Have you ever hit a golden stretch of life and wished you could stop time and enjoy the view? I wonder if Willie Taggart has ever had that same wish when he muses about the football landscape of the Pac-12 Conference.
If so, would he flip the switch and turn back the clock to 2010? The head job at Oregon in 2017 presents a more challenging path to success then the one that Taggart’s immediate predecessors have faced. The landscape of the Pac-12 has changed, and the path to a championship is far steeper today.
The Huskies to the north are of a different breed than those awkward pups of a few years ago. The same can be said of the Trojans to the south, the Buffaloes to the east and a host of others who now believe they match up with anyone, and can truly compete for a conference title.
For the Ducks to return to prominence, Taggart will first need to re-establish Oregon’s position in a vastly improved Pac-12 North. He will also need to navigate a schedule that has his young, unrefined and mentally fragile defense facing four of the top QB prospects in the 2018 NFL draft (Josh Allen at Wyoming, Luke Falk at WSU, Josh Rosen at UCLA and Jake Browning at UW).
By any standard, the Ducks’ path back to respectability will be challenging. Taggart has a reputation as a builder of programs, unafraid of challenging landscapes and steep climbs. He’s also a coach with a win/loss record of below .500 (40-45, .471). Let’s take a closer look at the journey that he and Oregon will take in 2017.
But as a cautionary tale, let’s take a quick look back at last year’s preseason college football polls. Give credit to those pollsters who climbed aboard the Clemson-Alabama train as they proved themselves unquestionably the best two teams in the land. But Notre Dame, Michigan State and Oregon were also consensus top-25 teams to start the 2016 season. Those three teams ended the season a combined 11-25. It’s a solid reminder that predicting the future on any subject is damn hard work — ask any political pollster at CNN.
Oregon opens its non-conference schedule with an interesting mix of opponents. FCS team Southern Utah at home shouldn’t be much of a problem … but didn’t we all feel much the same before the Eastern Washington game a few years back? And here’s a fun fact to consider: the Thunderbirds had as many free-agent NFL signings this year as the Ducks (three). Expect Oregon’s young secondary to get a workout in this one.
Next up is Nebraska at home. My intuition tells me that the Ducks will play well in this game and take down a solid but unspectacular Mike Riley team with a good showing.
It’s the following game on the road against Mountain West Wyoming that has me concerned. The Cowboys are coming off a co-Mountain Division championship and a Poinsettia Bowl appearance in 2016. Also, they have Josh Allen, the best quarterback in the nation that nobody has ever heard of. Allen, a classic under-the-radar kid, is rated by some (notably ESPN’s Adam Schefter) as the top QB prospect in next year’s NFL draft. Allen is 6-5, tough, very mobile and has an NFL arm capable of making any throw. His coaches at Wyoming compare him favorably to Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles. Interestingly, they also coached and developed Wentz in their NFL pro-style offense at North Dakota State.
Oregon’s young defense is sure to be tested in this game. It’s also a pivotal game that they will need before embarking on a challenging Pac-12 schedule.
Fortunately, this year’s round robin Pac-12 slate will have the Ducks missing two of the conference’s stronger teams in Colorado and preseason-top-four USC. In addition, they open with two of the conferences lesser lights in Arizona State (away) and California (home).
Much like the Ducks in 2016, ASU pairs a decent offense with a truly horrific defense, one that gave up a whopping 357 passing yards per game. Cal will look to improve under new head coach and ex-Duck Justin Wilcox, and new offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin – the same Coach Baldwin who gave the Ducks fits as the head coach at Eastern Washington.
In October, Oregon’s road to redemption steepens precipitously, beginning with Washington State and Falk, the second of the fab-four quarterbacks the Ducks will face this year. Everyone knows what a quirky house of horrors Coach Mike Leach‘s peculiar brand of Air Raid Offense represents for Oregon. Part West Coast passing philosophy, part Chip Kelly up-tempo, and part screen-pass frenzy, it has proven to be a nightmare for Oregon defenses to stop. Returning for his fourth year at QB, Falk runs this scheme with precision, and wide receiver Tavaris Martin is a star in the making.
Just like those Huskies, the Cougars under Leach are a different breed of cat from previous regimes. Leach’s coaching ability, along with a steady infusion of talent, have elevated the Cougars into a perennial top 25 program, and a team that no one looks forward to playing. They are now part of any conversation on who might contend in the North.
Not much needs to be said about the following week’s game at nationally-ranked Stanford (consensus preseason top 15). Despite some major losses to graduation (notably Christian McCaffrey), and some questions at quarterback (Keller Chryst’s injury) Stanford will be its typical beastly self. The defensive secondary for the Cardinal should be one of the best in the nation in 2017.
A road game against UCLA follows, and that means a date with Rosen, quarterback extraordinaire, and the third member of the aforementioned QB fab four. After losing Rosen to a shoulder injury relatively early last year, the Bruins stumbled to a 4-8 season, matching Oregon’s in futility. Jim Mora and his team will have much to prove this year with a still talented roster that badly underperformed in 2016. Sound familiar, Duck fans?
October’s tough climb concludes with a home game against Utah, a team still stinging from Oregon’s unlikely last-second victory in 2016. Think the perennial top-25 Utes will have something to prove in that game? New offensive coordinator and passing guru Troy Taylor (there’s that Eastern Washington connection again) will be certain to add some wrinkles to an emerging offense. As sure as the sun rises, Utah’s defense will be among the best in the Pac-12. The grudge factor, combined with the Utes’ physicality, shapes this as a real measuring-stick game for the Ducks.
November brings no relief from the October grind, with the Ducks heading to Seattle for their annual “Cascade Clash” against the Huskies. I think this game needs a better name. Here’s my take: “The Pain in the Rain“.
Regardless, Chris Peterson has awoken the sleeping giant to the North, as predicted. Browning, the final member of the QB fab four, will operate behind a skilled, experienced offensive line, with targets galore in Myles Gaskin, Dante Pettis and others to choose from to distribute the ball.
Some have said that Washington was ahead of schedule in making the College Football Playoffs last season … not a good omen for Oregon fans. But a perennial top-10 Washington team is a fixture now in the tough new landscape of the Pac-12 North, a division emerging as one of the strongest in all of college football.
Oregon’s season concludes with two winnable home games against improving Arizona and OSU. It’s likely the Ducks will need one or possibly both of those games to become bowl eligible.
So given the interesting non-conference slate, combined with a vastly improved Pac-12 North Division, are there seven or possibly eight wins on the schedule for the Ducks in 2017?
I say yes. But I’m just a fan, and remember what I said earlier about predicting the future. The real answer is, who the hell really knows? But I will say this with a higher degree of certainty: barring some massive change in the current structure of college football, Willie Taggart will bring Oregon back to prominence sooner rather than later.
And here’s why. It’s been said that recruiting is the first, second, third and fourth most important factor involved in building and sustaining a program … it’s also fifth, six, and seventh on that list. It’s probably the main reason why Mark Helfrich is no longer coaching at Oregon, and why I feel strongly that Taggart will find success.
San Francisco, CA
Top Photo Credit: twitrcovers.com