I'm about to really spoil the suspense here. In our last preview of the 2014 Gekko Files series, I'm going to pick the Ducks to win the Pac 12 North and the Pac 12 Championship.
BOOM! Didn't see that coming, did ya'?
Well, if you didn't, then you need to wake up and check out previous iterations of the Gekko Files because I've pretty much picked Oregon to do the same each of the last three seasons. It is always fun to be an Editor on a Husky fan blog doing an analysis of the Oregon Ducks. My email inbox invariably lights up in different shades of green and purple after publication. The green messages usually gloss over the fact that I picked Oregon to win it all and call me out not only for my technical mistakes (I always make a few of those) but also my gross errors of opinion when analyzing a position group in a critical way. Usually there are a few curse words. I can't show those emails to my children.
The purple messages, ironically, rarely call me out for my technical mistakes and are almost always certain to affirm most of my more critical opinions of the Duck position groups. Beyond that, these folks don't care for my work. They can't get over the fact that I actually picked Oregon and they usually use pretty colorful language in providing me directions to where they think I should take my next road trip. Usually there are a few curse words. I can't show those emails to my children.
In picking Oregon, I feel like I'm at the dentist. Open, Rinse, Repeat. Still, I'm approaching this preview with a little less certainty than my last two Oregon previews. By any traditional or advanced metric, it is clear that Oregon did regress in their first year under Mark Helfrich. Their defense came back to earth in a pretty big way and their offense, which started the season so out of sight, was at least brought back into the general orbit of the rest of the PAC by the time the season ended. Games were closer and more competitive. Several teams took them to the fourth quarter. For the first time in a long time, a .500ish team (Arizona) actually upset them.
The "why" as to this regression is key to projecting 2014. Is this the effect of Chip Kelly leaving to the NFL? Is the rest of the Pac simply rising to Oregon's level? Has the inbreeding of Oregon assistants diluted the overall state of coaching in Eugene? Was 2013 simply a reloading year? Were injuries a factor? I'm sure you are eager to know. The good news is that you are about to get educated because, as always, the Gekko knows.
2013 Recap - What I Said
I picked Oregon to to have a pretty good last year. Here were the specific predictions:
Skinner's Mudhole, a.k.a. Eugene, Oregon. Never has there been a hive comprised of such scum and villainy, at least not in this galaxy...
Oregon is a clear contender for the National Championship. Their team is deep, talented, experienced and healthy....
...While I don't see Oregon running the table, there is little doubt that this is another BCS type of season for the Ducks. They have the talent and the schedule to make a serious run at the championship and they should handily win the Pac 12 North
Despite going 11-2, the Ducks 2013 was really a tale of two seasons. In their first five games, they didn't fail to score at least 55 points in any game and had their starters pulled in the third quarter of every one of them. It was an impressive explosion of offense, even if the defense was showing some signs of trouble.
Things changed when Oregon visited Washington in week 6. The Huskies took Oregon into the fourth quarter only down by a TD before Mariota, who had not played in the fourth quarter all season, took over. The next week was the weird WSU game where Nick Aliotti called out Mike Leach (and probably earned himself an early retirement). The next two weeks saw Oregon get out-physicalled by both UCLA (a win) and Stanford (a loss). A break against Utah was followed by one game they did lose (Arizona) and another game they should have lost (Oregon State).
A month off in preparation for the Alamo Bowl did the Ducks some good. Marcus Mariota got healthy and the Ducks were able to get adjusted to the fact that they were not going to a BCS bowl for the first time since 2008. Playing a distracted Texas Longhorn team that had just gotten separated from Mack Brown provided wind in their sails. The Ducks steamrolled the 'Horns and entered the off-season with an underwhelmed fan base wondering whether or not Marcus Mariota would stay another year and whether or not the Ducks could chart a path to reverse their fortunes in 2014.
Previewing 2014: The Ducks
Ask the typical Duck fan about how they are feeling going into 2014 and you are likely to pick up on an underlying angst. These guys recognize that there were some warning signs last year. UW and UCLA took them to the fourth quarter. Oregon State took them to the last minute. Stanford beat them physically. Arizona beat them at their own game. That's a lot to absorb for an Oregon fan base that, outside of Boise St, never saw stiff resistance from an underdog while under Chip Kelly's watch. Duck fan also knows that the QB position beyond Marcus Mariota looks somewhat bleak and, therefore, there is an anxiety about this season. The window to win the big one is narrowing quickly and the time for them to strike is right now. For that dream to become a reality, a true Heisman season from their QB would go a long way. We start our preview with Marcus Mariota.
