There are surprise teams every college football season, on both the good and the bad end of things. The 2016 season seemed particularly heavy on the bad end, with a number of highly-touted teams in the preseason — or teams that were coming off strong ‘15 campaigns — falling flat on their faces and missing out on bowl games.
We’ll be taking a look at some of those heavyweights who took a big dip in 2016, dissecting what went wrong and spotting reasons for optimism heading into 2017. While some were expecting Oregon to take a step back last season, few probably didn’t see a 4-8 record and a head coaching change in store for the once mighty Ducks.
2015 recap: 9-4 (7-2 Pac-12), Alamo Bowl loss, No. 19 AP ranking, No. 20 coaches ranking
2016 preseason: No. 24 AP, No. 22 coaches
2016 recap: 4-8 (2-7 Pac-12)
What Went Wrong
Like most places that experienced downward spirals, you can start with quarterback play, as graduate transfer Dakota Prukop was yanked after four games for freshman Justin Herbert. But there was so much more plaguing the Ducks in 2016. The hire of Brady Hoke as defensive coordinator simply did not work out, with the Ducks’ 4-3 scheme falling short in the Pac-12. Oregon ranked 126th in both total defense (518.4 ypg) and scoring defense (41.4 ppg) in the FBS.
Offensively, the Ducks could no longer simply out-scheme everyone, as the rest of the Pac-12, and the nation, caught up to their high-speed attack. The talent was sub-par, at least compared to league rivals like USC and Washington, who both blew the Ducks out. And it certainly didn’t help that, according to OregonLive.com, offseason conditioning was simply a mess.
Cries of selfishness were commonplace. A disappointing finish to 2015 — a 31-point collapse to TCU in the Alamo Bowl — seemingly bled into the following campaign. There was no mistaking the downward trajectory of the program under fourth-year head coach Mark Helfrich, who was unable to sustain Chip Kelly’s winning ways without the services of former Heisman-winning QB Marcus Mariota. Hence, it was time for a change, with AD Rob Mullens firing Helfrich and hiring Willie Taggart from USF.
How It Can Be Fixed
So... about that change. Taggart led USF to a 10-2 regular season and was widely considered to be one of the nation’s brightest young coaches, albeit one whose Florida roots might be a bit out of place in Eugene, Oregon. His “Gulf Coast Offense” broke all sorts of school records with the Bulls, and the Harbaugh family disciple’s “enthusiasm unknown to mankind” was just what a geographically-challenged program needed on the recruiting trail.
But things have gotten off to a sour start. Strength coach Irele Oderinde has been suspended after three players ended up in the hospital following a winter workout. Co-offensive coordinator David Reaves is in the process of being fired following a DUI arrest. There’s no way around it: This is all a terrible, terrible look for the new regime.
Can things change? Of course they can. Taggart has won everywhere he’s been, from Western Kentucky to USF. And his USF start was awfully rocky through two-plus years as well, although those shortcomings were limited to on-field play. So this is going to be a process in Eugene, where fans accustomed to the heights of the past two regimes may not be as patient as they were before. But with a 54,000-seat stadium and a less-than-ideal location — compared to other Pac-12 blue bloods — it is important to remember all that the new staff is up against. Taggart will likely tap into his connections and have the Ducks recruiting better than they ever did, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle for a program coming off its first head-coach firing in 40 years.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.
(Top photo courtey of www.goducks.com)