You win in college football by repeatedly putting a good team on the field and hoping that the breaks fall your way at some point. And over the last four years, Oregon has been the seventh-best overall team in the country. The 1994 Nebraska team was not better than the 1978 or 1983 Huskers, but the breaks fell their way (odd to say considering Tommie Frazier's blood clots), and they made the right plays at the right time. The 1996 Florida Gators were not Steve Spurrier's best team in Gainesville. The 1997 Michigan Wolverines were potentially worse than any number of 1970s Michigan squads that didn't win the national title. In the end, the banners still hang, and the rings still shine whether you're truly the best team or not.
That's from last year's Oregon preview, and every single word still rings true. On paper, the 2011 Oregon Ducks were better than Chip Kelly's 2010 squad -- they improved to fourth in Off. F/+ and ranked 10th in Def. F/+ -- but they encountered a tougher schedule, opening the season with a loss to LSU in Dallas. Then, after they positioned themselves for a national title game rematch versus the Bayou Bengals, Oregon kicker Alejandro Maldonado missed a 37-yard field goal that would have capped a huge comeback against USC and sent the game to overtime. It was his only miss from under 40 yards all season. Some years (2010), the breaks go your way, and lesser teams make it really far. Other years (2011), they don't.
While the Ducks couldn't make it back to the national title game, they further established themselves as a national player. College football doesn't accept many applicants to its upper tier. In fact, if you look at the teams considered national powers, almost all of them have been so for decades. For instance, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Alabama, USC, et cetera, have not seen their fortunes change too terribly much from decade to decade; and even when teams fall from their ruling perch (Nebraska and Michigan, for instance), they are never considered too far from reasserting themselves.
You could make the case that the only programs that have been "accepted" into the ruling class over the last two or three decades have been the Florida schools (Florida, Florida State, Miami) and MAYBE, Virginia Tech. But if Oregon isn't part of this class by now, they are really, really close. Money and huge success make for a rather impressive resume, and between Phil Knight's cash and the games Oregon has won with it (the Ducks have finished in the F/+ Top 10 in four of the last five seasons), Oregon's case is improving by the season.
Oregon enters the 2012 season once again well-positioned for success. In fact, there are quite a few similarities between this squad and the 2010 team that came within a play or two of the national title.
Easy schedule? Check. Oregon doesn't play a single team projected in the F/+ Top 50 until November.
Intriguing first-year starter at quarterback? Check. Thanks to Darron Thomas' decision to go pro early, four-star sophomore Bryan Bennett takes over behind center, assuming he can hold off redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota.
The Ducks are fast, deep in the trenches, and ridiculously experienced on defense. When you become a national power, people simply assume you're going to be really good in a given year. At this point, I think we're there with Chip Kelly's Ducks. Keep doing this, and one of these years they will bring home the crystal football. I mean, the SEC can't win every year, right?
Here's more of what I said about the Ducks last August:
Oregon mostly dominated a weak schedule, but they did so with style and panache, and while this conceivably could have been the third-best Oregon team of the last four years (note that S&P+ doesn't knock every Oregon team, just the last one), timing is everything; the 2010 Ducks avoided catastrophic injury, pulled away for mostly easy wins, won the first 12 games on their schedule and almost won the 13th too. There is little more you can ask for than that. […]
Allow me to defend myself for one last time regarding the 2010 team, then move on for good. Context, timing and luck matter. Your best team does not always win the most games, and your worst team isn't guaranteed a winless record. Oregon is the perfect example. The 2007 Ducks were likely the best team in the country before quarterback Dennis Dixon went down (Adj. PPG with Dixon: 43.3; without: 24.5). The 2010 Ducks, meanwhile, were worse offensively and slightly worse overall, but their schedule, their injuries luck and their overall timing was much, much better. […]
Depending on how well Pac-12 opponents adjust (and how well Chip Kelly adjusts to the adjustments), the 2011 Oregon squad will potentially be a better offensive team than the 2010 squad, but if the defense regresses in the playmaking department, opponents will be able to sustain drives and prevent LaMichael James, Darron Thomas and company from wearing their defenses down quite as much. Oregon will likely find themselves in quite a few more close games this year (last year, only two games were decided by one possession), and they will have to click like Auburn did in those situations to return to the title game. Don't count them out, but don't pencil them in either.
