Helfrich-Mariota

CBR’s ‘Way Too Early 2014 Top 10: No. 5 Oregon Ducks

CBR's "Way Too Early" Top 10

No. 5 Oregon Ducks

Entering 2013, it was hard to think of a more intriguing team than the Oregon Ducks. They were just about the only team we’ve seen in recent memory which entered with a returning All-American under center and true National Championship aspirations…coupled with a brand new head coach.

So how did the Ducks fare in Year 1 of the Mark Helfrich era? Well, it’s tough to say really.

If you’re of the belief that they should’ve been a National Championship contender, then you were sorely disappointed with an 11-2 finish, another second-place spot in the Pac-12 North standings (for the second straight year), and trip to the Alamo Bowl, the Ducks first non-BCS bowl game in five seasons.

Of course on the flip side, when you factor in the new coach with an injured quarterback the second half of the year (Mariota had a partially torn MCL for the final few weeks of the season), then the 11-2 doesn’t look nearly as bad. Especially with how tough the Pac-12 was, and especially with the fact that Mariota will be back, and healthy in 2014.

Speaking of which, that’s a perfect place to jump into our 2014 preview of Oregon, which comes in at No. 5 on our preseason ranking.

The Good: Well, the good is of course Mariota, who announced his intentions to return for a redshirt junior season late in 2013, and stuck to it through an NFL Draft declaration period when seemingly every eligible player with a pulse elected to leave school.

Mariota will be back, and assuming he’s healthy, will be ready to lead an offense which should be again amongst college football’s most potent. Alongside Mariota will be two of his favorite running mates: running back Byron Marshall, and wide receiver Bralon Addison, who combined for 21 touchdowns in 2013. True freshman Thomas Tyner also played consistently well throughout the year, with nine total touchdowns, and his first 100-yard rushing performance in the ‘Civil War’ game against Oregon State. With those three back, the Ducks should hardly miss a beat with De’Anthony Thomas off to the NFL to collect a paycheck.

Add in a defense which could return six starters, including All-Pac 12 corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, and there’s little reason to think that this team can’t or won’t compete for a division and conference title.

That sentiment is especially true, when you look at the Ducks’ very manageable schedule. Oregon misses USC and Arizona State completely, and outside of a visit to UCLA on October 11, have its toughest conference games (Arizona, Stanford, Washington) all at Autzen Stadium. An out of conference game with Michigan State will be challenging, but also in Eugene.

Still, despite that manageable schedule, it doesn’t change…

The Bad: Which is this: At some point, to live up to expectations, Oregon has to beat Stanford. A team they will again have to play next season, and again have to get through to compete for both conference and National Championships.

Look, you don’t need us to tell you about the rivalry or the ramifications it has had on Oregon specifically the last few seasons, especially since in this case, the proof is in the pudding. Over the past two seasons, Oregon has 23 total wins, and three losses. Two came to the Cardinal, both of which ended hopes of a Pac-12 title and BCS Championship dream in 2012 and 2013.

This year’s loss was specifically tough, and had long-term ramifications on the program. Oregon entered the Stanford game with an 8-0 record, and incredibly, the team was beating opponents by a staggering 38 points per game (and don’t think Oregon hadn’t played anyone to that point either- they defeated Washington and UCLA during that stretch).

Yet once they hit Stanford, things went downhill fast, as the Ducks lost two of five (to the Cardinal and Arizona), and barely survived in the Civil War against Oregon State. An overwhelming scoring margin became miniscule; can you believe over the final five games, the Ducks scored 129 points, their opponents 122?

Sure some of it can be placed on an injury to Mariota, but in years past, even an injury of to the starting quarterback never slowed down Oregon. Remember, in 2011, starter Darron Thomas went out to injury, and back-up Bryan Bennett played so well that fans actually pushed for Bennett to keep the job.

Point being, for Oregon the question becomes this: Was the swoon in the final five games (which to their credit, the Ducks still went 3-2) due to injuries on offense? Or lack of preparation by the coaching staff?

It’s a fair question, and also raises this debate…

The Uncertain: What becomes of the defense?

Frankly, it’s hard to say this unit was ‘bad’ over the 2013 season, but it did look inept at times (see Arizona), and overwhelmed against the bigger, more physical Stanford offense. Well Stanford isn’t going anywhere, meaning that for the Ducks to get through the Cardinal, some changes, in some capacity will have to be made.

The question of course is who will be the man making those changes? Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has stepped down, and reportedly been replaced by long-time linebackers coach Don Pellum.

And it will be interesting to see how the hire is viewed by Oregon fans.

Oregon has a history of promoting from within, yet this hire is interesting in the sense, that fans were frustrated by the end of Aliotti’s reign. Is bringing on his right-hand man to replace him really the answer? Or was it time to bring in someone with some fresh ideas?

It will be interesting to see how the move is viewed by Oregon fans. It’ll also be interesting to see how the Ducks hold up once the actual games kick-off. There will be little time for adjustment, as the Ducks face a very similar team to Stanford (not to mention, one which just beat them) in Week 2 when they host Michigan State.

Verdict: No matter how poorly the regular season ended for Oregon, things have gone about as well as they possibly could’ve since then in Eugene. Mariota got healthy and then the Ducks returned to form in Alamo Bowl. Not to mention that a slew of draft-eligible juniors elected to return to campus.

So it’ll be interesting to see what Act II brings for Helfrich and the Ducks.

Those with a “glass is half full approach” will point to the injury to Mariota, and wonder if the team could’ve stayed hot, had he stayed healthy all season. They will also mention that Helfrich actually had a better overall record (11-2) than his predecessor Chip Kelly in each of their first seasons as head coach. Remember, Kelly went ‘just’ 10-3 in Year 1, although that 10-3 did include a conference championship and trip to the Rose Bowl.  

Of course those with the “glass is half empty” approach will also remind folks that while Kelly inherited a program under construction (Oregon entered that year ranked just No. 16 nationally), Helfrich inherited a tried and true National Championship contender. Looked at under that prism, Helfrich’s first team ultimately didn’t live up to expectations.

It’s also why 2014 will be so interesting.

Oregon is again built to compete for a National Championship.

Whether they reach their promise or not will be one of the most compelling story lines of the season ahead.  

For all his insight, analysis and opinion on college football, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.

Be sure to check out the rest of CBR’s “Way Too Early” Top 10:

No. 10 Stanford Cardinal
No. 9 Michigan State Spartans
No. 8 LSU Tigers
No. 7 Oklahoma Sooners
No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.

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