In an upcoming season that combines equal portions of unknowns, shaken confidence and renewed optimism, it is difficult to come to reasonable expectations for the 2017 Oregon Ducks. There are those – possibly trolls – who claim that six wins would be a success.
Then there’s Athlon Sports — possibly the premiere preseason pigskin prognosticator – that ranks the Ducks above all but two of the teams on their schedule. And then predicts that they will lose four games. Perhaps that’s the way it is, but it does carry a note of inconsistency.
So Athlon appears to have the Ducks losing to higher-ranked Washington and Stanford, and then being upset by two of — I’m guessing here — Nebraska, Wyoming, Washington State, Utah, UCLA and Oregon State. Like many, I’m not sure what to think. But in guessing the number of wins for the Ducks this year, here are some things to consider.
Easier schedule. Nothing helps the win column like a softer schedule. Just ask the SEC, which has reduced it to a science. So, if you were the 2017 Ducks, you might say, “Let’s get USC and Colorado off our schedule, and replace them with … Oh, we think we’ll take UCLA and Arizona.” You might also ask for Nebraska at home instead of on the road.
Replacing Virginia at home with going on the road to play Wyoming at 29,029 feet doesn’t help. But all in all, if you’re the 2017 Ducks, you have to say a little prayer of thanksgiving to the scheduling gods.
Returning starting quarterback. The last time Oregon had a returning starting quarterback was 2014, and that worked out pretty well. Maybe Justin Herbert isn’t Marcus Mariota, but – sorry Husky and Trojan fans — he may very well shake out to be the best quarterback in the Pac-12 this year.
Washington returns first-team All Pac-12 quarterback Jake Browning and USC returns Sam Darnold, the top freshman quarterback in the country from last year, and proclaimed Heisman candidate. But this year’s edition of Oregon’s Justin Herbert — last year’s number two quarterback nationally — should press, if not surpass, either or both of them.
As a redshirt freshman last year, Darnold had a huge advantage over true freshman Herbert. In 2015, Herbert was a three-sport standout for Sheldon High School. At the same time, Darnold was running USC’s scout team, throwing against the likes of Adoree Jackson, who was totally ready for the NFL.
In Browning’s freshman year, he enrolled at Washington in January, and by fall he was ready to deliver 16 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions. For Herbert’s freshman year, he joined the team in August and then threw 19 touchdown passes against 4 interceptions. And that was behind a line that started four freshmen and one senior who just got called for holding again while I was writing this article.
Stronger muscles and joints. Last year the Ducks had really, really bad luck with injuries. By the Civil War Game, they were down something like five of their top seven defensive linemen. They made the Beaver running attack look like it was ready for the Super Bowl. I remember thinking, “Gee, what bad luck with injuries.”
Then, come to find out, the team was fagging the weight workouts. Maybe luck had little to do with it. Maybe – just maybe – when people who haven’t been lifting weights get run over by people who have been lifting weights, they get hurt. All indications are that this year’s Ducks will be in shape.
Pass Defense. Last year it seemed that all too often the Ducks had two strategies for pass defense: either get called for pass interference or stay far enough away from receivers that not even the retired Glasses Ref would call PI from his armchair after five brewskis. By the time we got to the game-ending pick against Colorado, it was enough to make you wish the Ducks would hire the defense coaches away from the Buffs. Well, they did. So while you’re thanking the scheduling gods, you might throw in a little ‘thank you’ to the defense hiring gods as well.
Apart from the issues of the schedule, personnel and mechanics, attitude looms as possibly the greatest precursor of success, and of failure. A team that practices and plays with spirit and soul engaged has a huge advantage over the team that doesn’t. And it’s important to distinguish between spirit and soul, because they aren’t the same thing.
Spirit is light and energy. It includes the enthusiasm for winning, something that Oregon teams earlier in this decade had in abundance. It’s running onto the field at the start of the game. The Fight Song. Cheerleaders.
Soul is the depth of emotion. It’s the life that’s left in you when you’ve been knocked down. It’s the tough that gets going when the going gets tough. Grim determination. It lacks the fun of spirit, but it’s part of what it takes to make a complete individual, or a complete team. It’s something that you would hope the Ducks developed over the past year.
You hope for the best, but you never know what a team’s going to be made of. According to Athlon, the 2017 Oregon Ducks football team should be better than all but two teams on its regular season schedule. Yet Athlon sees it losing two games it should win.
After the lessons of last year and the infusion of spirit from the new coaching staff, it would be disappointing to see this team lose games it should win. Now if it turns out to be the kind of team that instead wins two games it should lose …
Top photo by Gary Breedlove