The top and bottom of the food chain is fairly easy to predict. The shark eats the minnow every time. Predicting what happens in the middle of college football’s food chain, however, is another matter. And this is the first season in ages that Oregon fans are entering with general expectations to be somewhere in the middle. Not a minnow. Not a shark. Uncharted territory.
Ducks fans are predicting everything from 6-6 to 10-2 for the regular season. Since our expectations always seem to be tempered or fed by our hopes, it’s safe to say that rival fans probably have the Ducks between 2-10 and 6-6.
Granted, it would be a clear-cut upset for Oregon to beat Stanford or Washington this year. On the other end of the scale, losing to Southern Utah, Arizona State, California or Arizona would make Ninkasi’s Total Domination taste like Bud Lite.
Southern Utah is not a powerhouse, even in I-AA. California is looking for a new quarterback to step up, has only two returning starters on the offensive line, not much in the way of defense — and, like Oregon, has a new head coach.
Arizona has little in the way of proven skill position players who have shown any ability to stay out of the medical ward. And the Wildcats are thin on defense.
Arizona State seems to pose the greatest threat of the four. Former Alabama quarterback and five-star recruit Blake Barnett gives the Sun Devils’ offense a chance to bring a little hell to defenses. On the downside for the Devils, the offensive line gave up 41 sacks last year, and the defensive secondary looks highly suspect. In the trenches, the Ducks average 18 pounds per man heavier.
Barring upsets, that leaves the Ducks with six games that, in the words of Jameis Winston (after a 39-point beatdown from the Ducks), “coulda went either way.”
The test games — those that define the difference between another dismal 4-8 season and 10-2 — are Nebraska, Washington State, Utah and Oregon State at home; along with Wyoming and UCLA on the road. Note the favorable cut toward home games, although the visiting team has won at least the last three straight in the Oregon/Utah series.
For what it’s worth, here’s a quick look at what the Ducks will be up against in those six critical games.
First up is Nebraska on September 9. As we know, the Huskers were lucky to beat Oregon on their home field last year. So barring something unforeseen, the Ducks’ chances should be fairly good at home.
The Huskers front seven on defense is questionable. And they are breaking in a new quarterback, Tanner Lee, a transfer from Tulane. Lee’s stats at Tulane were not impressive: 23 touchdowns, 21 interceptions, and just better than 50 % on completions.
In Lee’s defense, he played behind an offensive line that was probably more geared for 1A high school than I-A college. He suffered a concussion, a shoulder separation and numerous hand injuries in taking about as many sacks as you’d find at your average Wal Mart.
On defense, with the recent loss of lockdown corner Chris Jones to injury, the Huskers return only five starters.
The next weekend, the Ducks fly to Laramie, Wyoming to take on the Cowboys in Mount Everest Stadium. The Cowboys lost their best running back from last year, but return the entire starting offensive line and nine starters on defense. They also return likely NFL pick Josh Allen at quarterback. Last year he threw for 3,203 yards and 28 touchdowns against 15 interceptions, while completing 56 % of his passes.
Oregon’s co-offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo coached at Wyoming in 2009 and 2010. Perhaps he will have some insight in preparing the Ducks for a tough venue against the Mountain West’s 2016 runnerup.
On October 7, the Ducks draw Washington State at home. Luke Falk returns at QB for his senior season with the Cougars. He lost his top two receivers, but the Cougs’ running game is developing, and they return nine starters on defense.
Having former Cougs D-line coach Joe Salave’a on the Oregon staff should be some help. There are also those who theorize that having defensive backs not play ten yards off receivers might be a good idea against a Mike Leach-coached team.
Two weeks after meeting the Cougs, the Ducks play UCLA at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins lost five key starters from what was one of the best defenses in the conference last year.
On offense, the 2016 Bruins had an anemic running game that averaged only 84 yards per game. And the offensive line gave up 24 sacks. Coincidence? Star quarterback Josh Rosen missed most of the season with injuries, and the Bruins tanked. This team is as hard to predict as the Ducks, but to the Bruins’ detriment, they still have Jim Mora for a coach.
The following week, the Ducks return home to take on Darren Carrington and the Utah Utes. It’s a good thing for Utah that Carrington screwed up as a Duck and landed in Salt Lake City.
The Utes return only seven starters from last year, and as always, have questions at the key quarterback position. Kyle Whittingham is one of the best coaches in college football. He has his work cut out for him this year.
After games against Washington and Arizona, the Ducks finish at home against Oregon State. After beating the Ducks last year, the Beavers are cocky and have this one in the win column. I’m not so sure. They also seem to think the game is to be played in Corvallis, so go figure.
The Beavers return only two starting offensive linemen, and a total of five starters on defense. They have a new quarterback in 6’7″, 230 lb. Jake Luton. He’s a transfer from Ventura College, a two-year California school. At Ventura, Luton threw for 3,551 yards, 40 touchdowns and a 56.5% completion rate, along with 15 interceptions. He gives the Beavers a passing attack, but accuracy appears to be a bit of an issue.
The Beavers also think they may have the best group of running backs in the conference, if not the country. Again, I’m not so sure. Last year Ryan Nall ran for 951 yards. However, over half of them were in just three games — against California, Arizona and Oregon. If memory serves, we’re not talking a lot of defense here. So, mathematically, that doesn’t leave a lot of production against teams that actually had defenses. We’ll see.
Former Duck Thomas Tyner provides backup, if he can stay healthy and keep his head in the game.
Meanwhile, the Beavers can’t count on another monsoon to blow in during the third quarter to negate Oregon’s passing attack; and at this point, also can’t count on a decimated Ducks defensive line. They will likely face a tougher test against the Ducks in 2017.
There is no denying that Oregon has questions this year. Not surprisingly, so do a lot of other teams. Welcome to college football. Even Stanford (no more McCaffrey) and Washington (key losses on defense and wide receiver) have questions.
The smart money would probably bet that Oregon will win the four games it’s highly favored in, lose two games as underdogs, and split the remaining six to end up at 7-5. But this is college football, where team psyche, injuries, the trajectory of a kick, the bounce of the ball and the instant replay of a foot striking the turf can mean the difference between a win and a loss.
The sharks will always eat the minnows, but everything in between is up for grabs. It’s hard to see the Ducks as potentially anything other than in the middle, perfectly capable of winning or losing enough games to make or break the season. With the energy of a new coaching staff and the lingering stench of 2016, you have to have hope that the Ducks will bring their “A” game to 2017.
Top photo by Kevin Cline