Depending on whether you're a glass half-full or glass
half-empty individual, Mark Helfrich's first season as Oregon Ducks head coach
was either mildly successful or a bit of a failure. An 11-2 record might normally indicate the
former, but when expectations run as high as they do in
Expectations will once again be lofty for the Ducks in 2014 with the Ducks among the favorites to advance to the NCAA gridiron version of the Final Four. Current college football futures odds range from 6/1 to 9/1 at most offshore sports books for the Ducks to take home their first-ever National Championship.
Those odds put Oregon just behind Florida State (3/1) and Alabama (6/1), and just ahead of other expected contenders like Ohio State, Oklahoma and Pac-12 rival UCLA. The Bruins are a consensus 20/1 pick, with Stanford (25/1) and Arizona State (30/1) trailing them among Pac-12 crews.
So just how can the Quackers break through and win it all?
New DC Looks To Improve Stop Unit
Defense isn't the first facet of the game that most people think about when the Ducks are first mentioned, but that's where we're starting our preview. On the surface, last year's stop unit wasn't terrible, ranking 37th in yards allowed (370 ypg) and 13th in scoring (10.5 ppg). But as usual in statistics and carrot farming, one must dig to find the goodies.
Opponents eventually came up with schemes to beat Oregon on the ground where the Ducks ranked 66th in the country by surrendering more than 165 rushing yards per contest. Keep in mind that number includes three games of less than 100 yards rushing allowed, topped by giving up just two to the pass-happy Washington State Cougars.
In fact, that contest marked the turning point for the Ducks on the defensive side of the ball. Up to then, teams were managing 118 yards on the ground each contest; over the final six games, that figure ballooned to more than 220 yards on average.
Former defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti retired after the Ducks' 30-7 Alamo Bowl win over Texas, and Helfrich will replace him with former Oregon player and longtime assistant, Don Pellum. On the job in various defensive capacities for more than 20 years, Pellum's first task is getting more from what should be a unit filled mostly by experienced upperclassmen.
The front 7 will be an experienced group led by linemen Arik Armstead and Tony Washington, plus linebackers Rodney Hardick and Derrick Malone, the team's leading tackler in 2013. The defensive backfield should still be the strength with All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu at corner and All Pac-12 safety Erick Dargan.
Mariota Leads Experienced Offense
The first year without Chip Kelly at the helm in Eugene certainly didn't have an adverse effect on the offense. Led by sophomore QB Marcus Mariota, the unit finished second in total yards (565) and fourth in scoring (45.5). And a huge chunk of the players who put up those numbers are returning. That includes Mariota, one of the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy. His production tailed off after suffering a knee injury in the win over UCLA, but he should be fine come this fall and will once again be playing in front of a very strong offensive line.
Two key losses are game-breaker De'Anthony Thomas and leading wide receiver Josh Huff. But the top three rushers are back, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner joining Mariota in that bunch, and there are talented receivers Bralon Addison and Keanon Lowe ready to run routes.
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Spartans Early Visitors To Eugene
The 2014 schedule is favorable for the Ducks to put together a good run into the Pac-12 Championship, something they have to do in order to be part of the new 4-team playoff system. Oregon opens at home against South Dakota on Aug. 30, their tune-up for the following week when Michigan State will be at Autzen Stadium. That game could conceivably be a bracket-buster of sorts to decide a slot in the eventual four playoff teams.
Four of the first five contests are in Eugene, and then comes a huge matchup at UCLA on Oct. 11. A home match with Washington and road trip to California for a Friday night battle lead into the all-important Nov. 1 clash at home with Stanford.
Missing on this year's regular season slate are a pair of 10-win clubs from last year, Arizona State and USC. Another 11-win overall season would seem a sure bet for Oregon, but as we know, anything short of 13-0 heading into the Pac-12 championship won't be a success.