There really isn't a whole lot to say about Marcus Mariota that hasn't been covered ad nauseum this off-season. I absolutely love the kid as a quarterback and as a leader. He's got all the tools: an accurate arm, great judgement, elite breakaway speed, and a great demeanor.
Keep calm, Mariota on.
Fully healthy, he's the best QB in the P12 not named Brett Hundley (he of the "1b" to Mariota's "1a"). Ah, but that health thing ... that's the trick. Mariota played pretty dinged up late in the season a year ago and, well, his drop-off was pretty noticeable. If Oregon is going to make that run, the long and lithe Mariota is going to have to avoid hits around his legs and stay healthy. The transfer of Jake Rodrigues leaves the run-first Jeff Lockie as the only experienced backup on the roster. He doesn't really pass the eye test as a multi-tool P12 QB. True freshman Morgan Mahalak does pass the eye test and is the future for Oregon, but he's pretty raw and not all that physically developed yet. The Ducks really need to red-shirt him.
Protecting Mariota will be one if the best offensive lines and rushing attacks in all of CFB. The line itself returns 82 career starts featuring All-American Hroniss Grasu at Center. Losing starting LT Tyler Johnstone to an ACL tear is a concern. But I still don't see any reasons that this won't be an elite unit. These guys not only provide excellent pass protection, but they excel in keeping hands off of running backs in the offensive backfield. The space they create up front allows the talented duo of junior Byron Marshall and sophomore Thomas Tyner - perhaps the premiere RB duo in the country - to execute their zone-read and devastate opponents in the open field. With De'Anthony Thomas off to the NFL, the Ducks aren't as deep in positions 3-6 on the depth chart as you'd expect, but the arrival of true freshman Royce Freeman is sure to create competition. In fact, some people are rumbling that Freeman may be good enough right now to surpass Tyner on the depth chart. We shall see.
If you are looking for a chink in the armor of the Ducks offense, look no further than their receiving corps. I know Duck fans would dispute this notion, but when your top returning guy (due to the torn ACL of Bralon Addison and graduation of Josh Huff) is the diminutive Keanon Lowe, he of 18 catches a year ago, you are not in good shape. It's not to say that there isn't talent here - clearly there is. Guys like Chance Allen, Darren Carrington, BJ Kelley, track star Devon Allen, and the 6'5" Dwayne Stanford all have high ceilings. However, none of these guys have ever shown an ability to run routes, block on the perimeter or run in traffic in live games. The TE situation is similar where the athletic but underachieving junior Pharaoh Brown is battling sophomore Johnny Mundt. Both will be a factor in the passing game, but neither are all that accomplished as blockers. One thing is for sure, somebody will likely emerge beyond Lowe, who is pretty much a pedestrian P12 receiver. My money is on Stanford and Carrington emerging from the battle to lead Duck receivers with Mundt overtaking Brown as a complementary piece at TE. That said, even if none of these guys emerge, I'm not sure how much it really matters in wins and losses for Oregon. The strengths they have QB, RB and OL are good enough to win most games.
When you turn your attention to the defensive side of the ball, you see a picture that has more questions than what you are used to seeing out of an Oregon defense. In 2013, the Ducks D was below the conference average in Defensive F/+. That's right, Below Average! Most of this is attributable to a defensive line that is stocked full of elite recruits but has under-performed relative to their rankings. To complicate matters, Oregon will need to replace their three top interior linemen from year ago. Maybe that is a good thing. The talent is there to do it. Arik Armstead is a 3T guy who can slide inside but, heretofore, has not come close to living up to his recruiting hype. Junior DeForest Buckner is a giant of a pass-rushing DE who also has yet to really pop for the Ducks. Alex Balducci is a natural heir apparent at DT. Beyond that, there are all sorts of questions facing new DC Don Pellum. There is still reason to believe that they can get better. Much better. After all, none of these guys are seniors. That said, I do wonder who in this crowd can really become a much-needed pass-rush threat.
The questions continue the further back you go. The linebackers lose the athletic but somewhat over-rated Boseko Lokombo, but return the man most likely to be their most disruptive player in Rush End senior Tony Washington. I use the term "disruptive" loosely as the Ducks were actually one of the least effective teams in the nation at creating negative plays in 2013. In the nation. But, again, the talent is there and you'd be foolish to sleep on it. Tyson Coleman is a guy to watch as a strong side backer. Players like senior Rodney Hardrick, senior Derrick Malone, sophomore Torrodney Prevot and RS freshman Danny Mattingly are all a bit on the smallish side, but give Oregon great opportunities to mix and match with speedy, high-upside guys. Keep an eye on Mattingly breaking into the rotation as an inside backer.