As predicted, Oregon's offense was indeed better in 2011, producing a higher rate of success despite a tougher schedule and continuing to utilize their high-paced style to great success. But the defense surprised me. The Ducks not only lost linebackers Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger, but they also had to replace a pair of ferocious playmakers up front (end Kenny Rowe, tackle Brandon Bair). Meanwhile, star cornerback Cliff Harris played only half of the season due to random transgressions. No matter.
Despite some issues versus the run, the Ducks ranked 10th in Def. F/+, thanks primarily to a monstrous pass defense (10th in Adj. Sack Rate, sixth in Passing S&P+). Twenty-six Ducks took part in at least one tackle for loss, and a deep batch of speedy linebackers and safeties ensured that opponents struggled to make big plays. Despite their offense-heavy reputation, the Ducks have become one of the most complete teams in the country in recent years. They are explosive (28 plays of 40 yards or more, third-most in the country), consistent (46.1 points per game, also third) and incredibly disruptive (Top 20 in tackles for loss, takeaways, and kicks/punts blocked). They were in 2010, they were in 2011, and they almost certainly will be in 2012.
When a unit like the Oregon offense absorbs turnover in personnel and continues to crank out an efficient, successful product, it is easy to simply assume it will continue to happen. Quarterback Dennis Dixon and running back Jonathan Stewart leave, but they are replaced by Jeremiah Masoli and LaGarette Blount. Masoli and Blount each see premature endings to their respective Oregon careers, and they are one-upped by Darron Thomas and LaMichael James. It is easy, then, to assume that even though Thomas and James both left after their junior seasons, some combination of quarterback Bryan Bennett and running backs Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas will easily keep the train chugging forward. In fact, I find myself assuming exactly that.
It is certainly worth noting, however, that this isn't a given, and for a few different reasons.
First of all, Bennett hasn't even won the job yet. Chip Kelly talked up the work of redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota for most of the spring, and it appears that the battle to succeed Thomas will run into the fall. That said, Bennett has to be considered the favorite. He played well when Thomas got hurt last year; he averaged 7.2 yards per pass attempt to Thomas' 7.7, and he was incredibly dangerous on the ground. Twenty non-sack carries generated 217 yards. Accuracy is a concern (he completed just 54 percent of his passes last year), and he was sacked at almost a three-times higher rate than Thomas. But there's no denying that he played at a higher freshman level than Thomas did in 2008; there's something to be said for that.
What if a running back gets hurt? Oregon's running back depth in recent years has been staggering. In 2009, Blount was unexpectedly suspended for the season after just one game, so James seamlessly moved into the starter role and thrived with Kenjon Barner providing backup. In 2010, Barner once again backed up James, with part-time running back Josh Huff carrying a few times and five-star running back Lache Seastrunk getting encased in plastic (redshirt) for emergency use. Even last year, with Seastrunk having transferred, James was still backed up by Barner, part-time running back De'Anthony Thomas and interesting freshman Tra Carson. But now James is gone, Carson has transferred, and unless incoming freshman Byron Marshall is ready to contribute, the depth chart goes straight from Barner and Thomas to a walk-on (Ayele Forde). Barner is strong and steady (if not as spectacular as James), and Thomas might be one of the most exciting players in the country, but if one of them goes down, Bennett might end up having to carry the ball a lot more than intended.
Who steps up at receiver? Here are last season's most frequently targeted Oregon receivers: wideout Lavasier Tuinei, Thomas, Huff, tight end David Paulson and James. Tuinei, Paulson and James are gone, leaving just Thomas (who should be spending much of his time in the backfield) and Huff, who was a solid No. 2 or No. 3 option last season, but perhaps nothing more. To say the least, Oregon has recruited skill position talent quite well through the years, but a relative newcomer will have to step up for the Oregon offense to keep ticking. The Ducks may have made their name with the running game, but an explosive passing game (seventh in Passing PPP+) more than played its part. At wideout, senior Rahsaan Vaughn and junior Daryle Hawkins earned strong reviews this spring; they combined to average a respectable 8.3 yards per target in limited action (about 2.5 targets per game) last year. At tight end, five-star sophomore Colt Lyerla (seven catches last year), four-star redshirt freshman Christian French and four-star freshmen Evan Baylis and Pharaoh Brown could all thrive or all take a while to work into impact roles.
