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What’s a realistic expectation for the 2014 Ducks?

There's a week to go in the recruiting chase, and the Ducks are battling for three pivotal players. Six Oregon coaches visited John "Juju" Smith last night, a 6-2, 207 receiver/safety, a five-star recruit coveted by Notre Dame, USC and UCLA, who are pursuing him with equal intensity.

The best mascot in college football hugs the 35th-best coach: Will The Duck offer Mark Helfrich a hug of jubilation or consolation in 2014? It all depends on the close of recruiting and the strength of leadership and vision (Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports.)

The search for badly-needed defensive tackles continues. Oregon has offers out to Trey Lealaimatafao,  and junior college transfer Rika Levi. Lealaimatafao is being pursued by Les Miles and LSU, safety Matttrell McGraw deciding between Oregon and Texas A&M. The 350-lb. Levi has an offer in hand from Texas Tech, and made his initial verbal commitment to the Red Raiders. With another tackle, Ratu Mafileo of Honolulu, it comes down to grades. The Ducks are reviewing his transcripts, and if they are deemed adequate, he's likely to visit and commit this weekend.

Kahlil Oliver is expected to commit to Oregon soon, the 2-star safety/linebacker from Meridian, Idaho, a solid athlete who excels in several track events. Players from Montana and Idaho are typically under the radar, and Oliver could develop into a good college player. His high school film shows both good instincts and aggressivenenss, and he's a 3.6 student. Mark Asper and Brandon Bair were similarly unheralded and developed nicely.

The next seven days will either round out Oregon's class or deflate it. With depth on the defensive line a serious issue, the tackles are the most critical. Ideally the Ducks need to bring home at least two. At the moment they've signed 17 commits, none that are ready for the middle of the line.

Meanwhile, cornerback Arrion Springs, a Duck commit since The Opening this summer, has a late visit to home-state Texas.

Michigan State comes to town in seven and half months.

What's a realistic expectation for 2014? The close of recruiting is a big part of the answer.

Fair or not, everything Mark Helfrich achieves or fails to achieve as Oregon head coach will be compared to Chip Kelly, and Kelly was the best coach in Oregon history.

Give the first-year replacement a B in year one. 11-2 with an Alamo Bowl win is explainable in term of a critical late-season injury to Marcus Mariota and the loss of Michael Clay, Dion Jordan, and Kiko Alonso in the middle of the defense.

Even so, the Game 11 loss to Arizona was an alarming development. It had been a long time since a Duck team had looked that flat and unprepared in a game they were favored to win, something that rarely happened in the Chip Kelly era. His teams took care of business against lesser opponents, unfailingly.

Afterward, Helfrich said the loss was "100 percent my fault. I have to figure out exactly which levers to pull and which buttons to push," the coach said to the media after the game.

Some fans and even analysts like ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit said the team had lost its win-the-day focus. There were charges of laxity in practice and a lack of discipline. Some felt that was reflected in player's statements to the media during November, confessing a lack of interest in Rose Bowl. "It's like, whatever," DeAnthony Thomas said.

After Stanford's week 10 loss to USC, the Ducks were in the driver's seat for the conference championship and The Granddaddy, even mathematically alive for the National Championship Game, but it took a quarter and a half of sloppy, unfocused play to destroy that opportunity.

It's a lesson that the 2014 team should remain committed to all season this fall. Marcus Mariota, Hroniss Grasu and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu did not return to play in another Alamo Bowl.

But the Ducks have big question marks in 2014, beginning with replacing six starters on defense and 5 defensive tackles from last year's rotation. The offense returns 10 or 11 starters from the Alamo Bowl, including 105 starts on the offensive line and the best quarterback in school history. If the defense can figure out how to stop a power running game, they have a chance to be very, very good.

The trouble is, the PAC-12 Conference is better than ever. The league hasn't had an undefeated, unsanctioned champion since Washington in 1991 (USC's 2004 and 2005 teams had wins that were vacated, Oregon lost the NC in 2010-11, 1998 UCLA lost two games out of conference, including the Rose Bowl.

As good as he was, Kelly caught the conference at exactly the right time. USC was reeling from sanctions and then the departure of Pete Carroll. Arizona, Arizona State, Cal and UCLA were in the throes of failed regimes. Now, the PAC-12 has the strongest coaching fraternity it has ever had. The Arizona schools, once an after thought, lead the recruiting rankings.

Kelly's trademark offense was a new thing in 2009, and teams didn't know how to stop it. Now, nine teams in the league run a version of the no-huddle, up-tempo spread, and teams prepare for it year round.

Mark Helfrich isn't the coach Chip Kelly was, and the job is much harder.  With road games at UCLA, Utah and Oregon State, with pivotal matchups against Michigan State and Stanford, Mike Leach doggedly transforming the Cougars into a bowl team that upset USC in the Coliseum, everything would have to break right for the Ducks to go undefeated or make the coveted top four in the first year of the college football playoffs.

Everything rarely does.

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