Handicapping the 21st-ranked Ducks’ chances of proving prognosticators wrong.
This August, preseason polls have been unkind to Oregon compared to recent years, with the Ducks ranked No. 24 in the first Associated Press poll and No. 21 by Sports Illustrated. In 2015, by comparison, the Ducks were ranked No. 7 by the AP going into the season, and in 2014 were ranked No. 3.
At the same time, many of us Duck fans feel like the media has it wrong. Sure, we lost a 31-point Alamo Bowl lead at the end of last season when our starting quarterback and center were lost to injury. Sure, we’re entering the season with a new quarterback. But unlike last year’s signal caller, Vernon Adams, presumed starter Dakota Prukop has been practicing with the team for months, not days.
But like Adams, Prukop is a proven winner. Just as importantly, the Ducks are absolutely loaded with skill players, with perhaps the greatest combined running back and receiver corps in school history. We’re also finally embracing the kind of attacking defense that can render opposing offenses ineffective, or at least get them off the field quickly to hand the keys back to the Oregon offense.
Sports Illustrated also noted in a recent article that six of the last seven national championships have been won by teams with first-year starters at QB. The article then goes on to discuss 10 teams with new starters, including fellow Pac-12 squads Stanford, Cal, Utah and USC. But they don’t even mention Oregon and Prukop, as if we’re not as relevant as those teams – most of which were victims of the Ducks last year.
Nobody knows for sure whether the Ducks of 2016 are more like an 8-4 team that would go to a lower-tier bowl or maybe an 11-1 team that could claim the Pac-12 championship and go to a major January bowl, perhaps even the playoffs. No one can prognosticate the kind of injuries that can turn a great season into a mediocre one as injuries at quarterback and defensive back did last year.
Yet with this dichotomy between media pessimism and Duck fans’ cautious optimism – we know this can be a historic season if the injury bug doesn’t bite too much – perhaps it’s worth looking to Oregon’s past to get a sense of what is in store.
In the past 30 years, there have been a select few seasons in which the Ducks introduced a new starter under center. And many of them have surprised us.
In 1987, for example, NFL-bound Chris Miller gave way to untested freshman quarterback Bill Musgrave. To many fans’ surprise, Musgrave was an excellent player from the beginning, leading the Ducks to a road win against then-mighty Colorado in his debut. Oregon improved on the previous year’s 5-6 record by one game, to claim only its second winning season out of the past seven. More importantly, Musgrave would go on to lead the Ducks two years later to the team’s first bowl game in 27 years.
In 1991, Danny O’Neil took over for Musgrave and the bottom fell out with a 3-8 record. This was indeed one of those years when a young quarterback impacted the team. But in those days, injuries could often turn a talented but not-very-deep Oregon team from a winner to a loser. O’Neil was young and needed maturation, but the losing mark was a team effort. And of course the good news is that O’Neil would go on to lead the Ducks to the Rose Bowl, the team’s first in 37 years, just three years later.
The 1990s saw Oregon break in new quarterbacks numerous times. In fact, there was a six-year period from 1995 through 2000 in which a different QB led the team in passing each year: Tony Graziani, Ryan Perry-Smith, Jason Maas, Akili Smith, A.J. Feeley and Joey Harrington. Some years it went great, like with Graziani in 1995: a 9-3 season ending in the Cotton Bowl.
Other years, like 1996, it didn’t go so well. But that was less because of Perry-Smith at quarterback than it was a very porous, unconventionally aligned defense that saw opponents light up the Autzen Stadium scoreboard. Still other years, such as 1998, saw Oregon beginning to play at its best under the great Akili Smith, but the season was partially derailed by a key injury, to running back Reuben Droughns.
Ultimately, I think two seasons with new young men as full-time starters at quarterback seem to resemble this current season: 1999 and 2008.
Admittedly those two seasons are different from 2016 in one key respect: each began with a quarterback battle that extended into the season.