Odds are still in Oregon's favor here. Chip Kelly has gotten away with leaning on young players before, and there are enough candidates, especially in the receiving corps, to ensure success. Plus, three starters return (65 career starts) from an incredible line that ranked first in Adj. Line Yards and 12th in Adj. Sack Rate. (That nobody on this line earned all-conference honors is quite confusing.) Bennett (or Mariota), Barner, Thomas, Huff and any number of four- or five-star youngsters should be more than enough toys with which Kelly can play. It just isn't necessarily a 100 percent certainty.
When your head coach is an offensive guy high on both pace and personality, it defines your personality. And in many ways, Chip Kelly is now almost seen as the run-first version of Mike Leach. That's unfair to both coaches, actually; nobody should EVER be compared to Leach at this point (except Dana Holgorsen, of course), and beyond that, it's unfair because Kelly has won at a much higher rate than Leach thus far. It's also inaccurate in one specific way: whereas Leach finally figured out how to get a strong defense on the field late in his Texas Tech tenure, Kelly did it almost immediately in Eugene. The perception might be offense-first, offense-second, but tell that to a defense that has ranked 25th, seventh and 10th, respectively, in Def. F/+ the last three years. As effective as the Oregon offense has been, the Ducks wouldn't have been successful with a porous defense that tired easily. Over the last two years, Kelly has put as much speed onto the defensive side of the field as the offense, and the effects have been fantastic.
As strange as it may still sound, the Oregon defense quite possibly has fewer question marks than the offense in 2012. The Ducks do have to replace ends Terrell Turner and Brandon Hanna (combined: 61.5 tackles, 12 tackles for loss), speedy linebackers Dewitt Stuckey and Josh Kaddu (combined: 96.0 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss) and safety Eddie Pleasant (three interceptions, eight passes broken up). Assuming they won't really miss these players is at least somewhat faith-based. But it is difficult not to get starry-eyed about their replacements.
On the line, end Dion Jordan and his 13 tackles for loss return, and he will be teamed with a pair of three-star redshirt freshmen (Koa Ka'ai and Sam Kamp) and a trio of four-star freshmen (Arik Armstead, Alex Balducci, DeForest Buckner). Armstead in particular is both huge (6'8, 280) and a huge get for Kelly, being that he had offers from everybody in the country and his brother was a USC Trojan. On top of all this, the top four tackles all return. Oregon's only shaky advanced ranking was their 74th place finish in Adj. Line Yards; experience should improve that number a decent amount, and the depth at end should ensure that the pass rush (10th in Adj. Sack Rate) does not suffer.
At linebacker, freakish athlete Kiko Alonso might -- might -- have finally matured enough to stay on the field and play a featured role. He has always been a wonderful playmaker (defensive MVP of the 2012 Rose Bowl) but off-the-field decisions have held him back. Alonso and potential playmakers like Boseko Lokombo and Anthony Wallace should minimize the losses of Stuckey and Kaddu. At safety, meanwhile, junior Avery Patterson almost matched Pleasant's production last year, and the cornerback trio of Troy Hill, Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (not to mention free safety John Boyett) should do the new Rover some favors. In all, this defense is at least as fast as last year's, and it is more experienced than it was 12 months ago.
Oregon fans (at least those at Addicted To Quack) are somewhat measured in their expectations heading into this season, but with a brutally easy schedule, it is difficult not to see Oregon assuring itself of a high ranking when it visits USC on November 3. Of the Ducks' first eight opponents, none are projected to rank higher than 59th, and only one takes place on an opponent's home field. (Oregon goes to Arizona State on October 18, and the "road game" versus Washington State takes place in Seattle.) The Ducks' final four games (at USC, at California, Stanford, at Oregon State, plus a potential Pac-12 title game) will tell the tale, but anything less than 10 wins would have to be at least a little bit disappointing.
The schedule is perfect for breaking in a new backfield, and both the defense and special teams should be stellar once again. The pieces of the machine are in place, and if Chip Kelly can continue to put a product of this high caliber on the field, he will almost certainly reap the benefits one of these years. Will that year be 2012? There are just enough question marks to figure it won't, but a team's schedule doesn't get more favorable than this.