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Is Oregon ready for another step forward after a bumpy 2018?

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Mario Cristobal’s Ducks emotionally flatlined after a big midseason win, but they’re more experienced in 2019, and they’ve got some blue-chip reinforcements on the way.

NCAA Football: Redbox Bowl-Michigan State vs Oregon
Justin Herbert
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

After Rafael Nadal won his 12th French Open title on Sunday, ESPN’s Simon Cambers recalled a quote the Spaniard had given a few years earlier about raising your intensity at precisely the moment you’ve begun to find success.

”Winning two sets to one, winning the third set ... you cannot start the fourth set like this,” Nadal said. “It’s the moment to play with more intensity than ever, not start with 3-0 down and two breaks in five minutes. That way you lose the match.”

Against the 25-year old Dominic Thiem, to whom he’d lost in straight sets earlier in clay court season, Nadal dropped the second set. But he raised his intensity at the exact moment that Thiem took his eye off the ball; by the time Thiem realized what had hit him, he had dropped the final two sets, 6-1, 6-1.

In this analogy, the 2018 Oregon Ducks were Thiem. They want to be Nadal in 2019.

After losing to Ohio State in 2014’s national title game, Oregon’s level of play plummeted. From 13-2 and fifth in S&P+, they fell to 9-4 and 19th in 2015, then 4-8 and 55th in 2016. Mark Helfrich was fired and replaced by Willie Taggart, but while Taggart engineered a bit of a rebound (7-6 and 37th), he also left for Florida State after one year. Former FIU head coach and Taggart assistant Mario Cristobal was tasked with continuing the ascent while working through all the culture and chemistry issues that can arise when a program goes through three head coaches in three seasons.

The first half of 2018 was promising. The Ducks blazed through Bowling Green, Portland State, and SJSU as one is supposed to and got a chance at a statement win, leading No. 7 Stanford 31-21 deep into the fourth quarter. But a heart-breaking fumble gave the Cardinal a chance to tie the game and eventually win in overtime.

Instead of letting that crater their season, however, the Ducks responded. They put up 42 points on an awesome Cal defense in an easy win, and with another top-10 team coming to town — this time No. 7 Washington — Oregon closed the deal. CJ Verdell’s six-yard overtime touchdown gave the Ducks a 30-27 win and bumped them to 12th in the AP poll.

And then, you might say, came the third set. Having cleared a major hurdle, Oregon proceeded to emotionally flatline. The Ducks went to Washington State and found themselves down 27-0 at halftime. They rallied a bit to lose by only 14, but they cratered even further the next week, losing 44-15 to a mediocre Arizona. After peaking at 19th in S&P+ early in the season, they were now 44th.

Things normalized from there. The Ducks beat UCLA, Arizona State, and Oregon State, lost at a solid Utah by a touchdown, outlasted Michigan State in a Redbox Bowl slog, and finished 9-4. They ended up 41st in S&P+, which is pretty much what they deserved when you break their results out by opponent strength.

Oregon in 2018

Opp. S&P+ range Top 40 No. 41-100 No. 101+
Opp. S&P+ range Top 40 No. 41-100 No. 101+
Record 2 W, 3 L 3 W, 1 L 4 W, 0 L
Avg. score Opp 27, UO 23 UO 33, Opp 30 UO 53, Opp 19
Avg. yards per play Opp 5.7, UO 5.2 UO 6.0, Opp 5.4 UO 6.6, Opp 4.4
Justin Herbert passer rating 115.0 171.0 181.8
Avg. percentile 48% 51% 67%
Avg. off. percentile 54% 62% 65%
Avg. def. percentile 39% 51% 72%

Of course, averages don’t completely tell the story. If not for two dismal weeks in the middle of the season, the averages would have looked quite a bit different.

Oregon returns a Heisman candidate and future first-round draft pick in quarterback Justin Herbert, a pair of strong sophomore running backs in Verdell and Travis Dye, most of their receiving corps, all of their starting offensive line, and most of the defense.

