The higher the pedestal, the farther the fall. That's seemingly the moral for the Oregon Ducks heading into the 2016 season, a pivotal campaign in the direction of the program.
Oregon's coming off a nine-win 2015, which included a road victory over Pac-12 Conference champion Stanford. For most programs, that kind of season would be cause for celebration.
For nearly a decade, however, Oregon hasn't been like most programs.
Last year marked the Ducks' first time finishing shy of 10 wins since 2007. Home losses to Utah and Washington State in Pac-12 play, combined with a second-half meltdown in the Alamo Bowl defeat to TCU, wore some of the mystique off Oregon football — so much so, the Ducks take on the unfamiliar role of "the hunters" in the coming season, per linebacker Johnny Ragin III.
Athlon Sports writers and contributors project just how well a new place in the Pac-12 pecking order suits Oregon football.
Oregon Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2016
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45)
Oregon had plenty working against it last season. The Ducks were left replacing a three-year starter and Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Marcus Mariota; lost a ton of talent in a secondary, which had long been the linchpin of a deceptively good defense; and drew one of the most challenging schedules in all of college football, playing the eventual Pac-12 and Big Ten champions both on the road.
And yet, they still won nine games.
Such a finish is easy to take for granted with the standard established at Oregon. Considering the Ducks overcame a woeful passing defense (No. 126 in college football) to close as well as it did is a testament to the offense. When quarterback Vernon Adams was healthy, Oregon maintained the lofty standard set by title-contending teams of years past. That's no small feat.
Adams is gone, but Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop has similar potential. Throwing to one of the best wide receiver corps in college football, and handing off to Heisman contender Royce Freeman, the Ducks will score points in bunches once more. The lone question is about a defense that surrendered a dizzying 37.5 points per game, and lost its top performer, lineman DeForest Buckner.
Hiring Brady Hoke as defensive coordinator was a curious yet intriuging move. It's the kind of unique thinking that elevated the standard to such a level that nine wins is seen as disappointing. I personally am not ready to fully buy in, however. The Ducks are in the hunt for the Pac-12 North, and spend the season ranked in the Top 25, but will not win their fifth league title since 2009.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
This is a critical year for Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich. The Ducks failed to win 10 or more games last season for the first time since 2007, and this year’s team enters the fall with significant question marks on both sides of the ball. Will the offense hit another home run with a FCS graduate transfer at quarterback? Dakota Prukop is the favorite to replace Vernon Adams under center, but redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen is still in the mix. Regardless of who wins the job, the offense will rely on a heavy dose of running back Royce Freeman, and there’s a deep group of playmakers on the outside.
Even if the offense averages 35-40 points a game, the Ducks won’t contend for the Pac-12 North title without improvement on defense. The hire of Brady Hoke as coordinator should help, but there’s only one returning starter in the front seven. Additionally, Oregon’s road to a division title in the Pac-12 North isn’t getting any easier. Washington is improving and could be the favorite to win the league, Washington State took a big step forward last year, and Stanford isn’t going to slip too far after winning 12 games in 2015.
Bryan Fischer (BryanDFischer)
I go back and forth on Oregon being a Pac-12 contender every day and the way this team is constructed, it would not surprise me if the Ducks won the league or went 6-6. That's partially due to the schedule and tough nature of their conference but also on all the question marks facing head coach Mark Helfrich. I'm not yet sold on quarterback play but there's still an overflowing supply of skill position talent in Eugene to where the Ducks should be ok. Whether they can be great is up for debate though and I'm not sold after what we saw to close last season.
John Coon (@johncoonsports)
Oregon's defense turned into a chaotic mess last season. The Ducks ranked last in the Pac-12 in scoring (37.5 ppg) and total defense (485.3 ypg). Their saving grace came from an offense that led the Pac-12 in scoring (43.0 ppg), rushing (279.9 ypg) and total offense (485.3 ypg).
If Dakota Prukop can make the transition from the FCS, the Ducks should be tough to stop on offense once again. Prukop is a true dual threat at quarterback. He threw for 5,584 yards and 46 touchdowns while running for 1,763 yards and 24 touchdowns during his time at Montana State. Oregon will boast a lethal running attack powered by Royce Freeman. The junior RB has a legitimate shot to overtake LaMichael James as the school's career rushing leader before he leaves Eugene.
It all comes down to defense for Oregon. The Ducks need to shore up a porous secondary that ranked 126th among FBS teams in pass defense a year ago (306.5 ypg). If new defensive coordinator Brady Hoke can't improve on those numbers while making a transition to a 4-3 alignment, wild shootouts might define Oregon football again in 2016.
Josh Webb (@FightOnTwist)
Mark Helfrich is entering his senior season as the Ducks’ head coach and he’s had mixed success. It would be unfair to heap all the blame on Helfrich, as the Ducks have had terrible injuries, but he’s had some questionable game plans too. It’s also worth noting that, even though the Ducks reached the national championship in the inaugural College Football Playoff under Helfrich, Helfrich’s predecessor, Chip Kelly, never played in anything but a major bowl game. Helfrich has two Alamo Bowl trips in the last three years. By no means shoddy, but by all means a step down from appearing in the caliber of a New Year’s Six bowl.
This year’s Oregon squad will be extremely talented, but the Ducks play all but three of their toughest games on the road. Only Stanford, Washington and Arizona State come to Eugene. Stanford has proven it can win in Autzen Stadium; the Huskies and Sun Devils are working on it. I have Stanford repeating that feat and Cal getting a win in a shootout with a new-look offense and defense. The Ducks will likely win at least nine games, but I think Helfrich knows that he needs to do more and that’s why we saw him make significant coaching changes in the offseason.