Pac-12 Preview: Oregon

2016 Record:

4-8, 2-7 in Conference

Key Wins: Utah

Key Losses: Colorado, Washington State, Washington, Oregon State

Full disclosure: I’m an Oregon fan.

In the 2014-2015 season, the Ducks were set to appear in their second National Championship appearance in four years. Despite losing both, the Ducks were truly at never-seen-before success in their program’s history. Seven seasons in a row the Ducks won double digit games. Five of those seven seasons they appeared in BCS bowls or the National Championship with three wins. Marcus Mariota, undoubtedly the best player in Oregon’s history, declared for the NFL Draft after their Championship loss in 2014. The next two seasons showcased the lack of depth behind Mariota at quarterback. The Ducks went from thirteen wins to nine wins to four wins in a stunning display of regression.

Articles would later come out that the Helfrich administration did not push athletes to the greatness expected from previous coaches with players skipping workouts and not holding each other accountable. Oregon had not fired a coach in 40 years: Rich Brooks left for the NFL, Mike Belotti retired, and Chip Kelly left for the NFL. There was a split amongst the Oregon faithful on whether to allow Helfrich another year to right the ship. Ultimately, he was fired after an embarrasing loss to in-state rival Oregon State.

Following Helfrich’s dismissal, the Ducks took about two weeks to find and name their successor. Chip Kelly’s name was obviously tied to the program and there were rumors that Mark Helfrich told Kelly that he should consider pursuing the job. Former Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost publicly denied his interest in the position as well as Kelly. Western Michigan’s PJ Fleck, Temple’s Matt Rhule, and South Florida’s Willie Taggart were the final crop of names thrown around.

 

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Head Coach: Willie Taggart

Willie Taggart grew up with football royalty. In college, Taggart played quarterback at Western Kentucky when Jack Harbaugh, Jim and John Harbaugh’s father, coached the team. Taggart’s number was retired after his graduation and he immediately started coaching for WKU after his senior year. When Jim Harbaugh was named Stanford’s coach, he brought Taggart along to coach running backs. Two seasons later, Taggart accepted the role of head coach at WKU.

In three years, Taggart took WKU from two wins to seven. He let for South Florida and in four seasons took the Bulls from two wins to 10 wins, ending the season ranked #19. This ability to repair teams caught the eye of the Ducks administration. A lack of depth proved to be the Ducks’ downfall in 2016 and it was hoped that Taggart could repair the team and the culture. In two months, he took the Ducks from the 30s to the teens for 2017 recruiting. As of this moment, the Ducks sit fifth for the Class of 2018. His short tenure has not been without controversy: spring ball was mired in media attention when players were hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis. “Rhabdo,” as it is known, is a condition caused by overexertion to the point where muscle breaks down and damages the kidneys. Some accuse the Taggart administration of negligently pushing their players too hard while others point to the Helfrich regime for allowing players to skip conditioning workouts. Regardless, when the Ducks hit the field this fall, all eyes will be on him to see if he can rejuvinate the team on the field the same way he ultimately has off it.

 

Offense

Oregon has never had a problem scoring points. Even in their disappointing 2016 campaign, the Ducks were 27th in points scored per game. After transfer quarterback Dakota Prukop’s unimpressive three-game stretch, freshman QB Justin Herbert came in and impressively managed the Ducks offense throwing nineteen touchdowns and only four interceptions across nine games. Running back Royce Freeman returns, as well, along with his 4,146 yards rushing on his career. Charles Nelson returns as a premier wide receiver and kick/punt returning talent. To boot, everyone who will start on Oregon’s line this fall is returning from last year, too. Despite a new coach, expect the Ducks to have another year of Top 30 offensive production.

 

Defense

As good as Oregon was on offense, they were even worse on defense. The Ducks have never been known as a defensive stalwart but they have always been known to get the job done when needed. Last year, they allowed 41.6 points per game ranking 126th out of 130 in the country. The defense was hit hard by the lack of depth, particularly in the secondary, with underclassmen adorning the depth chart. This did not help when Helfrich brought in Brady Hoke to transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3. While a curse last year, there’s little a coach loves more than battle-tested youth returning for another year. SBNation’s Bill Connelly notes that Oregon is returning 91% of its defensive production from 2016. This is further bolstered by the addition of Clemson-transfer Scott Pagano on the defensive line, the #64 recruit Thomas Graham at cornerback, and Colorado’s defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt who took the Buffs from the bottom thirty to the top twenty in points allowed per game. Leavitt will restore the 3-4 defense that the Ducks are used to running, as well. Don’t expect miracles, but this defense will be much better than it was last year…

It certainly couldn’t get much worse.

 

Projected Record: 8-4

While Oregon dropped off the national stage in terms of performance, they did not drop off in terms of talent. Nearly a decade straight of Top 25 recruiting classes will allow you to compete with the best opponents you have given the right coaching. Taggart brings along a spread offense from South Florida that, while it has its differences, should be easier to adapt to than a complete offensive overhaul. Further, Jim Leavitt brings back the 3-4 defense that had been installed at Oregon during Kelly’s tenure. Inarguably, Washington State, Stanford, UCLA, Utah, and Washington are the most difficult opponents on the schedule. I believe that the Ducks will win at least one of these games while winning against the other seven opponents. The Ducks aren’t quite ready to compete for Rose Bowls and National Championships, but they are certainly in a much better position than they were nine months ago.

 

Catch the other Pac-12 previews here!

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