Is Oregon Football Really “Back”?

Joshua Whitted Editorials

What a difference a year makes. At this time in 2018, Oregon football was in flux. The Ducks were introducing their third head coach in as many years, the program was still wiping egg off its face from the Willie Taggart debacle, and the team was coming off of a decidedly average 7-6 season.

Just a year later, there are rumors of Oregon being “back.” Most publications have the Ducks in the top 15 of their preseason rankings, and they’re even considered a dark-horse playoff contender.

But lest fans forget, Oregon is only a few years removed from a miserable 2016 season that resulted in their entire coaching staff getting the boot. Is the Oregon hype too good to be true? Or does Mario Cristobal really have the Ducks poised to become one of the college football elites once again?

There’s More Than One Way to the Top

In Oregon’s glory days under Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich, the Ducks rose to prominence behind a program-wide commitment to innovation, speed and excitement. Everything about Oregon football was stylish, from the revolutionary offensive systems of Kelly and Helfrich, to the colorful uniform sets.

Oregon was one of a kind. But not any more.

Oregon was all the rage at its peak.

The Ducks’ once-groundbreaking offensive scheme and unique “flash-and-dash” culture have been adopted in some form by many programs across the country. While some teams have had success with the Oregon model, it’s a lot more difficult in today’s landscape to reach the heights that the Ducks did under Kelly and Helfrich using that strategy exclusively.

All of this is to say that Cristobal’s Ducks won’t look like the Ducks of yesteryear; Cristobal has a different approach. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t be just as, or even more, successful.

The Ducks Are on the Rise

Elite recruiting is as critical an element as top-level coaching and talent development in building a championship contender. The numbers bear this out.

It’s impressive that Kelly and Helfrich were able to win as much as they did without landing top-10 recruiting classes. But their success was an outlier, and unsustainable. To his credit, when Taggart took over as head coach, he made it clear that to get Oregon back on the map, he would have to up the program’s recruiting profile significantly, and he did that. Cristobal echoed this sentiment, and vowed to continue raising the recruiting bar when Taggart jumped ship. It’s safe to say that Cristobal has done that, too, and emphatically so.

Cristobal is recruiting like a madman.

Not only did the 2019 class rank inside the top 10 for the first time in program history, but the program really turned heads by landing the second-ranked prospect in the entire class, Kayvon Thibodeaux. Oregon’s 2020 class is on a similarly impressive pace. Right now, the 2020 class ranks 15th, and they’re in the mix for a couple of five-star prospects, too.

Since Cristobal took over, the Ducks have been running laps around the rest of the Pac-12 in recruiting, and rumor has it that the team already looks bigger and stronger than ever before. Cristobal and his staff are flooding the program with blue-chip talent. It won’t be long before the Ducks will have the most talented team in the Pac-12 on paper, something that was always legitimately up for debate under Kelly and Helfrich.

In addition to talent acquisition, who in the Pac-12 can contend with Oregon? USC is a mess, Washington is replacing nearly its entire starting lineup (and its alleged “savior” at quarterback may not even win the starting job), Stanford is a good-not-great program, and Utah is little more than a spoiler.

Chris Petersen and David Shaw will always have consistently good programs at Washington and Stanford. But they haven’t been able to keep up with Oregon on the recruiting trail, and neither team has been able to compete with the big-name programs in the rest of the Power 5. Utah hasn’t even won a Pac-12 title, and it doesn’t have the talent to go toe to toe with playoff contenders. USC, meanwhile, is a few losses away from a complete program meltdown.

Washington’s Petersen has a lot of work to do.

With an established, elite starting quarterback, one of the best offensive lines in college football, and a defense that has the talent to be the best in the conference, Oregon is perhaps the best candidate as any to win the Pac-12 in 2019, and is likely to stay at the top of the conference for a while.

Slow That Roll, Now!

The Ducks are clearly on the right track, but …

For all of Cristobal and Taggart’s progress in the recruiting department, Oregon still fields many of Helfrich’s subpar recruits — some of whom were present for Oregon’s disastrous 2016 season. Additionally, this is only Cristobal’s second season as a Power 5 head coach. As much as he’s making progress with the program, there will be still be some growing pains, like the one that fans witnessed in the collapse against Stanford in 2018.

Finally, the on-field success under Helfrich concealed deep-rooted issues in the Oregon program. Those issues were only brought to light when everything came crashing down in 2016. For example, the 2015 defense was almost as terrible as the putrid 2016 one, but a dynamite offense led by Vernon Adams Jr. kept the Ducks afloat. When reports of serious strength and conditioning problems under Helfrich surfaced, it showed just how tall a task both Taggart and Cristobal faced when they were hired.

Cristobal’s lack of experience isn’t cause for concern in the long run, though. Righting the ship and re-establishing a winning culture doesn’t happen overnight. Even the best college coaches took their lumps early on in their careers. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney didn’t have a 10-win season until his third full year at the helm, which was preceded by a disappointing 6-6 season. Now, he has the Tigers in the playoff perennially, and has twice defeated the mighty Crimson Tide on the game’s biggest stage.

Swinney wasn’t great right off the bat.

It’s going to take a few more years of elite recruiting, and a few more years of experience for Cristobal, for the Ducks to be a consistent playoff contender. Oregon isn’t yet at the level that it was earlier in the decade, when anything less than a 10-win season was a disappointment. But it’s getting there, and that standard should be the expectation shortly.

The Ducks aren’t “back” just yet. But with the way things are trending, they will be soon.

Joshua Whitted 
Morgantown, West VirginiaTop Photo by Kevin Cline


Bob Rodes, the Volunteer editor for this article, is an IT analyst, software developer and amateur classical pianist in Manchester, Tennessee.


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