Herbert’s return for his senior season (he almost certainly would have been one of the top two QBs off the board in this year’s draft) made the Ducks a borderline top-10 pick in the preseason rankings, and while S&P+ can’t co-sign that — the defense still only ranked 50th in Def. S&P+ and now has to break in a new coordinator — they are projected to improve by more than 20 spots into the top 20.

NCAA Football: Redbox Bowl-Michigan State vs Oregon
Mario Cristobal
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Plus, Cristobal just signed maybe the best recruiting class in Oregon history, one capable of bringing immediate extra upside and depth at receiver and throughout the defense.

It appears further improvement is in store in Eugene this fall, but it only matters if Oregon handles success better than it did last October.

Offense

By the end of the season’s first month, Herbert was averaging more than 280 yards per game with a 65 percent completion rate and a passer rating over 180. Draft hype was through the roof.

His completion rate was just 57 percent from that point on, though, and his passer rating was a pedestrian 126.3. Horrid performances against Wazzu and Arizona certainly tamped those numbers down, but he had only two games with a passer rating over 150 in his last eight contests, and one was against Oregon State, which barely counts.

Granted, there were some injury issues. He went into concussion protocol after the Arizona loss, and he injured his shoulder late in the season. Still, Oregon finished the year just 44th in Passing S&P+ and 50th in passing marginal efficiency. That’s not exactly what you’d expect for a team with a consensus top pick behind center.

Part of that was offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo’s offense, though. Oregon primarily ran the ball on standard downs (41st in SD run rate) and threw it on passing downs (101st in PD run rate), so a healthy percentage of Herbert’s pass attempts came in obvious pass situations.

Mind you, he was pretty good in those situations (Oregon was 19th in blitz downs success rate, 20th in big-play rate). Still, he’s got plenty of room for improvement, which is a scary thing to say considering his obvious upside.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Oregon State
CJ Verdell
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Verdell and Dye combined to average 26 carries per game with a decent 45 percent success rate, but while losses were rare, so were big plays — UO was 45th in rushing marginal efficiency but 107th in rushing marginal explosiveness.

That created a bit of a paradox: Oregon was good at creating manageable third downs (in open play, the Ducks were ninth in average third-down distance and 32nd in third-down success rate) but never moved the chains before third down (125th in percentage of first downs coming on first or second down).

There’s no reason to think that Verdell and Dye will be any less efficient this time around. They’re no longer freshmen, and they’re going to be running behind one of the most experienced lines in college football. Seven linemen have combined for 153 career starts, including three-year starter and all-conference guard Shane Lemieux.

NCAA Football: San Jose State at Oregon
Jacob Breeland
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

If a big-play was taking place in 2018, it probably involved Dillon Mitchell. The new Minnesota Viking is about the only departure in the receiving corps, but he could be hard to replace. He was the target on 33 percent of Oregon’s passes, and of the six Oregon players targeted at least 20 times, he and tight end Jacob Breeland were the only ones to average more than 12.6 yards per catch.

Slot receiver Jaylon Redd is nice and efficient, and Penn State grad transfer Juwan Johnson is a potential downfield option (albeit one who had serious some drops issues last year). But between junior Johnny Johnson III, four-star redshirt freshmen Bryan Addison and Isaah Crocker and incoming blue-chippers Mycah Pittman, Lance Wilhoite, and Josh Delgado, Herbert needs some new big-play threats.

Defense

Jim Leavitt brought stability to the Oregon defense. The unit had completely cratered in Helfrich’s last two seasons, ranking 83rd in Def. S&P+ in 2015, then 106th in 2016, but the Ducks rebounded to 50th in each of Leavitt’s two seasons as defensive coordinator. Thanks to heavy returning production, they’re projected to move into the top 40 this year, but it’s up to a new coordinator to get them there.

The Cristobal-Leavitt marriage appeared strained from the start — Leavitt was a holdover from the Taggart “era” — and they parted ways in February. That gave Cristobal a chance to make his own pick, and he made a good one: former Boise State DC Andy Avalos.

