It’s 95 days until the start of college football, and Travis Haney of ESPN says the window for Oregon football is closing after this year:
Bluntly, it’s a big year for Mark Helfrich. The second-year coach needs to show program sustainability beyond Chip Kelly, and he needs to do so by getting Oregon — among the preseason favorites on an annual basis — into the first playoff.
Oregon isn’t falling into the Pacific, but immediacy has been created by the surprising decisions two Ducks standouts made to return to school. Quarterback Marcus Mariota and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu were projected first-rounders, but now they’ll be veteran leaders on their respective sides of the ball. (Center Hroniss Grasu also would have been an early-round pick and returned.)
As I wrote earlier in the year, it’s time for the 2012 recruiting class to emerge. Running back Byron Marshall and receiver Bralon Addison figured to be the team’s most established playmakers, but then Addison tore his ACL this spring. The defensive front is comprised of ’12 signees Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Alex Balducci.
After averaging the 18th-best class in our recruiting rankings from 2010 to ’12, the Ducks dipped to 26th in 2013 and 27th in 2014.
Haney’s right. It’s a pivotal year in Oregon fortunes, and Helfrich has to prove he belongs in the same category as Kelly as a leader and innovator. The Ducks have slipped back in the recruiting rankings, Last year they let a Rose Bowl berth get away with a late loss to Arizona, one that was alarming in that it was the first time in a long time that UO had lost a game as a big favorite. A central tenet of Kelly’s era is that the team took care of business against lesser teams. The Wildcats blew them out last November. An uncharacteristically flat Oregon team couldn’t block, tackle, or hang on to the ball, and Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey and B.J. Denker played a nearly perfect game.
It’s easy to forget the Ducks came within one superbly executed drive of losing the next week in the Civil War against Oregon State. Beaver coach Mike Riley helped them with some poor clock management at the end.
A victory over Texas at the Alamo made Helfrich’s first season a qualified success. Most attributed the November stumble to Mariota’s injury and first-year coaching inexperience (after all, the Chipster got blown out in Boise his first year, and started year two with a pasting by LSU in which the Ducks fumbled four times and couldn’t run the football.)
But with Mariota, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, and Hroniss Grasu electing to return for another season (an incredible stroke of luck–the Ducks would be looking at 8-5 without them) Oregon is a national title contender for at least one more season.
Whether they stay there depends on Helfrich’s growth as a coach. He has to have them focused for showdowns against Michigan State, Stanford, and on the road October 11 versus UCLA, and he has to avoid getting surprised and out-coached elsewhere, say in Pullman by Mike Leach the week before the rematch with the Wildcats, or Saturday November 8th in a road game in Rice-Eccles Stadium the week after they host Stanford. The Civil War is in Corvallis this year.
On the recruiting front, the Ducks have to win some key battles if they want to stay relevant nationally. The nation’s #1 player, defensive Byron Cowart of Florida, currently names Oregon as his top choice, but the Ducks will have to fight off bids from Alabama and the Gators to keep him (and the SEC bag men). In just a couple of days, 5-star Texas quarterback Kyler Murray decides between Oregon and Texas A&M.
Decisions like these, and Helfrich’s development as a strategist and motivator, will determine whether the Ducks will extend their run of success.