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Preseason countdown: No. 3 Oregon

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After earning a Pac-10 title the last two years and playing for a national championship in 2010, Oregon has one more thing to accomplish — win a January bowl game.

The only possible on-field criticism of head coach Chip Kelly during his two seasons is that he’s 0-2 in the postseason. His Ducks lost to Ohio State in the 2010 Rose Bowl and fell short in last year’s BCS Championship Game vs. Auburn. To some extent, it’s nitpicking about a man who’s had as impressive a two-year start as any coach in recent history. Still, Kelly isn’t about to rest on his laurels.

No. 3: Oregon

Since replacing Mike Bellotti, Kelly has built Oregon into a national power practically overnight. Fueled by an unstoppable spread offense and an opportunistic defense, his Ducks have displaced USC as the alpha dog of the Pac-12.

Not only is the program winning on the field, but it’s never been hotter nationally, which has been bleeding on to the recruiting trail. Eugene has become a preferred destination for many of the West Coast’s best athletes, ensuring that the school is going to be a threat for titles for years to come.

Kelly is after more than just an unprecedented third consecutive league crown in 2011. He desperately wants to carry a winning streak into the 2012 season, preferably with a BCS bowl win as the exclamation point. He’ll have the necessary pieces for another run, especially on offense, but graduations took a toll on the roster.

The high-octane spread will again be spearheaded by QB Darron Thomas and All-American RB LaMichael James, who delighted the locals by returning to school for one more year. The biggest roadblocks to approaching last year’s monster numbers will be the losses of top receiver Jeff Maehl and three starting blockers.

Nick Aliotti’s defense has its own issues that need to be addressed. The front seven was gutted, leaving a collection of former reserves to move the line of scrimmage. There are a lot of terrific young athletes who’ll need to grow up synchronously. There’s also the pending issue of CB Cliff Harris who was suspended indefinitely in June, potentially leaving a gaping hole in the secondary. On a more positive note, the defense figures to get ample support from one of the nation’s more complete special teams units.

No longer the hunter, Oregon will be hunted by the rest of the Pac-12 this season. The Ducks are growing comfortable with the situation. They’re far from content, however, having capped torrid regular seasons with tepid bowl performances. Adding to what Kelly has built over the last two seasons is going to require more than just getting a marquee postseason invite this winter.

What to watch for on offense: Shocking defenses with a tazer. How does Oregon become even more dangerous in 2011? By getting another lethal playmaker on the field. While speedy Kenjon Barner is the backup to LaMichael James, the coaching staff is looking to get both backs on the field at the same time. The plan calls for Barner to either line up in the backfield or slide out to the slot. The junior’s jets are always operating at fill power, giving opposing defenses one more gamebreaker to be concerned about.

What to watch for on defense: The rebuilding of the defensive line. The secondary has plenty of returning talent. The linebackers are going to be underrated. The line, however, remains a mystery, with three starters needing to be replaced. End Terrell Turner is the lone returning starter, but needs to be much more productive than in 2010. Joining him will be some combination of Dion Jordan and Brandon Hanna on the outside, and Zac Clark, Wade Keliikipi, and Ricky Heimuli on the inside. Together, they have to get penetration and take some heat off the back seven.

The team will be far better if: The defense continues to create turnovers. Sure, it’s hard to imagine the Ducks much better than last regular season. However, if the aggressive new starters can continue a recent trend in Eugene of swiping the ball, it’ll help offset the loss of six starters from 2010. The new defense probably won’t be as stout as a year ago, but if it’s getting the ball back to the offense quicker, it’s value will be immense.

The schedule: It might take a little while for a Ducks team that’s extremely talented, but might need a little while to jell on defense, to be back at a national title level. The problem is that there won’t be any time to work any kinks out with a BCS Championship Game level game against LSU in Dallas to open things up followed up by a dangerous game against Nevada. Arizona State and USC might turn out to be the two strongest teams from the Pac-12 South, but both of those games are at home. Going to Arizona will be a fight and the Colorado road trip will be interesting, but the Pac-12 season could all come down to Nov. 12 at Stanford as the third Ducks road game in four weeks. Closing out with USC and Oregon State at home is a nice break. Basically, if Oregon can get past the Cardinal in the Pac-12 North driver’s seat, it’ll probably end up playing in the conference title game.

Best offensive player: Junior RB James. James raise the bar following a breakout debut in 2009, leading the country with 1,731 yards on the ground. The Doak Walker Award winner also scored 24 touchdowns in an All-American campaign. An exciting blend of speed, vision and balance, he demoralizes opponents with his ability to break a game open with long jaunts through the secondary. He could have entered the NFL draft in January, opting instead to torment Pac-12 defenses for at least one more season.

Best defensive player: Junior CB Harris. Yes, Harris was suspended indefinitely for a speeding incident in early June, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be shut down for the year. Assuming he returns at some point in 2011, he’ll instantly become the Ducks’ most disruptive defender. A nightmare for opposing quarterbacks, Harris is an elite athlete, with the ball skills of an all-star wide receiver. In his first crack at significant playing time, he intercepted six passes and led the country with 23 breakups.

Key players to a successful season: Sophomore C Karrington Armstrong. Or redshirt freshman Hroniss Grasu. Oregon boasts a vastly underrated defense, but this program typically goes as far as the offense will take it. Now, the backfield delivers as many big plays as Broadway, but poor play up front is the one thing that can slow it down. The pivot, in particular, is a sore subject, as the Ducks prepare to replace all-star veteran Jordan Holmes with untested Armstrong or Grasu.

The season will be a success if: The Ducks win a BCS bowl game. They’ll begin 2011 as the favorites to win their third league championship in a row, so anything less a Pac-12 title won’t cut it. Furthermore, the program has to get over the hump and win a major bowl game for the first time since the 2002 Fiesta Bowl. Oregon desperately needs one of these games in order to avoid being labeled an overrated product of a marginal regular season schedule.

Key game: Sept. 3 vs. LSU. Primetime. Opening weekend. Cowboys Stadium. This is going to be huge for both programs. While it’s too early to call it a national championship elimination game, the loser will spend the rest of the year operating without a safety net. For Oregon, the trip to Arlington to play an SEC power also represents a chance to wow the portion of the national audience that’s only paid attention to it during the last two bowl losses.

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