The Oregon Ducks will enter year two of the Mark Helfrich era with similar expectations bred during the Chip Kelly regime — national championship or bust.
Although the Ducks were equally explosive on offense in 2013 under their new head coach, they were, and still are unproven to be title-caliber on the defensive side of the ball. Oregon was mostly what they needed to be defensively last season, limiting the big play until they could make one of their own. Yet performances against Washington State, Arizona and Oregon State limited their offensive advantage, as the Ducks surrendered an average of 5.8 yards per play and 38.3 points — a significant rise from their average against everyone else (4.2 yards per play and 15.1 points).
Although Oregon still won two of those three games, with lingering questions about the 2014 unit, their title expectations could prove the Ducks to be quacks if they fail to achieve consistency this season too.
QB Marcus Mariota (3,665 passing yards, 31-4 TD-INT ratio and 856 rushing yards) was spectacular last season, completing 64 percent of his passes for 8.7 yards per attempt. For a dual-threat option, Mariota was surprisingly upright as well, with a sack rate under five percent last year — something he surely rewarded his stout offensive line for assisting him with.
The Ducks also feature a great group of returning backs, as Byron Marshall (1,038 rushing yards, 14 TDs and 6.2 YPC) and Thomas Tyner (698 rushing yards, nine TDs and 6.1 YPC) only get better with age. Seniors Ayele Forde and Kenny Bassett also have extensive game experience.
Things aren’t quite as rosy when you look at the Ducks’ receivers, however. Josh Huff (1,140 receiving yards) and Daryle Hawkins are gone, and top target Bralon Addison (890 receiving yards) tore his ACL this preseason. While the group is certainly left without much experience, there’s no questioning the talent.
Senior Keanon Lowe, along with sophomores Dwayne Stanford and Chance Allen, will mesh with talented tight ends Johnny Mundt and Pharaoh Brown to keep the Ducks’ attack rolling at a good clip. Coaches have also been raving about Devon Allen, who just won the NCAA track and field 110m hurdles championship.
Like the receivers, Oregon’s front seven is littered with playmakers, but is even thinner on proven talent than it was in 2013, when the Ducks were lackluster in the pass rush and against the run.
All three of the unit’s top defensive tackles have departed, leaving Oregon very vulnerable. Absolute monsters Arik Armstead, Stetzon Blair and DeForest Buckner (26 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks) look like the real deal, but the Ducks already have their flashy uniforms covering that department.
The linebackers have plenty of returning experience with a few upperclassmen leading the way, but they also have left much to be desired following up the play of stars Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso in 2012.
In the backfield, the safety net provided by Avery Patterson, Brian Jackson and Terrance Mitchell is gone, leaving a lot on the shoulders of star corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. However, fellow seniors Troy Hill and Dior Mathis look ready for the increased spotlight, and Erik Dargan and the rest of the safeties are no schlubs.
The Ducks host all of their toughest opponents except for UCLA and do not have to play USC or Arizona State, an advantage that could make all the difference in surviving what may be the nation’s best conference. The toughest games on the Ducks’ schedule are Sept. 6 vs. Michigan State, Oct. 2 vs. Arizona, Oct. 11 at UCLA, Oct. 18 vs. Washington and Nov. 1 vs. Stanford.
A loss to the Spartans would certainly not bury the Ducks given the strength of the Pac-12. In fact, just playing a competitive game could work in their favor if a playoff spot is on the line. A manageable schedule and Heisman front-runner likely makes Oregon a top-10 program in 2014, but if their receivers and front seven prove to be on par with the rest of the squad, the SEC may have to secede its stake of the National Championship in consecutive seasons.
There’s nothing quacky about that.