Can Royce Freeman and the Ducks bounce back in new head coach Willie Taggart's first season?
A roster combining both youth and experience, plus a new head coach with a proven track record for rebuilding programs, bring enthusiasm back to Oregon football in 2017.
The Ducks embark on a new era in Willie Taggart's first season as head coach – the first Oregon season with no direct link to Rich Brooks in four decades – eager to bounce back from a 4-8 finish in 2016. Last year's struggles may only be a temporary speed bump, too.
Oregon grew into a nationally recognized program in the 2000s under Mike Bellotti, then upped the ante under Chip Kelly in the first half of this decade. With two national championship game appearances – one under Kelly and one under Mark Helfrich – the memories of Oregon football as a top-tier program remain.
Taggart inherits that cachet after two successful tenures at Western Kentucky, a Top 25 team a season ago on the foundation Taggart left; and USF, which begins 2017 ranked just a year removed from Taggart's tenure. Can he work his magic even quicker in Eugene?
Athlon polled a few writers to get their take on Oregon’s realistic win/loss projection in 2017.
Oregon Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2017
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45)
There's a lot to like about the current state of Oregon football with Taggart at the helm. He's a proven winner at his two previous stops – both of which required considerable work – employing an exciting brand of offense. With Justin Herbert, Royce Freeman and Tony Brooks-James all back in the fold, the Ducks should take to his offensive system immediately and start putting up big point totals right away.
That won't necessarily translate into big wins right away, however.
The cracks in Oregon's foundation became evident in a nine-win 2015 season. Those cracks gave way to a full-on dam burst last season, thus there will be some legitimate reconstruction. Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt is an excellent manager for overseeing the rebuild of the defense, but Oregon won't be a force on that side of the ball in Year 1. His overhaul at Colorado took two seasons, and UO faces a similar challenge.
Likewise, Taggart's teams at WKU and USF struggled in Year 1. Certainly he inherits more talent and a better situation, so don't expect a redux of last year's 4-8 finish. Anything exceeding a .500 finish should be viewed as a major win.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The Ducks are coming off their first losing season since 2004, but a quick rebound should be in order under new coach Willie Taggart. The high-powered Oregon offense will thrive behind rising star quarterback Justin Herbert, along with the return of running back Royce Freeman from injury. Additionally, left tackle Tyrell Crosby is back from injury, which should ensure the Ducks have one of the Pac-12’s top offensive lines. Scoring points won’t be a problem for Taggart, but the defense might be a year away. New coordinator Jim Leavitt was one of the top assistant hires of the offseason and should improve this defense over the course of 2017. After giving up 41.4 points per game last fall, it’s no secret Ducks have a ways to go on defense. The development of this group is likely to determine whether or not Oregon can challenge for a finish among the top two teams in the North Division. The road schedule also presents its share of challenges. The Ducks take on Arizona State, Stanford, UCLA and Washington away from Autzen Stadium.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
Few programs hit the pavement quicker than the Ducks did the past two seasons but that isn’t dampening the enthusiasm in Eugene for what Willie Taggart can do going forward with one of the most impressive coaching staffs in the Pac-12. There are a ton of good players still on the roster and that is centered on having a quality QB in Justin Herbert and an impressive stable of tailbacks that any school would want. I’m not sure there’s enough at wideout or on defense (where Jim Leavitt is a miracle worker, but might not be in 2017) to cause a huge surge in wins but a bowl berth seems likely this season, with the program’s direction pointing up going forward.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB)
The first season with Willie Taggart will appear to get off to a great start, but the Ducks will show in the middle of the season there is still a good amount of rebuilding to be done in Eugene. Returning Oregon to a top threat in the Pac-12 will not happen overnight, but getting back to a bowl game should absolutely be within reach this season. Taggart’s track record of improving a program will continue to hold true at Oregon, but don’t count on a team with a need for re-establishing depth and strength to form a new identity and challenge Washington or Stanford for the division with the flip of a switch.
John Coon (@johncoonsports)
Oregon is looking to bounce back from the program's worst season since 1991. Willie Taggart has a track record for rebuilding programs. He elevated Western Kentucky and South Florida into contenders during his stints at those schools and should be able to do the same at Eugene. It may take a little time to execute a complete turnaround though.
Scoring points won't be a problem for the Ducks. Quarterback Justin Herbert showed tons of promise in his freshman season, throwing 1,936 yards and 19 touchdowns in nine games while completing 63.5 percent of his passes. Royce Freeman and Tony Brooks-James offer a nice one-two punch in the backfield to help open up things for Herbert. The duo combined for 1,716 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.
Oregon's defense is a different story. The Ducks couldn't stop anyone a year ago and it cost them big time, finishing 11th in the Pac-12 in both total (518.4 ypg) and scoring (41.4 ppg) defense. New defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt should be able to make the Ducks more competitive on that side of the ball, but such a transformation won't happen overnight.
The schedule should allow Oregon to pile up some wins early before dealing with a difficult stretch in the middle of Pac-12 play. Tough road games loom at Washington, Stanford and Wyoming, and the Ducks also have a challenging home slate highlighted by Utah, Washington State and Nebraska. Oregon is capable of springing an upset or two, but simply getting bowl eligible may be the most realistic outcome to expect in 2017.