Preseason countdown: No. 3 Oregon
So what is the state of Oregon football these days? It all depends on what’s being judged.
On the field, the Ducks have been one of the country’s elite programs over the last four years, winning 44 games and three straight conference championships. The Quack Attack has operated on full throttle throughout, which has attracted national notoriety and a different caliber of recruits. Away from the field, though, Oregon has been dogged by numerous arrests and an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations that’s hung over it like an ominous storm front. And while head coach Chip Kelly eventually rebuffed overtures from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in February, the flirtation with the NFL could be a harbinger of things to come.
And here comes USC, which has had its own run-ins with the NCAA, as it prepares to explode off probation and back into the Pac-12 title chase.
The 2012 edition of the Ducks is eager to defend its crown. Oregon will again be among the nation’s most incendiary offenses, spearheaded by running back Kenjon Barner and all-purpose dynamo De’Anthony Thomas. However, there is going to be a wrinkle. Darron Thomas inexplicably left school with a year of eligibility remaining, precipitating a tight battle between underclassmen Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota that won’t produce a victor until the summer.
Nick Aliotti’s defense plans to wreak havoc from every level and angle, if possible, this season. The Ducks like to attack on this side of the ball as well, creating pressure and turnovers in order to get the ball back to the offense as quickly as possible. Defensive end Dion Jordan, free safety John Boyett and linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso are all seniors … and are all pointing toward a finale filled with postseason accolades.
Oregon will once again begin the season among the country’s elite, well-positioned for yet another conference title run. And while the Ducks clearly house the talent, staff and system to perennially remain in the BCS bowl hunt, the mounting off-field distractions could become a more daunting roadblock to Pasadena than any other member of the Pac-12 … except, of course, those once-sleeping giants from USC.
What to watch for on offense: Out of the shadows, and into the spotlight. USC QB Matt Barkley isn’t the only Pac-12 playmaker who returned to school to care of some unfinished business. So, too, has running back Barner. The senior thought long and hard about joining teammate LaMichael James on the list of early entries into the NFL, but opted to return for one final year instead. One of the country’s most electrifying backups — and a very capable spot starter — finally gets an opportunity to be the feature back in a high-powered spread-option attack that can churn out 300 yards a game on the ground.
What to watch for on defense: Ready, set, Kiko. For much of his career, senior linebacker Kiko Alonso has been the million-dollar athlete who too often made the 10-cent decisions. That was then, and this is now. Since the middle of last season, the senior has operated with more focus and diligence — on and away from the field. And while he delivered a red-letter effort for the Ducks in the Rose Bowl, the program feels he has yet to peak. Alonso is a classic inside linebacker, tough, physical and highly instinctive against the run. As long as he continues to keep his eye on the ball, he’s headed toward a breakout final season at Oregon.
The team will be far better if: The offensive line doesn’t skip a beat. The Ducks will be without two key cogs from last year’s unit, Mark Asper and Darrion Weems, who have graduated. Assistant Steve Greatwood is hoping to plug in a couple of new starters, likely left tackle Jake Fisher and right guard Ryan Clanton, and adapt on the fly. Yeah, Oregon is never light on flashy playmakers these days. However, let it not be forgotten that a lot of the success of the skill position players is the direct result of an underrated offensive line that’s perennially better than the mere sum of its parts.
The schedule: There's no date with LSU to kick things off like last year. Instead, the Ducks get the first four games at home and only leave the state of Oregon once before Oct. 18 and that's to play Washington State. Having to play USC from the South is a horrible break, and it gets even worse with the game in L.A. as part of a run of three road games in four weeks and four away dates in the final six. With the lone November home game coming against Stanford, the team will be tested over the second half of the season.
Best offensive player: Sophomore RB/WR Thomas. It took all of one year for Thomas to prove to the country that he’s already one of the nation’s premier playmakers, regardless of how he gets the ball in his hands. Instant offense, with track speed and acceleration, the Pac-12 co-Offensive Freshman of the Year debuted by rushing for 595 yards and seven scores on only 55 carries, catching 46 passes for 605 yards and nine touchdowns and returning two kicks for six. Thomas is simply the most exciting thing to hit the league since Reggie Bush was still an amateur.
Best defensive player: Senior free safety John Boyett. Neither defensive end Dion Jordan nor linebacker Michael Clay is far behind, testament to the amount of quality players roaming the Oregon D these days. Lightly recruited coming out of high school, Boyett has gone on to have a tremendous career with the Ducks. He’s consistently been a tackling machine out of the secondary, making a team-best 108 stops to go along with seven pass breakups in 2011. The two-time All-Pac-12 selection has great instincts and terrific athleticism, the blend of skills needed to leave an imprint all over the field.
Key player to a successful season: The new starting quarterback. Whether Chip Kelly gives the ball to sophomore Bryan Bennett or redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota, that quarterback must run the offense with both pop and efficiency. When it comes to the Quack Attack, rebuilding is not in the lexicon, so the underclassmen better be prepared to distribute, while making things happen with his legs and his right arm. While the new starter won’t be held to the same standard as predecessor Darron Thomas, a veteran, he won’t have an elongated honeymoon period either.
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The season will be a success if: The Ducks appear in a fourth straight BCS bowl game. It’s BCS or bust for Oregon these days, a credit to Chip Kelly and his staff for the machine they’ve created in Eugene. The program is still the class of the North Division, and only USC in the Pac-12 can match its overall speed and talent. The way this school has been churning out the points and the victories in recent seasons, an invite to participate in, say, the Holiday Bowl just isn’t going to feel like a complete campaign.
Key game: Nov. 3 at USC. It’s the battle of the Pac-12 heavyweights, with BCS Championship Game implications likely to be hanging in the balance as well. The pair played in a classic at Autzen Stadium last Nov. 19 that was won by the Trojans, 38-35. Oregon will be looking for payback in the Coliseum, while also trying to protect its recent stranglehold on the league championship. USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has designed his defense to stop the spread-option. The Ducks will be out to prove that all of his planning has been a futile effort.