Helfrich: "attitude and effort from team is great"
EUGENE – If the Oregon Ducks are going to win a national title they’d better get it done this season.
The window is about to close.
Not forever, but certainly until further notice.
Pac-12 defenses are gradually catching up to the “blur” offense, and the influx of prominent coaches into the Pac-12 has created more potential powers.
One still has to wonder what Oregon’s long-term future is going to be without Chip Kelly. Will Mark Helfrich prove to be just as innovative and keep UO on the cutting edge? Or, is he a copycat trying to mimic his mentor? Plus, this question also must be asked: If Oregon can’t get it done with quarterback Marcus Mariota, will it ever get it done?
None of this is blasphemous to consider. It’s not as if the Ducks have a wing full of national title trophies. In fact, Oregon has zero.
If that’s going to change, it had better happen now.
The Ducks opened for business Monday in preparation for the 2014 season.
Confidence is high that this team could once again make a run at an elusive national championship. The Ducks chances improved with the NCAA’s adoption of a four-team playoff system.
Plenty of reasons exist to believe that these Ducks have what it takes to reach that field of four.
But peeking beyond 2014, it’s difficult to argue that Oregon, at least on paper, has the look of a national contender in 2015 and beyond. We simply don’t know.
That wasn’t the case in 2010 when UO’s national championship “window” opened. The Ducks completed their first undefeated regular season (12-0) to reach the BCS National Championship Game where they lost 22-19 to Auburn.
The Ducks have had the looks of a national contender in each subsequent season since, and have some ever so close to fulfilling that promise.
The team’s unprecedented run of success has included four BCS bowl berths, three conference championships and three consecutive bowl victories (Rose and Fiesta included) wrapped around a 47-6 record.
Their losses over the past four years have come to the likes of Auburn, LSU, USC, twice to Stanford, and once to Arizona.
Only last year’s 42-16 drubbing at the Wildcats could be considered a shameful loss.
That defeat raises questions because it stands out like a sore thumb among the other losses. It came two weeks after a 26-20 loss at Stanford, and a week before a 38-35 win at home over very mediocre Oregon State.
Even UO’s 30-7 Alamo Bowl win over Texas rang hollow. That game could have gone differently had the Longhorns had anything remotely resembling a competent quarterback under center.
UO scored two defensive touchdowns and three field goals. The offense produced just one touchdown drive.
Blame Mariota’s knee injury all you’d like, but that doesn’t explain away everything.
Factor in a poor run defense, and for the first time in years the Ducks looked rather ordinary to end last season.
On paper, however, Oregon has enough experience and talent to believe that it can right the ship for another run. Of course, we’ll know more after the Sept. 6 game at home against Michigan State, and the Oct. 11 game at UCLA.
In the past, it would be shocking if Oregon lost either game. Today? Not so much.
So looking beyond this season, does Oregon have the makings of a team that one would expect to be able to handle teams of that caliber with ease?
Not a chance.
Unless backup quarterback Jeff Locke improves greatly, or in-coming freshman Morgan Mahalak turns out to be the real deal, or 2015 recruit Travis Waller is instantly great, then the Ducks will take a dramatic step back from Mariota, arguably the greatest passer in program history.
The offensive line will lose at least three starters after this season. Four if fourth-year junior Tyler Johnstone turns pro early. The defensive secondary will lose three starters. The young receiving corps may or may not be legitimate. As great as the backfield tandem of Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall could become, they are not good enough to lead the team to a national championship on their own.
Then there’s the fact that the rest of the conference is catching up to the Ducks’ fast-paced offense. Changes in recruiting strategies, and the increase in the number of teams using no-huddle spread offenses are slowly eroding the impact of the Ducks’ attack.
UO’s offense remains potent but is no longer that special or unique. Once the Ducks stop dropping 30-to-40 points on teams by halftime, they will start seeing more close games, which opens the door for more defeats.
Then there’s the influx of strong coaches into the conference over the past three seasons. UCLA’s Jim Mora led the Atlanta Falcons to an NFC Championship game. Washington’s Chris Petersen coached Boise State to BCS success, and has whipped Oregon. USC’s Steve Sarkisian rebuilt Washington, and now is taking over a sleeping giant in the Trojans. Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez, not Chip Kelly, is the Godfather of the zone read, no-huddle offense. Washington State’s Mike Leach won big at Texas Tech. Stanford’s David Shaw has shut down the Ducks two consecutive years.
Being less of a special preparation, facing better coaching, the awakening of USC, and uncertainty on the roster leaves the Ducks vulnerable to becoming just another good program, and no longer the jewel of the Pac-12.
Of course, things could happen that might change this view. Young players could emerge as overnight program-changing stars and alter this perception of the future.
A promising looking recruiting class for 2015 already is forming.
But right now, a strong argument could be made that Oregon’s time to win the national title is now, or it might never happen.