The signs are everywhere. College football is about to take center stage.
From the preseason magazines available at your local grocery store, to the frequent chatter I hear at the Salem Family YMCA regarding Oregon’s potential resurgence under first-year head coach Willie Taggart, and Oregon State’s steady improvement heading into Year 3 of the rebuild under coach Gary Andersen, sports fans are gearing up for the 2017 season.
With the NBA Finals in the rear-view mirror and Major League Baseball approaching the "dog days" of summer, the time has come to talk about college football.
Too early you say? Well, OSU begins preseason practice July 25 in preparation for the Aug. 26 season opener at Colorado State. The Ducks open Sept. 2 against lower-division opponent Southern Utah at Autzen Stadium.
Athlon Sports projects Oregon to finish third in the Pac-12 North, with OSU slated for fifth. The magazine anticipates USC and Washington meeting in the Pac-12 championship game. Ditto for Lindy’s Sports.
Two years after leading Oregon to the national championship game in the first College Football Playoff, Mark Helfrich was fired following a 4-8 season that featured one of the worst defenses in the nation. The Ducks ranked 126th among 128 FBS schools in total defense and scoring defense.
The good news is running back Royce Freeman opted to return for his senior year, and sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert gained valuable experience last season. The question marks are on defense where first-year defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt can build around sophomore linebacker Troy Dye, who led the Ducks in tackles and sacks in 2016.
Oregon is coming off its first losing season since 2004, but with even marginal improvement on defense - it couldn't get much worse - the Ducks might not be far away from challenging defending Pac-12 champion Washington for the North Division title.
There’s an intriguing quarterback competition brewing at OSU between JUCO transfer Jake Luton, senior Darell Garretson and junior Marcus McMaryion. Garretson and McMaryion each started six games last season, but give the early edge for the starting job to the 6-foot-7, 227-pound Luton based on his ability to throw the deep ball, an attribute that has been largely absent from the Beavers’ offense the past two seasons.
Whoever emerges at quarterback, junior Ryan Nall returns as the feature back, with plenty of help from sophomore Artavis Pierce, and possibly Trevorris Johnson, a graduate transfer from TCU.
Senior inside linebacker Manase Hungalu, the leading tackler back from last season, and sophomore cornerback Xavier Crawford anchor a defense that needs to force more turnovers and put more pressure on the quarterback. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman cornerback Christian Wallace, a four-star recruit in 2016 who did not play last season due to academic issues.
Andersen left Wisconsin to take over a major rebuilding project in Corvallis and he has the Beavers headed in the right direction. OSU improved from 2-10 in 2015 to 4-8 last season, and after going winless in the Pac-12 in 2015, the Beavers won three conference games, highlighted by a 34-24 win over Oregon to end an eight-game Civil War losing streak.
If Anderson’s four-year tenure at Utah State is indicative – the Aggies went 7-6 and played in a bowl game after back-to-back 4-8 seasons, followed by an 11-2 mark in 2012 and a spot in the final Top 25 polls – OSU could return to a bowl game for the first time since 2013. It's a realistic goal.
Oregon’s 2018 recruiting class is currently ranked first in the Pac-12 and No. 6 nationally according to 247Sports, which has the fan base energized. The Ducks have 15 verbal commitments, including nine four-star recruits.
Those are encouraging numbers, but National Signing Day is seven months away and much can change. To illustrate that point, Alabama, which typically produces the nation’s top-rated class, has just six commitments thus far and ranks No. 51.
Meanwhile, OSU has five verbal commitments and ranks 11th in the Pac-12 (No. 81 nationally) according to 247Sports. With just 15 seniors on the roster, this won't be a large recruiting class for the Beavers in terms of numbers.
Heisman Trophy watch
As a Heisman Trophy voter, I’m always keeping a watchful eye on players who could figure into the equation. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, who won the 2016 Heisman, is back. But there’s been only one repeat winner – Ohio State’s Archie Griffin in 1974-75 – since the bronze statue was first awarded in 1935.
In what figures to be a wide-open race, USC quarterback Sam Darnold, who led the Trojans to a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback victory over Penn State in the Rose Bowl, is an early front-runner.
ghorowitz@StatesmanJournal.com or Twitter.com/ghorowitz