and attempt to identify the toughest two-to-four-game stretches of 2016 for each club.

Next up: Oregon

Toughest stretch: Oct. 1-21 (at Washington State; Washington; at Cal)

Why: This was a tough one to identify, because while this is obviously a tough stretch early on in the season for the Ducks, it was also impossible to ignore the USC-Stanford back-to-back games in November. But ultimately, the early stretch has bigger implications for the Pac-12 North, and if the Ducks were to struggle during this three-game stretch then the USC-Stanford swing wouldn’t matter quite as much. If Oregon can handle Washington State, Washington and Cal, there’s a good chance that it would be in the driver’s seat for the Pac-12 North title the rest of the season.

The trip to Pullman is going to be an interesting one. The Cougars pulled off an overtime upset last year in Eugene and the season before, Marcus Mariota and the Ducks’ offensive line struggled mightily in Pullman. Mike Leach’s teams have shown progress every year he has been at the helm of the program, and with Luke Falk and Gabe Marks returning to command the offense and coordinator Alex Grinch running a tight ship on defense, the Cougars are poised to be in the thick of things. Over the past two years, Oregon and Washington State have had two games decided by seven points apiece with each team snagging one of the wins -- don’t expect anything too different in the 2016 version.

The Ducks then return to Eugene to take on a team that returns plenty of talent and turned a 25-point loss in 2014 into a six-point loss in 2015. The Huskies would like to turn the tide of Washington-Oregon rivalry games and in Year 3 of Chris Petersen’s tenure (plus the return of Jake Browning, Myles Gaskin, John Ross, Budda Baker, et al.) there’s a lot for the Huskies to like about this team. Washington held Royce Freeman to one of his four scoreless games last season and the Huskies’ pass defense -- which might be the best in the conference -- will be facing a first-year Oregon QB in Dakota Prukop or Travis Jonsen.

Then, Oregon gets a bye week before traveling to Berkeley to take on Texas Tech graduate transfer Davis Webb and Cal. Now, of these three teams the Bears might be the least intimidating considering they lost Jared Goff and their top six receivers. But Sonny Dykes knows how to run an offense and with offensive coordinator Jake Spavital teaming up with Webb, the Bears’ offense does have a chance to be strong. Their defense will be a question mark (as will the Ducks', as of now), so this could be a very high-scoring game. Is the Bear Raid or the Ducks’ offense more ready to do that?

If Oregon can get through these three games unscathed, the Ducks set themselves up well for a very important matchup with Stanford down the road in November. But, first things first, they need to put themselves in a position to make that a big game. And they can do that by taking care of business in October.