EUGENE — As Willie Taggart would say, it's go time.
The first-year coach and his Oregon Ducks open the season at home against Southern Utah this afternoon. And yes, he's a little bit nervous.
"I think the nerves are a little different from a coach than a player. Players, those nerves you can control them a bit. As a coach, you're counting on young men to go out and execute and play well," he said at the first of his weekly news conferences this season. "You want that for them, but if you prepare right, those nerves don't last long. By the time you get to the tunnel those nerves are gone. "
The Ducks finished 4-8 last season and three days after a 34-24 loss to rival Oregon State in the Civil War, they fired coach Mark Helfrich.
Enter Taggart, whose last two head coaching jobs have also been rebuilding projects. In four seasons, he guided South Florida from a 2-10 record his first year to a 10-2 mark and a spot in the Birmingham Bowl last season.
He's got a lot of talent to work with in Eugene. Sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert played in nine games last season, taking over when graduate transfer Dakota Prukop struggled, and threw for 1,936 yards with 19 touchdowns.
Running back Royce Freeman returned for his senior season with a shot at breaking LaMichael James' career rushing yards record at Oregon. Freeman dealt with injury but still ran for 945 yards and nine scores last season.
The main issue will be on defense. The Ducks had trouble last year with the 4-3 scheme installed by former Michigan coach Brady Hoke in his lone season with the Ducks. Taggart's defensive coordinator is Jim Leavitt.
The FCS-level Thunderbirds, who play in the Big Sky, are embarking on a second season under coach Demario Warren. Southern Utah finished 6-5 and 5-3 in the Big Sky in 2016.
"We are on the right path and this will be a big season for us to try and earn that respect around the league and the country. Our guys are used to being the underdogs and will be thrilled about the challenges that brings," Warren said.
Taggart called the Thunderbirds "a feisty group."
"They play hard and they play with a lot of energy," Taggart said. "You like that as a coach, seeing the effort that they give."
A few other items of note today:
AGAINST THE PAC-12: The Thunderbirds are not strangers to Pac-12 foes. They opened last season at Utah, falling 24-0. The year before, they visited Washington State and lost 48-10.
THE FIRST ONE: Only two of the last eight Oregon coaches (since 1951) won their debut game: Mike Bellotti beat Utah 27-20 on the road in 1995, and Helfrich routed Nicholls 66-3 in 2013.
MARK MOVES ON: Helfrich will call games for Fox Sports this season. He joins the announcing team of Justin Kutcher and analyst Petros Papadakis. His first game will be Maryland at Texas today, which is airing on FS1.
POINTS ON THE BOARD: Warren has a target for today, in terms of points. "We've got to go get 30. That's something that we've got to have our sights set on. We've struggled the last three FBS games and that can't happen. If we want a chance to win, we've got to put points on the board. As fast as we play and as much talent as we have we've got to put points on the board," he told the team's website.
THE DOWNSIDE: Expect heat and smoke to be a factor today. The temperature will be hovering near 100 at game time — and it will be hotter on the artificial turf surface at Autzen Stadium. Additionally, the air quality is expected to be poor because of low humidity and the numerous wildfires burning across Oregon. The Ducks moved a practice indoors earlier this week because of the smoky air.