NCAA Football: Under Armour All-America Game
Kayvon Thibodeaux
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Over Avalos’ three seasons as BSU DC, his Broncos averaged a Def. S&P+ ranking more than 20 spots higher than Oregon’s despite obvious differences in recruiting averages. His 2018 defense was pretty bland on standard downs but crazy-aggressive on passing downs (20th in PD marginal efficiency, second in sack rate). Four different Broncos finished with between four and 10 sacks.

Oregon only had two players in that range last year, and one (linebacker Justin Hollins) is gone. Gus Cumberlander is a decent pass rush specialist (four of his 11 tackles in 2018 were sacks), but this could be where Cristobal’s 2019 signing class reaps immediate dividends: Kayvon Thibodeaux, the No. 2 prospect in the entire class per the 247Sports Composite, signed with the Ducks in mid-December.

Avalos inherits a unit that combines experience (of the 13 front-seven defenders to make at least 11 tackles last year, nine return, including linebacker Troy Dye and almost the entire line) and tantalizing youth: Thibodeaux is one of four blue-chip freshmen in the front seven.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Oregon State
Thomas Graham Jr.
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

You never want to expect too much of a freshman, but if Thibodeaux can help to provide at least above-average QB pressure, this defense could cook. The Ducks already ranked 14th in passing downs marginal efficiency and 20th in third-and-long success rate despite a poor pass rush, which says great things about a secondary that was loaded with freshmen and sophomores.

Four of five primary DBs return, and three of the four (junior corners Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir and sophomore safety Jevon Holland) combined to intercept 11 passes and break up 33 more. The Ducks do lose a hell of a play-maker in new Seattle Seahawk Ugo Amadi, but this is a far more experienced unit than it was a year ago, and that’s before I mention the addition of another major blue-chipper, cornerback Mykael Wright.

Special Teams

UO could certainly stand to get its special teams act together at some point. The Ducks were 111th in Special Teams S&P+ last year and somehow haven’t ranked in the top 70 since 2011, when Chip Kelly was still in town.

A good return game loses both return men (Amadi on punts, Tony Brooks-James on kickoffs), and the kicking situation is dire: Adam Stack and Zach Emerson were trusted to take only three field goals beyond 40 yards and missed all three. Oregon was 128th in field goal efficiency.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug vs. Auburn 8 -8.8 31%
7-Sep Nevada 83 18.3 85%
14-Sep Montana NR 35.9 98%
21-Sep at Stanford 32 1.3 53%
5-Oct California 60 12.9 77%
11-Oct Colorado 68 14.6 80%
19-Oct at Washington 15 -6.3 36%
26-Oct Washington State 36 7.4 67%
2-Nov at USC 29 0.6 51%
16-Nov Arizona 52 10.9 74%
23-Nov at Arizona State 49 5.4 62%
30-Nov Oregon State 105 25.7 93%
Projected S&P+ Rk 20
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 18 / 40
Projected wins 8.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 12.6 (25)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 13
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 5 / 5.2
2018 TO Luck/Game -0.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 72% (73%, 71%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 7.6 (1.4)

S&P+ indeed projects Oregon to improve by quite a bit in 2019, even if the top-10 poll hype still seems to be a bit misplaced. Herbert has not quite shown the consistency he’s given credit for, his best receiver is gone, and the defense will indeed be relying on youngsters to liven up an iffy pass rush.

If the Ducks get past last year’s mental hurdles, it’s not hard to see them winning big. They are, after all, a projected underdog in only two games (August 31 vs. Auburn in Arlington and October 19 at Washington), and they will at least likely have the QB advantage in both of those games.

Still, there are some other worrisome road trips on this schedule. The Ducks head to Stanford right between Auburn and Washington, and they go to USC and Arizona State in November. Plus, they’ve lost four straight to Washington State; a home game against the Cougs is anything but a gimme.

With such a tricky schedule, it’s not easy enough to simply say that “Oregon’s biggest opponent this year is Oregon” or anything like that. Still, we saw the upside last year, and after Cristobal’s winter recruiting haul, there will be even more of it now. Every game is winnable if the Ducks play their best and avoid another nasty third-set funk.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.