In 1999, Feeley was one of the nation’s passing leaders before injury sent him to the sidelines, and once Joey began to lead a series of dramatic comeback wins, the starting job just couldn’t be taken away. Oregon finished with an 8-3 regular season record, culminating with another Harrington-led comeback victory in the Sun Bowl.
In 2008, it took at least a few games before Jeremiah Masoli cemented himself under center as starter. But once he did, the Ducks won six of seven to finish with a 9-3 regular season record punctuated with a Holiday Bowl win over Oklahoma State, in Mike Bellotti’s last game as head coach.
In 1999 Oregon was unranked in the preseason AP poll. The team finished at No. 19. In 2008 the Ducks were ranked No. 21 in the preseason AP top 25 and wound up No. 10.
Of course, there is another example of Oregon introducing a new quarterback, and it may be the most talented Ducks team of all – or at least in the conversation: 2012. That year, the first with Marcus Mariota under center, the team received a preseason ranking of No. 5 and wound up at No. 2. And if even just one more play here or there in a late-season nail biter against Stanford had gone the Ducks’ way, the team likely would have defeated Notre Dame for the national championship.
No one is necessarily saying that Dakota Prukop is Marcus Mariota. The rest of this year’s squad, however, may be comparable in top-to-bottom talent with 2012. Sure, that team had not only Mariota but also Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas. But this team has Royce Freeman, Charles Nelson, Dwayne Stanford, Darren Carrington, Devon Allen and Taj Griffin. We’re loaded now, too.
Recently former ESPN statistician Brian Fremeau and his Fremeau Efficiency Index (which is based on opponent-adjusted drive efficiency) made Oregon the favorite in every 2016 game it is scheduled to play. Sometimes it just barely made the Ducks a favorite, such as an early-season road game at Nebraska (giving the team from Eugene a 57.3% chance of victory), or later at USC (a 51.3% victory likelihood).
Granted those are just predictions, and stats have the most margin for error when you’re using last season’s numbers for this season. Yet it goes to show that while the Associated Press and Sports Illustrated give Oregon rankings in the 20s that would denote something like an 8-4 season, the FEI says the Ducks could, with a little luck, go 11-1 or 12-0.
Ultimately the same stretch of logic that argues for a 12-0 Ducks season is the same logic that predicts the team will be 8-4. After all, how else can one explain a Washington team that was 7-6 in 2015 given a No. 7 preseason ranking by SI this year, some 14 places ahead of a Ducks team that soundly beat the Huskies last year for the 11th straight time?
It’s all a guessing game, but those prognosticators are basically going, “Hmm, Oregon: disappointing bowl loss last year plus new quarterback this year equals diminishing returns. Washington: won four of six last year and won their bowl game, returning quarterback, so that means a big rise in fortunes in 2016.” Their logic seeing a Husky rise and an Oregon fall is no less a guess than yours or mine or Fremeau’s in seeing the Ducks returning to the College Football Playoff.
Right now nobody really knows if Oregon’s glass is half-empty or half-full. The writers who vote in the AP and SI polls are following one narrative thread out of many. They’re probably underestimating the Ducks. We who see a Prukop and company reaching a major January bowl may be trying too hard to envision an undefeated season, but even if both sides are off a little, the middle ground would be something like a nine- or 10-win season.
That kind of win tally could earn Oregon a return trip to the Alamo Bowl, or another trip to the Holiday Bowl. Or it could allow us a return trip to the Pac-12 title game and a chance at a historic season.
If it’s all a roll of the dice before the season, I’ll take my chances with one of college football’s winningest programs of the 21st century.
FishDuck Note: Brian is modest and does not tell us that he is a professional writer who contributed this for fun, but he did write a wonderful book about Oregon football that I highly recommend as a birthday/Christmas present. Being so busy, he cannot write for us often, but I am a big fan of his work and am very grateful. Charles Fischer
Top Photo by John Giustina