Oregon has enough talent and experience to win the national championship. Odds are they won’t, because it’s a very hard thing to do. But the dream is more possible this season than in any other time in program history.
The nucleus is that strong with Marcus Mariota, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Hroniss Grasu returning. Even with Tyler Johnstone gone they have an experienced offensive line spearheaded by four returning starters, Hamani Stevens, Cameron Hunt, Jake Fisher and Grasu. The offensive backfield could be legendary and the possibilities for misdirection are endless. The defense will be tougher, stronger and more aggressive.
The schedule sets up beautifully for a title run with challenges spaced, several key games at home, and a tapering off in November after Stanford. The Ducks face The Tree on November 1, but they have Cal the week before Friday night in Levi Stadium, Colorado and Utah the two weeks after.
This is huge. That’s an SEC-type schedule with lesser opponents before the rivalry game. That’s not to overlook anyone, just an acknowledgement of the fact Oregon has faced a game with a high threat level in game 11 for the last four years, and lost each one.
The schedule is important because the season is a long grind. To win the national championship, the Ducks have to survive the Civil War, the best team in the South in PAC-12 Championship, followed by two playoff games against the best teams in the country. Oregon would have to beat perhaps UCLA, Florida State and Alabama in a 3-game stretch at the end of the year. That’s after surviving the PAC-12, a September matchup against Michigan State, an October road game versus the Bruins, and the titanic rematch with The Cardinal. Dangerous road trips dot the schedule. Washington State has upset someone both years since Mike Leach has been there. Chris Petersen will end the streak one day. The Ducks have beaten the Huskies for a full orbit of Jupiter, 15 of the last 20 years, but Petersen will make that rivalry relevant again in the near future.
The first thing that could derail the dream is depth. Already the Ducks have suffered two crippling injuries in the loss of Bralon Addison and Johnstone. By October they’ll be down to the two and threes at some positions, just like everybody else. Surviving the grind means teaching up, recovering quickly and getting a little lucky. Fans have to hope there isn’t an injury bullet with Marcus Mariota’s name on it. Heisman Trophy winners can’t miss games.
The second thing is coaching. Oregon has one of the best staffs in the country with remarkable continuity and quality, but no one knows yet what the Ducks have in Mark Helfrich. This isn’t saying he’s a bad coach, just an unproven one. The first season featured a tremendous start but a limping finish. The loss to Arizona was an alarm bell but not a death knell: the team wasn’t prepared and got badly outplayed with the opportunity to control its destiny for the Rose Bowl. The fell flat and got embarrassed as a three-touchdown favorite.
Helfrich has said often you’re always going to be better the second time you do something. It still feels like the Ducks will give up a coaching advantage versus Dantonio, Leach, Rodriguez, Mora, Petersen, Shaw, and Riley, and will in any playoff games, but Oregon’s second-year coach has the intelligence and the drive to grow in the job. He could close that gap. The offense has to get more imaginative and innovative this year. The team has to be tougher and execute better, show more discipline. They have to be superbly prepared every week. That all rises or falls to coaching.
Only two weeks to go until the first game, and the Ducks are getting ready. Young players like Henry Mondeaux, Royce Freeman, Jimmie Swain, Kahlil Oliver and Tyrell Crosby are making a bid to contribute right now. The eagerness and anticipation is building in practice. Yesterday at goducks.com Rob Moseley wrote:
The words “South Dakota” are starting to crop up, with the opener looming in two weeks. “We’ve got to get game ready!” John Neal shouted. “We’ve got to get game ready!” … Neal liked what he saw – or more accurately, heard – during one teach period. “When you guys communicate pre-snap, you’re 100 percent right,” he said. “So keep doing it!”
Keep doing it for 20 more weeks, and you’ve accomplished an impossible dream.