As the Oregon football team prepares to open the 2016 season at 2 p.m. Saturday against UC Davis, expectations are considerably lower than in recent years.
Just two seasons ago, the Ducks had Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota lead the team to the Pac-12 championship, a Rose Bowl victory and a berth into the national championship game, where they fell to Ohio State.
After a subpar 2015 season, in which Oregon went 9-4 and lost the Alamo Bowl in embarrassing fashion, the Ducks enter 2016 ranked No. 24.
SATURDAY, SEPT. 3
UC Davis at Oregon
When: 2 p.m., at Autzen Stadium
TV: Pac-12 Network
Oregon has a different offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator than it had a year ago, with Matt Lubick and Brady Hoke now running those units respectively.
Dakota Prukop, a graduate transfer from Montana State, is Oregon’s third starting quarterback in as many seasons. He also is the second graduate transfer to start at quarterback the past two seasons, which has many Ducks fans concerned.
The Pac-12 is extremely competitive right now, with USC and UCLA full of talent in the South Division. And in the North Division, Stanford was the conference champion last year, and both Washington and Washington State are programs on the rise.
With the key staff changes, plus a young team and a competitive conference, the national spotlight is not shining as bright in Eugene this September.
Can the Ducks win the Pac-12? Of course, but they are an underdog at the moment.
What will Oregon’s record be in the regular season? My pre-fall camp prediction was 9-3, and I’m sticking with that.
The bigger question, looking long-term, is what needs to happen for 2016 to be a successful season for the Oregon football program?
Here are my five keys to success for the Ducks this season:
1. Develop depth and experience at quarterback: No matter what happens this season, or the following offseason, the Ducks will enter the 2017 season with their fourth starting quarterback in four seasons. It’s important that Oregon has experience among that group. Right now, the two quarterbacks behind starter Dakota Prukop are both true freshmen — Justin Herbert and Terry Wilson. And No. 4 on the depth chart is redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen, who could transfer after free falling this fall camp. I understand the desire to keep either Herbert or Wilson as a redshirt. I get it, although it definitely sounds like Herbert will play no matter what this season. But as we saw with Jeff Lockie last season, there is a big difference between practice reps and game reps. When Herbert, Wilson and/or Jonsen compete for the starting job next year, it will be important that at least one or two of them have actual game experience to evaluate. As the Marcus Mariota era gets further and further away in the rear-view mirror, it will be crucial for the Ducks to show that they are on solid ground at quarterback.
2. Stability on the offensive line: This is the second season in a row that Oregon will start with three new starters on the offensive line. However, this season all three are redshirt freshmen — Jake Hanson, Shane Lemieux and Calvin Throckmorton. So, if everything goes well, the Ducks could build some stability on the line during the next three or four seasons. Having a stable line will help ensure that the bread and butter — a high-powered offense — remains one of the nation’s best.
3. Significant progress on defense: Oregon’s offense is one of the best in the nation, and has been for nearly a decade. But if the Ducks ever want to capture a national championship, they have to commit to playing defense. The Ducks took a good first step after the Alamo Bowl loss by hiring former Michigan coach Brady Hoke as defensive coordinator. That was a high-profile hire. Hoke is working hard to install a 4-3 system to better control the line of scrimmage. It certainly will take more than a year to improve Oregon’s defense to a national championship level, but there needs to be significant progress this season. It needs to be clear that the switch to Hoke was the right move and that the future looks brighter than the past.
4. Expect the unexpected: One of the biggest criticisms of Oregon’s coaching staff last season was that they weren’t prepared. It was obvious and, quite frankly, shocking. There was no post-Mariota plan, except to bring in Vernon Adams. What if Adams had failed that test last August and couldn’t transfer? Would the Ducks still have gone 9-4? No chance. How about 7-6? Even that doesn’t seem like a lock. Adams was a play-maker who was able to cover up some of the deeper issues the Ducks had last season. And it all came together in a negative way for Oregon in the Alamo Bowl. Adams and center Matt Hegarty, also a graduate transfer, went down with injuries, and that was enough to unravel a 31-point lead against TCU. No backup plan at either position. And an inept defense that couldn’t hold that lead. Players get hurt. That’s the nature of football. But the Ducks went into 2015 with zero depth at two key positions. It’s amazing that a program at Oregon’s level could do that. The Ducks need to show this season that they are deep and are ready to handle the unexpected.
5.Show creativity and flexibility: There were times last season when the offense looked to be a little too programmed. It was like they came in with a certain game plan, and chose not to deviate from it, regardless of what was working and what wasn’t. How many times while watching Ducks games did you question offensive coordinator Scott Frost’s play-calling? Admit it, it was a lot. During the Chip Kelly era, the coaching staff was really good at making halftime adjustments. During the Mark Helfrich era, not as much. Many of the same coaches are there, so I’m not sure what’s going on. This is a new season, and there are new faces in new roles on the coaching staff. They need to show that they are flexible enough to adjust game plans mid-game.