The Oregon secondary looks like their most reliable unit, but they aren't without their own questions. This is a veteran unit that ranked near the top in most major statistical areas a year ago. They are replacing three starters from a year ago, but there is still experience and talent here. The star is senior CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Ifo is probably over-rated as a coverage guy, but he is a proven ball hawk and a very stout perimeter player in run support. He quite literally takes away his side of the field whether via run or pass . Senior Eric Dargan is a good bet to start at Free Safety position with the physical RS freshman Tyree Robinson looking like a breakout possibility at SS. The second corner will come down to a battle between experienced upperclassmen in Dior Mathis and Troy Hill. Both players have been the subject of fan criticism in the past, but both have the speed and experience to be serviceable contributors at corner. If there were any major red flag here it is that both are a bit on the small side and could struggle in run support or against teams who feature big receivers like Stanford, WSU and UCLA.
Three Questions and a Comment: David Piper, Addicted to Quack
1. What is more likely in 2014: a Mariota Heisman or an Oregon National Championship?
Well, neither are terribly likely, because both are very hard to do. Still, I'd take the former. Mariota is going to put up mega numbers, and if he stays healthy has as good a shot at anyone. But winning a national title requires beating Michigan State, Stanford, and two playoffs games. That's an awful tall task, especially for a team that will have major question marks along the defensive line.
2. What unestablished Oregon player will become a household name by season's end?
I'll go with WR Dwayne Stanford. With both 1,000 yard receivers not playing next year (Josh Huff due to graduation, and Bralon Addison due to ACL tear), someone is going to have to become Marcus Mariota's go to guy. The 6'5" Stanford was a highly touted recruit who was poised to take a major role last year before knee surgery wiped away his season. He was with the #1s all spring and should start the season opener.
3. Why haven't other P12 teams been successful in replicating whatever Stanford's secret Oregon recipe is?
Because nobody else does what Stanford does. You cannot get into an open field speed game with Oregon. You will lose, because they do it better (see Washington, UCLA last season). What Stanford does offensively run power into small areas, consistently grind out moderate gains, and make Oregon's speed irrelevant. Nobody else is geared toward or has the personnel. Defensively, they controlled the line of scrimmage decisively, not allowing the Ducks to find open space to make tackles. We'll see if that continues this year with their defensive changes.
The best Oregon player not named Marcus Mariota is ...
... Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Ifo may be the best corner in the country. He can take the other team's No. 1 receiver completely out of the game all by himself. In this conference, that is a huge weapon that eases the burden on the entire defense. He'll be a top-15 NFL pick next June.
Predicting 2014: The Oregon Ducks
Say whatever you want about Mark Helfrich not being Chip Kelly. This is still a very good Oregon team that seems poised to be the P12's first participant in the College Football Playoffs. While the defense doesn't seem as imposing as it was two seasons ago, it is still a plus-unit and more than adequate support for that Oregon offense. Mariota is still a game-breaker QB and he will make all those underwhelming receivers look like studs by the time the season is over. Of course, the real secret to Oregon's success is that stellar RB corps running behind that elite offensive line. With that in place, it almost doesn't matter who plays QB.
Unfortunately for Oregon, they aren't so separated that you can just write their name in the box. They happen to play in the toughest division in all of CFB. The schedule could be a factor. Their week 2 match-up vs a somewhat depleted Michigan St team carries some intrigue. What if Oregon loses that one, but wins the P12? Could that eliminate the P12 from the playoffs altogether? In their P12 schedule, things shape up pretty well with only four road games, no USC or ASU, and a final three games that are pretty manageable going into the P12 Championship. Their biggest challenge will be a three game stretch in the middle vs Arizona, @UCLA, and vs UW. Stanford comes to town two weeks later.
There is little doubt that the gap between Oregon and the rest of the P12 has closed since their Rose Bowl run a few seasons ago. It is also not my custom to pick so highly a team that has so many questions marks on the Defensive Line. However, the Ducks are special because a) that Offensive Line is so good and b) Marcus Mariota has already shown that he lifts up the receivers around him. The prowess of this offense is enough to overcome any hiccups on that Defense against just about anybody they play. Coupled with one of the easier schedules in the division, it is hard to not pick them as the favorite in what is surely Mariota's final season. Trust me, I tried.