The Oregon Ducks check in at No. 4 in Athlon's college football 2012 top 25 countdown. Here's a look at our predictions for the most valuable players, games to watch, breakout candidates and other key categories for 2012.
Offensive MVP: De’Anthony Thomas, RB (SO)
There may not be a more versatile, more explosive player in the nation than The Black Mamba. He proved his big-time play-making ability as only a freshman. He finished with 2,235 all-purpose yards and 18 total touchdowns. He averaged nearly 11 yards per carry on 55 attempts and caught 46 passes for 605 yards. His highlight reel talents were on full display in the 45-38 Rose Bowl win over the Badgers in which he touched the ball six times on offense for 189 yards and two touchdowns. Thomas is listed as a wideout and running back and fans can bet Chip Kelly is much more confident in his open-field dynamo. Expect a heavy increase in touches in 2012.
Trap Game: at Cal (Nov. 10)
Berkeley hasn’t been a kind place for the Oregon Ducks. The closest regular season game Oregon played en route to it BCS national championship game appearance in 2010 was the 15-13 defensive struggle — which was the last time Oregon visited Cal. Before that, the Ducks had lost three games on the road against the Golden Bears. With Jeff Tedford’s back (and rear end) firmly placed against the wall in 2012, and a host of talented offensive weapons to utilize, Cal will be a dangerous out. Especially, considering when this game will be played. Oregon will have to get-up to compete after emptying the tank the previous week against USC in L.A. without looking ahead to a potentially huge battle with Stanford the following week. November 10 could be a dangerous day for Ducks faithful.
Upset Alert: at Washington State (Sept. 29)
Mike Leach won’t be messing around as he brings his air raid offense to Pullman, Wash. It should take very little time getting his team into a position to compete every week as Wazzu has a quality signal caller (when healthy) and a superstar wide receiver. Getting the Ducks early in the season helps the Cougars chance at pulling an upset because Carson York may not be fully healthy and the Ducks’ quarterback situation may still be unsettled. Oregon will need to be on full upset alert when they head to the semi-neutral field in Seattle, Wash. The Cougars have been able to score on Oregon of late, 52 points in last two losses, and were closer to the Ducks (43-28) last year than they have been since 2006.
Unsung Hero: Taylor Hart, DT (JR)
The junior nose guard started all 14 games along the defensive line a year ago and is one of the most dependable players in the conference. The 6-foot-6, 289-pounder registered 44 total tackles and 2.5 sacks en route to an honorable mention All-Pac-12 a year ago. He is fundamentally sound and never takes a snap off. His toughness and leadership makes him one of the most underrated players in the conference.
Biggest/Revenge Game: at USC (Nov. 3)
The first clash of West Coast titans will take place on the same day Alabama and LSU battle in Baton Rouge, La. The trip down to Los Angeles to face what could be the nation’s No. 1 team is the biggest game on the 2012 schedule for multiple reasons. First, the Trojans defeated the Ducks in Autzen Stadium a year ago — something no Duck has forgotten. The revenge factor will be in full effect. Second, home field advantage in the Pac-12 title game should be on the line. The Pac-12 is the only BCS league that plays its title game at a home site and earning its fourth straight conference crown will be much easier for Chip Kelly and company in the not-so-friendly confines of Autzen. Finally, not only could a Pac-12 title be on the line but a trip to the national title game could be at stake as well. There are two Games of the Century in college football this fall and they both take place on November 3.
Freshman To Watch: Arik Armstead, DL (FR)
The 6-foot-8, 297-pound monstrosity from Elk Grove, Calif., was a huge recruiting coup for Chip Kelly when he picked the Ducks over other Pac-12 powers. He is the No. 8 prospect in the nation and took very little time this spring proving his mettle. He is a basketball star and has the agility and raw athletic ability to match. Expect him to earn plenty of playing time in only his first year, considering the tendency of Nick Aliotti to rotate so many bodies.
Comeback Player: Carson York, OL (SR)
The senior offensive guard’s status heading into the fall might be the biggest story other than the quarterback battle the entire summer up in Eugene. The Ducks need the stud blocker to recover from his shredded knee, which he suffered in the Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. The injury was so vicious, however, that he may not be ready to roll until mid-season. York, when he returns to full strength, gives Oregon a tremendous baseball-style mid-season addition.
Defensive MVP: Michael Clay, LB (SR)
John Boyett certainly deserves plenty of praise for his ability to lead this defense and protect the back end, but Clay is the heart and soul of the front seven. The “cat-quick, cerebral player” lines-up at the most important position on the field. The San Jose, Calif., native is a bit undersized at 5-foot-11 and 219 pounds but is also incredibly productive. He finished 2011 with 102 total tackles, including 13 against Wisconsin, 8.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks. Look for another steady, dependable, leadership-laden season from the senior linebacker.
Newcomer To Watch: Marcus Mariota, QB
The 6-foot-4, 196-pound signal caller from Honolulu, Hawaii, has a chance to be THE guy in Eugene this fall. He will be in a heated position battle with Bryan Bennett, but dramatically outplayed Bennett in the spring, completing 18-of-26 passes and scoring on a 82-yard romp. He has less experience (try none on the college level), but will undoubtedly elicit Dennis Dixon comparisons the second he takes a snap.
Battle To Watch: Bryan Bennett vs. Marcus Mariota, QB
Mariota is a tremendous athlete who played the best football in spring, but has only played one football season in the last four years (his senior year in high school). Bennett certainly didn’t play as well during the competition in spring but has much more experience after leading the Ducks back from a deficit against Arizona State and starting the Colorado game last fall. Mariota has the slight edge heading into summer camp, but you can bet all eyes in the Pac-12, particularly the defensive coordinators, will be watching this position battle closely. With an easy non-conference slate, expect Chip Kelly to attempt to settle on one name by Week 4 when Arizona comes to town.
Season Defining Moment: Pac-12 Championship Game
If the Ducks are going to win their fourth straight conference crown, they are going to have to top the USC Trojans — twice. While there are plenty of speed bumps in the Pac-12 North — Washington, at Washington State, at Cal, at Oregon State, Stanford — the Ducks still feel like the heavy favorite to make it to the league’s title game. So even if Oregon goes down to Los Angeles on November 3 and gets pummeled by the USC Trojans, Oregon can maintain its strangle hold of the conference, and earn its fourth straight BCS Bowl, by defeating the Men of Troy on Friday, November 30, in the Pac-12 Championship Game. And who knows, if they can beat USC twice, they could be playing for a trip to Miami Gardens.
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