College football’s national title and Pac-12 championship outlook changed dramatically on Wednesday, as Oregon coach Chip Kelly decided to leave Oregon for the NFL. The timing of Kelly’s departure is especially curious, as he was believed to be staying in the college ranks after turning down the Eagles just after the Fiesta Bowl.
Kelly was one of college football’s top coaches and will be missed. Oregon is expected to promote offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich to the top spot, which should provide a seamless transition. However, Helfrich has no head coaching experience and even though he was listed as the team’s offensive coordinator, Kelly called the plays.
With Kelly off to the NFL, here’s a look at some of the key questions facing Oregon, the Pac-12 and national title picture:
Who is Mark Helfrich and how does this impact Oregon for the future?
Although Helfrich didn’t call the plays under Kelly, the Oregon native has gained valuable experience serving as the team’s offensive coordinator since 2009. Before joining Kelly in Eugene, Helfrich worked as Boise State’s quarterback coach from 1998-2000 and served in the same role at Arizona State from 2001-05. He worked under Dan Hawkins as an offensive coordinator at Colorado from 2006-08 but has never served as a head coach.
Continuity is a huge part of Oregon’s decision to promote Helfrich to replace Kelly. There’s no doubt the Ducks can continue their success in 2013 and 2014, but it’s fair to question if the program can maintain its current pace for the future. Why? For now, no one has any idea what to expect out of Helfrich. He could be the next David Shaw or this transition could end up like Miami after Larry Coker was promoted to head coach after Butch Davis left for the NFL.
Until Helfrich proves the program won’t miss a beat, there will be doubts about Oregon for 2015 and beyond. However, with a foundation built for success, Helfrich should be able to keep the Ducks playing at a high level for the immediate future.
Of course, there’s one issue hanging over the program that could have a long-term effect: NCAA sanctions. With the Ducks under NCAA investigation, a bowl ban or scholarship losses could be coming in the future. While it’s a huge issue for the program, most don’t expect crippling sanctions like USC has experienced. Even if Oregon faces a postseason ban or a reduction in scholarships, this is still one of the premier programs in college football and should fall too far behind.
How does this impact Oregon in 2013?
The good news for Oregon? Most of its key players are back for 2013. Sure, running back Kenjon Barner, defensive end/linebacker Dion Jordan and linebacker Michael Clay are big losses, but the Ducks have recruited well and there’s no shortage of talent on the roster. Quarterback Marcus Mariota will be in the mix for All-American honors, and the defense should get a boost from sophomore Arik Armstead.
While the roster is in good shape, there will be a drop off from Kelly to Helfrich. Any program that has a coaching change will experience a few ups and downs, and the players have to adapt to a new leader.
Which Pac-12 teams benefit the most from Oregon’s coaching change?
This one is easy. How about Stanford? The Cardinal has been on a roll over the last three years, winning 35 games during that span. Oregon and Stanford are neck-and-neck for the top spot in the Pac-12 North next season, and Kelly’s departure could help swing the battle in favor of the Cardinal.
Outside of Stanford, Washington is the other big winner. The Huskies are coming off a disappointing 7-6 season but return most of their core on both sides of the ball. Although finishing ahead of Oregon in the Pac-12 North in 2013 is unlikely, the gap between the Ducks and Washington could close in the next few years. If Oregon declines under Helfrich, the Huskies will have a chance to push Stanford as the division’s No. 1 team.
What other factors might affect Oregon with Chip Kelly’s departure?
Will any assistant coaches follow Kelly to the NFL?
Although the Oregon coaching staff doesn’t get a lot of credit, it’s one of the best in the Pac-12 – if not the nation. Considering how quickly the Ducks’ offense scores, it’s often overlooked at the job defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti does each year. The Ducks held opponents to just 21.6 points a game this year and averaged 2.2 sacks a game. Defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro and secondary coach John Neal also do a tremendous job, as Oregon never has a problem finding players to fill the void by departing starters each year.
For now, it’s uncertain if Oregon will lose any coaches to the NFL. If Helfrich can keep this staff together, it will go a long ways towards easing his transition into the head coaching role.
With Kelly leaving just weeks before Signing Day, it’s important for Oregon and Helfrich to hit the recruiting trail as quickly as possible. Although the Ducks won’t lose every one of their current commitments, opposing teams are already contacting recruits trying to pry them away from Oregon.
How the Ducks recruit under Helfrich and whether or not all of their current commitments end up in Eugene will be one of the top Pac-12 storylines to watch on Signing Day.
Bottom line...is Oregon still the Pac-12 North favorite and a national title contender?
Yes. While the long-term health of the program is a wait-and-see situation, the Ducks will be one of college football’s top-five teams in 2013. The schedule is favorable, although trips to Stanford and Washington in conference play won’t be easy. Outside of Alabama, there are no clear BCS title contenders. If Oregon can knock off the Cardinal and win the conference championship game, a matchup against the Crimson Tide in the national title is a very real possibility.
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