Is Oregon’s Football Preseason Ranking Too Low?

FP Gameday John Giustina

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.

This fan is ready for a great Oregon team!

Kevin Cline

This fan is ready for a great Oregon team!

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.

Bill Musgrave

John Giustina

Bill Musgrave

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.

Reuben Droughns

John Giustina

Reuben Droughns

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.

This Duck (Dwayne Stanford) flies high for a TD over hapless Trojans.

Gary Breedlove

This Duck (Dwayne Stanford) flies high for a TD over hapless Trojans.

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.Libby Book

Brian Libby
FishDuck.com Writer
Portland, Oregon

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

 

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Brian Libby

Brian Libby

Brian Libby is a writer and photographer living in Portland. A life-long Ducks football fanatic who first visited Autzen Stadium at age eight, he is the author of two histories of UO football, "Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline" and "The University of Oregon Football Vault." When not delving into all things Ducks, Brian works as a freelance journalist covering design, film and visual art for publications like The New York Times, Architect, and Dwell, among others.

  • DuckAllYall

    Fully agree. We are being underrated. I don’t think the pollsters realize, this is the same guy who was heavily courted by Alabama too. We have greater QB depth this year than last, a new attacking defense, the best WR and RBs in the country…it all adds up to being at worst equal to last year, in my mind

  • Platypus

    Thanks Brian for the history lesson. I agree all the pieces are in place to make a serious run in the Pac 12 if they can stay healthy. To me Hokes defense is going to be the key in the ‘Run’ by elevating their stats from last years #116 to say #50-60.

    • Brian Libby

      Thanks Platypus!

  • Notalot

    We always learn from and enjoy FishDuck. Thanks. With the chemistry between the QB and team untested, no QB with “big game” history, and the lapses in coaching over their past two years, I frankly am encouraged by the rankings. Some analysts must be taking “flyers” on our beloved Ducks with faith carrying over from the glory years. Let the games begin and the season play out.

  • dugduck

    the new 12s in Seattle are painted yellow….Ducks have beaten UW 12 straight times

    • Anthony Joseph Gomes

      1-12 if you count the fact that the media has officially conceded defeat to the huskies in oregons behalf.

  • goducks58

    Great stuff, thanks Brian. GO DUCKS !!!

  • It was fun to go down memory lane with so many of the historical references. Nobody knows Oregon football history like Brian.

    Thanks for a fun read.

    • Brian Libby

      Thanks Charles!

  • Michael Rand

    Sure, we lost a 31 pount lead..(in a nationally televised game with every sportswriter watching that hadnt watched us all year)….thars exactly like saying, Other than that Jackie, how did you like Dallas?

    • Anthony Joseph Gomes

      you could have obsessed on the ducks beating stanford when they were suppose to lose or bearing U$C when the media claimed they couldnt but you chose to make a big deal out of the alamo bowl. why have the ducks ended up in this rotten bowl twice that always defaults to a team from texas being one of the participants no matter how bad that team is. you could have asked that question…but you didnt.

    • Brian Libby

      Mr. Rand, you’re right that losing a 31-point lead (or a “31 pount lead,” as you call it) is not nothing. The Ducks got humiliated on national television, and that impacts recruiting, which means it impacts everything. Even so, my point was not to say the Alamo Bowl loss didn’t matter, but rather to say that it’s not the only way in which we might handicap Oregon’s 2016 chances. That historic collapse was an embarrassment, but it was predicated upon two key injuries at positions where we were the thinnest. It’s completely reasonable for one to argue that a loss last 4season needn’t automatically provide a gloomy forecast for this season.

  • Anthony Joseph Gomes

    i dont really care about the ranking. it gets proved on the gridiron. the ducks always get ranked too low in preseason and our recruits always get ranked to low. get use to it. football redemption is on the way soon.

    • Brian Libby

      Mr. Gomes, your skepticism about rankings has a lot of merit. Oregon does often find itself not ranked as high as the team deserves. That said, the Ducks have been a preseason top-10-ranked team for several years in a row before this year. And while you’re also right that it’s about proving out on the gridiron, I would also argue that perception (in the form of rankings) matters. Ultimately, though, this post was not about debating the accuracy or merit of Oregon’s rankings, but to use those as a point of entry into discussing just how talented and capable this year’s team may be. The prognosticators are seeing the Ducks slip a little, and I think that’s unfounded. You’re right that we’ll soon see when the teams take to the field, but that doesn’t invalidate the desire, before then, to take our best guesses at what will happen and to compare this year’s set of conditions to what the Ducks faced in previous years.

  • duckusucker

    The secondary was a sieve last season and having two of the most experienced members of it, Prevot and Seisay, unavailable (okay, Prevot is a maybe) doesn’t bode well.
    Rankings are meaningless at this point: they are to be earned.
    If the Ducks start fast, overwhelm VA and NE, and then continue on to dominate conference play, it will take care of itself.
    Really, it all rests on Prukop. To those who think you can have a superior program with a “manager” or a “point guard,” forget it. In as tough a conference as the Ducks swim, more than a couple games will boil down to outstanding QB play.
    It will be interesting to see if Herbert, since Helf has now said he’ll most probably get some time in the Davis game, can continue his meteoric rise and unseat Dakota. That Herbert has risen so high so fast either means both are players or both are mediocre….. I’m a half-full glass fan so I think it means both are highly talented and we’ll be in the FBS playoffs come January…

  • Angus Delaforte

    As usual very little PAC12 respect from the so called experts. Oregon will shock them all this year. What they are not taking into account is Oregon’s new Brady Hoke defense. The offense will still be very explosive and score a lot, but the defense will be crushing. Hoke is no joke and what he brings to Oregon football is animal like intensity. Instead of bend but don’t break it will be the big green crush over an over again. If Oregon would have had an intense defense over the last five years, we would have owned a couple of championships.