Embracing stratospheric expectations, the Ducks must replace six starters on a defense that faltered against the run and struggled to get off the field in 2013.
Oregon faced more defensive plays than any other team in the country last season, allowing 3.8 yards per carry on the ground and 40% third down conversions. In an upset loss to Arizona that knocked them out of the conference championship and the Rose Bowl, the Wildcats pounded the soft, gooey front seven for 304 yards, converting 11 times in 16 tries on third down, 1-1 for on fourth down in 42-16 pasting the head coach never saw coming. "Obviously, how we started, in every phase, that is 100% my fault," Mark Helfrich said to reporters after the game. "I've got to figure out exactly which levers to pull and which buttons to push."
In similar fashion Stanford, Oregon State and Texas all plundered the Ducks for big yards on the ground, the Beavers taking a 5-point lead into the last minute of the game despite being a three-touchdown underdog.
Opposing coaches study film from January to September, looking for buttons and levers of their own.
First-year defensive coordinator Pellum vows to improve his unit's performance with improved discipline and fundamentals. Though he may have all the backpacks lined up in a row and the handouts neatly collated, he doesn't have a single defensive linemen over 300 pounds, unless Arik Armstead and Alex Balducci make some staggering gains in the weight room in the off season.
The group up front is thin and inexperienced. Armstead and DeForest Buckner had 13 starts between them in 2013, and Balducci came off the bench. Backups Stetzon Bair and Sam Kamp haven't played outside of mop-up duty. Newcomers Austin Maloata and Tua Talia should help, but both may have to be thrust into nose tackle duty at some point as first-year players in the PAC-12, giving away 350 pounds to the double teams they're likely to face against Michigan State, UCLA and Stanford.
Stanford is the center of the problem. Resurgent with a vision and a first-class education, The Cardinal have stockpiled 5-star offensive linemen over the last five years, and the Ducks haven't yet displayed an answer for their smashmouth blueprint. Last year the Men of Oregon gave up 274 yards on the ground to David Yankey, Andrus Peat, Kyle Murphy, Josh Garnett, Tyler Gaffney and company in a 26-20 loss in Autzen Stadium, with the home team converting 14-21 times on 3rd down, 1-1 on fourth. At times Gaffney powered behind 8 and 9-man Jumbo packages, a relentless onslaught for which the Ducks seemingly did not have a counter.
Football is an imitative game, with opponents constantly looking for exploitable edges. To have a successful season, Pellum has to shore up a glaring vulnerability to the run, particularly in big games. Michigan State, UCLA and arch-nemesis Stanford all have the beef to rehash the familiar argument against the Ducks. Oregon can't have a successful season without coming up with a rebuttal.
There may be games where Scott Frost and his superb quarterback will simply have to outscore people, returning to the formula that saw them through the 2010 season, the Ducks earning an improbable, unprecedented visit to the National Championship game. That year they overcame Andrew Luck and Jim Harbaugh 52-31, Mark Barkley and Pete Carroll 53-32. The Quack Attack slipped miserably against a disruptive Auburn defense in the final, however, finding the end zone only twice and giving up a costly safety.
Besides the backpacks, improved linebacker play should help. The unit led by Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick gained valuable experience last season, while losing only Boseko Lokombo to graduation. Fast, athletic younger players like Torrodney Prevot, Danny Mattingly, Tyrell Robinson and Jimmie Swain could contribute, particularly if Pellum succeeds in simplifying the defensive scheme.
Depth and size on the defensive line remains a particular concern. It will take 15 games of excellence to win a national title, and the two-deep will absorb some shocks over the long campaign. What promises to be an adequate front line at the beginning might be riddled with walking wounded by November 1st, when The Cardinal come to Autzen for a titanic rematch, their bulk and power the iceberg that lurks in the cold black waters of the season's stretch drive.
The schedule has a soft beginning and a manageable end, but there's a gauntlet in between, with a much-anticipated showdown with the Spartans, a road game against UCLA, and rematches with the Wildcats and David Shaw's now confident and decidedly arrogant brigade of Nerds and handpicked behemoths.
Should the Ducks navigate their first nine games unscathed, they close with Utah, a bye, Colorado and Oregon State, a flat calm that should allow them to limp into the PAC-12 Championship Game on the strength of their vaunted offense.
But they won't survive the PAC-12 Championship or the first year of the NCAA FBS playoffs without a competent defense, able to hold its own on the line of scrimmage and deny a succession of easy first downs.