Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich allowed his team some time to mourn the Ducks’ failed bid for the program’s first national championship. But with a loaded roster heading into 2015, Oregon has an opportunity to turn its disappointment into fuel for another run at the title.
The reigning Pac-12 champion and national runner-up Ducks are favorites to win the league crown for the fifth time in seven seasons. An embarrassment of riches at the skill positions promise that the high-powered offense to which Oregon has staked its identity will remain intact.
Oregon cannot simply score its way to another College Football Playoff appearance, however. The Ducks need to continue their defensive evolution while also establishing a new offensive identity without the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner and three-year starter, Marcus Mariota, at quarterback.
Three Reasons Why Oregon Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2015
1. Skill Position Depth
Few teams in college football can deliver quite as potent a one-two punch out of the backfield as Oregon. The Ducks return two running backs who, if they were asked to shoulder more of a load in another offense, could contend for the national rushing title.
Royce Freeman established himself as Oregon’s No. 1 ball carrier as a freshman, gaining 1,365 yards with 18 touchdowns last season. Defenses cannot simply hone in on Freeman though.
Thomas Tyner showed his chops as a feature back in the Ducks’ College Football Playoff romp over Florida State, gashing the Seminoles for 124 yards and two touchdowns on just 13 carries.
At wide receiver, there may not be a better collection anywhere in the nation. Oregon returns Byron Marshall, the converted running back who emerged as the No. 1 target when Bralon Addison was sidelined by a knee injury. Meanwhile, Addison, second to Josh Huff in the 2013 receiving corps, makes his return.
Add Devon Allen and Darren Carrington, as well as standout pass-catching tight end Pharaoh Brown on his way back from a brutal leg injury, and the learning curve for Oregon’s new quarterback is eased considerably.
2. Turnover Creation
The Oregon defense routinely ranks among the nation’s best in generating turnovers. Gaining takeaways was the hallmark of former coordinator Mark Allioti, and it’s remained a key metric by which the Don Pellum-led defense has flourished.
Pellum took over the job last offseason, after more than two decades as an assistant, promising renewed emphasis on strength up front. The resulting stymieing of opposing run games, combined with pressure on quarterbacks, led to plenty of takeaways.
Oregon’s 34 takeaways were the third most in the nation, behind only Louisiana Tech and TCU. The Ducks’ 1.53 per-game advantage in takeaways-to-turnovers was tops in all of college football.
Turnovers feed the Oregon offensive machine more effectively than anything else. Should the Ducks return to the Playoff, you can bet they’ll rank highly in turnover creation once again.
3. The System
“System” is used all too often as a derisive term in football: system quarterback, product of the system, etc. However, at Oregon, the system is responsible for the Ducks’ continued success through graduations, early NFL departures and coaching changes – seldom as the latter may come. Mark Helfrich became just the fourth Oregon head coach since 1977 when he replaced Chip Kelly in 2013.
Helfrich, entering his third year at the helm, endured a rough patch – at least, as rough as winning 11 games can possibly be. That’s as much of a hiccup as there’s been in Eugene post-Kelly.
When I asked Helfrich about the sustained success before last December’s Pac-12 Championship Game, he said: “The bedrock foundation of our program has remained the same [from Rich Brooks to Mike Bellotti to Kelly to Helfrich]… The philosophy is to…constantly evolve.”
Oregon’s 2015 Schedule
Athlon Projected Rankfor 2015
at Michigan State
Three Reasons Why Oregon Won’t Make the College Football Playoff in 2015
The up-tempo era in Oregon football has persisted from one quarterback to another, transitioning rather seamlessly from Dennis Dixon, to Jeremiah Masoli, to Darron Thomas. But at no time since Kelly introduced the scheme by which the Ducks are now defined has it functioned as fluidly as with Mariota behind center.
The Heisman Trophy winner and the second overall draft pick of the Tennessee Titans set the standard for all Oregon quarterbacks to come each of his three seasons as the starter, adding a traditional pocket-passer presence to the gadget-heavy scheme.
Whether Jeff Lockie or Vernon Adams replaces Mariota, Oregon needs that same dynamic from the passing game to balance with the multifaceted rushing attack – a running attack Mariota adeptly added to, scoring 15 touchdowns on the ground in 2014.
2. More Work in the Trenches
Though Pellum’s emphasis on physicality up front resonated, getting Oregon over the hump against imposing teams like Michigan State and Stanford that had previously given the Ducks trouble, the loss to Ohio State showed there’s still work to do.
Ohio State’s powerful offensive front battered Oregon, opening big holes for running back Ezekiel Elliott to pile up 246 yards and four touchdowns. It mirrored the 2013 loss at Arizona, when Ka’Deem Carey went for 206 yards and four scores, which really drove home the sense of urgency for a more physical style.
Returning DeForest Buckner in the middle certainly helps, but the Ducks must replace end Arik Armstead, as well as primary pass-rushing linebacker, Tony Washington.
3. Questions in the Secondary
As valuable as Mariota was to Oregon’s offense the previous three years, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was just as vital to the Duck defense. The Ducks began the transition to life without Ekpre-Olomu in the postseason, losing him to a torn ACL just before the Playoff.
Going into a full season without him poses its own challenge, particularly because the Ducks are also replacing Troy Hill and Erick Dargan.
Hill saw a lot of passes go his way, with opposing quarterbacks opting to throw away from Ekpre-Olomu. Hill answered the call with 18 pass breakups.
Dargan, meanwhile, powered Oregon’s excellent turnover-generation with seven interceptions to lead the team.
Reggie Daniels must continue his progression into the new star of this unit, but he’ll need help. Big years out of Arrion Springs and Chris Seisay are vital to Oregon’s Pac-12 title aspirations.
Oregon's schedule is loaded with potential trap games, most on them on the road. The Ducks visit Michigan State in Week 2 for one of the most anticipated non-conference games of the season, and perhaps the earliest date with Playoff implications.
Arizona State and Stanford also loom on the road, though it's worth noting Oregon's lost more games at Autzen Stadium since 2011 (USC 2011, Stanford 2012, Arizona 2014) than it has in true road games (Stanford and Arizona in 2013). To that end, a late-November showdown with USC could very well be the greatest potential for a slip-up the Ducks face in Pac-12 play.
That one could also be a preview of the Pac-12 Championship Game two weeks later.
Oregon can sustain a loss and still make the College Football Playoff, as last season proved. Moreover, one would have to go back to 2009 for the last regular season that ended with four or more teams undefeated. There's no precedent yet for a team that failed to win its conference making the final four, so the Ducks need to repeat as Pac-12 champions to ensure their place in the second Playoff.
Bank on Oregon doing just that. The Pac-12 has collectively elevated its game since the Ducks' run of dominance began, but last year proved that they're still ahead of the curve. Another one-loss season, with a defeat coming against either Michigan State or Arizona State, culminating in another Pac-12 title is the forecast.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 8
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 10-3
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5
CG Technology Over/Under Odds: 9.5
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9.5