Oregon’s preseason opener against LSU is fast approaching. In the spirit of of the coming game, I decided to post a preview of what may come in my senior year at Oregon.
The Oregon Ducks enter the 2011 season after making history with the school’s first ever appearance in a national title game, a second consecutive conference title and their best record in over a century.
Their almost perfect season was certainly unexpected after suffering a series of offseason controversies leaving the team without their star quarterback in 2010. A lot has changed since then, but one thing that has stayed consistent is the offseason antics. Both Cornerback Ciff Harris and linebacker Kiko Alonso are suspended for a minimum of one game and the football program has fallen under investigation by the NCAA for its dealings with a Houston-based recruiting service owner, Willie Lyles.
While the NCAA decides their post-season fate, Oregon will need to live up to the hype built up over the past year. This season the Ducks will lose star linebacker Casey Matthews, now playing for the Philadelphia Eagles, and wide receiver Jeff Maehl. Despite those key losses, the team should maintain its speed and agility with returning running backs Kenjon Barner and 2010 Heisman finalist LaMichael James as well as quarterback Darron Thomas.
Chip Kelly and the Oregon Ducks would like nothing more than to prove themselves once again by winning the first ever PAC-12 conference championship and having a second chance at the BCS National Championship.
The Ducks’ returning quarterback Darron Thomas has the confidence he didn’t have a year ago. Last offseason, Thomas was pitted against upperclassman Nick Costa to win the starting quarterback position. Having won, he led Oregon to the National Championship. Last season he passed for 2,881 yards and 30 touchdowns. Thomas now has the confidence to throw more and rely less on the speed of his running backs, which is good because it’s about time most of their PAC-12 competitors have their routine down straight. It’s Thomas’ job to change up their offense and make it unpredictable again.
That isn’t to say that James and Barner will contribute any less than in previous seasons. In the 2010 season, James lead the country in rushing with 1,731 yards and 21 touchdowns, averaging almost six yards per carry, while Barner for 551 yards and six touchdowns, averaging over six yards per carry. The speed of the Oregon offense isn’t going anywhere. Wide receiver Josh Huff was a huge asset last year as a true freshman, averaging almost eighteen yards per carry, but will need to step up even more this year to fill the shoes of alum Jeff Maehl. Tight end David Paulson will also round out the Ducks’ experienced offense catching for 418 yards last season and four touchdowns.
If the offense line is able to stay strong after losing three starters, the offense is solid. But that’s a big “if.” The younger players will have the pressure of building the cohesiveness and leadership of previous seasons all before their first game. But with the addition of true freshman wide receiver Tacoi Sumler, a four star recruit out of Miami, FL and one of the fastest (if not the fastest) prep football recruit in the country, filling Maehl’s shoes shouldn’t be a problem.
This team led the conference and the nation in points per game (46.8) and yards per game (530.7), and should be just as remembered, but perhaps a little quicker and not as predictable.
In the 2010 season, Oregon’s defense ranked twelfth in the nation allowing only 18.7 points per game. Leaving the Ducks are key linebackers Casey Matthews (79 tackles – 37 solo), Spenser Paysinger, now for the New York Giants, Kenny Rowe, now for the San Francisco 49ers. This is going to be a young group of players, and they’ll all need to step up and give the offense what it needs to stay in control.
Last season, defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti rotated between 25 linebackers. So a lot of the players that will need to step up will not be new to Oregon, just new to the starting line. The Ducks have also added five true freshmen and three red-shirt freshmen to the lineup.
Over the past few seasons, the Ducks’ defense has been regarded as the weak link but on their road to the national championship, Oregon stepped up and showed the country this wasn’t a team relying totally on their running backs. Regardless of their missing starters, the Ducks should be able to fill the gaps and keep on improving.
The Ducks we extremely fortunate in the 2010 season; opening the preseason with a matchup against New Mexico wasn’t exactly a challenging one. The team was coming off an embarrassing loss to Wisconsin in the 2010 Rose Bowl and needed the kind of confidence boost that season opener supplied.
This year, Oregon isn’t as fortunate. They open the preseason against fourth ranked LSU at Cowboy Stadium in Arlington, TX. Autzen Stadium has been consistently ranked in the top ten most intimidating venues, but the Ducks don’t always thrive on a national stage. They’ll also be missing defensive players Alonso and Harris due to suspensions for the LSU game. The Ducks, ranked third, will need to win this game if they want a repeat appearance in the BCS National Championship. After the LSU opener, their schedule looks pretty typical.
The Ducks will open conference play at Arizona, which was far from the friendliest venue two seasons ago. Luckily Oregon’s three toughest PAC-12 opponents are late in the season, allowing them time to prepare for what can be considered unknowns right now. Oregon will have to face their biggest PAC-12 threat, Stanford, lead by Heisman finalist Andrew Luck at Stanford Stadium. Not ideal, and Stanford will be a different looking team under new head coach David Shaw. Closing out the season with the civil war against Oregon State at home will be a huge advantage; especially if the Ducks are coming off a couple victories against Stanford and USC.
Starting out the season with likely the toughest game they’ll play all season will be a tell tale sign of how far the Ducks have come in the offseason. Stanford will be the ultimate test of their strength at the end of the season. These benchmarks will likely reveal the fate of Oregon’s post-season play.
The Ducks, in the past, have thrived as the underdog, but that is no longer the case. After their birth at the BSC National Championship, the team needs to find that hunger they had when they had to prove themselves to the world. Now that they’ve proven themselves, can they live up to the hype? Their offseason controversies provide a chance for their usual “it’s us against the world” mentality to supersede the others and might just be enough to meet great expectations.