After a downright poor 2016 season, will Oregon be able to put all the pieces back together and challenge for the Pac-12 title?
The college football season is rapidly approaching with the anticipation building with each day. As the hunger for the upcoming season gets stronger we’ve got something here at SQ that will hold your appetite for the time being. Over the next few weeks we’ll be rolling out previews of the teams in our top-25. Yesterday we got to peek into what #23 Tennessee’s season might look like. Today we continue our countdown with #22, Oregon.
Team Name: Oregon Ducks
2016 Record: 4-8
Finish in AP Poll: NR
Coach: Willie Taggart (1st season)
Key Arrivals: DT Scott Pagano (graduate transfer), CB Thomas Graham Jr., ILB Isaac Slade-Matautia, Defensive Coordinator Jim Leavitt
Key Departures: WR Darren Carrington, LB Johnny Ragin III, WR Dwayne Stanford, TE Pharaoh Brown
Previewing Oregon’s Offense:
The first thing that comes to mind when people think about Oregon football is high-powered offense. However, last year the Oregon Duck mascot did fewer pushups after Oregon touchdowns than in any season since the 2006.
A lot of that can be attributed to youth, with true freshman Justin Herbert (who supplanted the ineffective Dakota Prukop) under center and a relatively inexperienced offensive line.
The dynamic duo of Herbert and running back Royce Freeman led the way for the Ducks’ offense last season, and both return this year. Freeman, the number two returning running back in the nation, decided to forgo the NFL draft after a bit of a down season last year, and will try to prove to scouts that he can shake off injuries and return to his freshman and sophomore year form.
In those two years, Freeman averaged 1,600 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns, so having him healthy and performing at the level he is capable of is a necessity for this offense.
The biggest hole to fill for this offense comes at the wide receiver position. All dreams of having a top tier 1-2 punch of Darren Carrington and Charles Nelson were quickly extinguished after Carrington was dismissed from the team following a July DUI. Among pass catchers, with Pharaoh Brown and Dwayne Stanford graduating, junior WR Jalen Brown and redshirt sophomore TE Jacob Breeland will be asked to step up in a big way and help out their quarterback. In total, Oregon is losing about 50% of its receiving yards from last season.
With Freeman and Herbert in the backfield, the sky is the limit for this offense. Returning four out of five starters to the offensive line will help ease the loss of so many aerial threats as Oregon looks to return to their patented up-tempo, high-scoring offense.
Previewing Oregon’s Defense:
These two tweets just about sum up Oregon’s defense last season.
For the 3rd straight gm, Oregon has allowed at least 600 yds of offense— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 22, 2016
Between 2007-2015, UO allowed 600 yds of offense a total of 3 times
Oregon has allowed 495 rush yards over its last 5 quarters. Alabama has allowed 447 yards rushing on the SEASON in 7 full games.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 22, 2016
To say this unit was atrocious would be an understatement. They didn’t hold a single opponent under 25 points (including mid-major UC Davis), and four times they let an opponent over the half century mark, the worst of which was 70 to Washington in a 49-point drubbing.
Help is on the way, however. Perhaps the most essential offseason change for Oregon was the hiring of new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, who was previously the defensive coordinator at Colorado, a team that allowed nearly 200 fewer points than Oregon last season with two more games played. Further help comes in the form of defensive tackle Scott Pagano, who, although he may not be the most prolific transfer in the country, will be able to provide leadership coming off a national championship with Clemson.
Troy Dye is the big name to watch on the defensive side of the ball for the Ducks. Their leading tackler in 2016 with 91 total tackles, Dye can do it all. He loves to get to the quarterback, as evidenced by his 5.5 sacks from his linebacker position. Senior Arrion Springs and sophomore Brenden Schooler are Oregon’s two best cover guys and will be tested plenty again this season.
Make no mistake, one offseason is not nearly enough for the Oregon defense to do a full 180, but they can at least start turning the ship in the right direction. With the explosive nature of the Oregon offense, the defense will only need to get a few stops every game to keep them in it with a shout, something they should be more than capable of.
Three Key Games:
1. Sept 30. vs. Cal
Certainly not the toughest opponent Oregon will face all season, but Cal will be Oregon’s first true test in the Pac-12. Last season, the two teams faced off in an instant classic double overtime game, with Cal coming out on top. This season figures to showcase a similar amount of offensive fireworks.
This game will set the tone for Oregon’s Pac-12 season, and a win here is all but mandatory if they have any hope of even challenging for the Pac-12 North title.
2. Oct. 14 at Stanford
Oregon’s game against Stanford down on the farm kicks off a brutal four week stretch that includes games against UCLA and Utah and concludes in Spokane against Washington. The rivalry between Stanford and Oregon has seen a combination of close battles and blowouts in recent years, with the teams splitting the past eight years. What’s interesting is that in those eight games, the underdog has come out on top five times, so even though Stanford projects to be the favorite, this one will be well worth watching.
3. Nov. 4 at Washington
No question the toughest game of the season for the Ducks sees them traveling north to face off against last year’s champion from the Conference of Champions, the Washington Huskies. Pride will be on the line here as Oregon will hope to fare better than they did in a 70-21 shellacking last year, giving up 35 points in each half and entering halftime trailing 35-7. The homestretch is very kind to Oregon after this game, with only their bye week and home games against Oregon State and Arizona, the two cellar dwellers of 2016, remaining.
The 2017 Oregon Ducks team, although much changed, will still hold true to the tenets of Oregon in years past, playing a fast-paced, high-octane version of football not seen in places like the SEC. Justin Herbert, Royce Freeman, and Charles Nelson will see to the Oregon Duck not skimping on his weekly workout during home games. The defense may leave a lot to be desired, but the Oregon faithful will hope a relatively easy beginning of the season will allow the young unit to work out the kinks and fix any glaring issues.
For the first time in recent memory, expectations for Oregon are not sky high. Coming off a 4-8 season, the initial goal should just be a berth in a bowl game. A favorable beginning and end to the schedule will help Oregon, and they may be able to challenge for a bowl game closer to New Year’s if any of the teams ahead of them in the Pac-12 slip up. With an insanely talented Washington team and a Stanford squad that seems to always replenish their needs, the Pac-12 North title is more of a pipe dream than a distant reality.
Overall, Oregon fans will once again be treated to an unpredictable season that comes along with having an offense and defense on polar ends of the spectrum.
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