In 2013 Oregon lost a genius, replaced three coaches, cut ties with a wayward mega-talent, shelved a superstar, and had the best quarterback in school history play on one leg. They started freshmen at running back and offensive guard, and relied on young players at linebacker. They lost their edge in November, but rallied for team-effort wins and the Alamo Bowl, completling an 11-2 season some called a disappointment.
2014 started out brighter when three all-conference players agreed to return next year. But here's a list of what the Ducks rose above to achieve their fifth top ten finish in six years:
1. Charismatic head coach Chip Kelly pledges to stay, then decides to accept an NFL offer just 18 days before National Signing Day.
Ending on a high note: Derrick Malone clinches the Alamo Bowl with a 38-yard interception return, getting mobbed by a flock of jubilant Ducks, who sent defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti out with a defensive gem in a 30-7 win (Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports).
2. Kelly takes defensive line coach and nutrition advisor and player mentor James Harris with him to Philadelphia.
3. Helrich is hired five days later, 12 days before Signing Day.
4. In the first month he has to hire a new offensive coordinator, receivers coach and defensive line coach.
5. Tight end Colt Lyerla, a preseason Mackey Award Watch List candidate at tight end, leaves the team after three games.
6. De'Anthony Thomas, the team's leading scorer and most dynamic offensive weapon, injures his ankle and misses four games.
7. The entire conference was deeper and stronger this year, becoming a cradle of coaches with Rich Rodrigues, Todd Graham, Mike Leach, Jim Mora and Steve Sarkisian leading resurgences at their programs. David Shaw and Stanford become one of the top-recruiting programs in the nation and a periennial top ten team, powered by a formidable running game, stout defense and big offensive line.
8,. Marcus Mariota suffers a knee injury.
9. Team leaders make unfortunate comments about not wanting to play in the Rose Bowl and falling short of the National Championship.
10. Defense springs a leak, allowing over 200 yards rushing in several key games.
Despite all this Helfrich became the first Oregon first-year coach to win a bowl game and achieve 11 wins. Admittedly he had more to work with than any previous head coach, but he also had a busload of adversity and jet-fueled expectations.
2014 will bring its own challenges, but the entire group, Helfrich included, will be strengthened by the experience of getting along without Chip Kelly,
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