It’s amazing what one victory can do for a program.
Everybody looks for “signature wins” as a way to validate premier players and coaches. Sure, beating up on poor competition is nice. But to really prove itself, a team has to show out in the big games against equally-matched, or even superior opponents. The best players and coaches earn their stripes in these games — in these moments. So do the best teams.
On Friday night, Oregon got one of those signature wins, and it affirmed something fans have been eager to hear for a while now. Oregon football is finally back.
The Ducks won more than just a Pac-12 Championship in beating Utah; they re-established themselves as playoff contenders for the foreseeable future. With a roster that’s inching toward blue-blood status and coaches who have proven capable of developing said talent, this is just the beginning for Mario Cristobal’s Ducks. Soon, Pac-12 Championships will be the tip of the iceberg.
Blue Chippers Are on the Way
If you think Oregon’s good now, just wait until Cristobal gets a roster full of his own players. It’s impressive that the Ducks were able to win 11 games (and counting) in Year 2 of the Cristobal era, considering he only has one full recruiting class under his belt.
The cupboard certainly wasn’t bare when Cristobal took over. Justin Herbert is a great cornerstone to build a program on, and the Ducks had isolated stars. But on the whole, even now, the Ducks are missing elite talent at a number of positions.
That won’t be the case much longer.
Under Cristobal, the Ducks are recruiting better than they ever have before. No longer willing to settle for developmental, lightly recruited project players, Oregon has stepped up its game, pursuing the best the country has to offer. This new recruiting focus led to a program-best recruiting class in 2019 and one that could surpass it in 2020. As of now, Oregon sits at No. 11 in the 2020 recruiting rankings (per 247Sports’ Team Composite Rankings), but the Ducks are closing in on a few key targets who could vault them into the Top 10.
Two major five-star targets — cornerback Kelee Ringo and linebacker Justin Flowe — were assumed to be longshots earlier in the recruiting cycle. But the Oregon staff has done a remarkable job of continuing to pursue both players, and now, it’s likely that at least one of them will don green and yellow when all is said and done. Throw in the potential to add another blue-chip quarterback, four-star CJ Stroud, and incredibly, the 2020 recruiting class could end up ranking higher than last year’s.
Even if it doesn’t, the fact remains that the Ducks are acquiring elite talent at a historic rate, and having elite talent is the most important factor in contending for championships. Look no further than Oregon’s beatdown of Utah for evidence of this.
The Utes had managed to find success with expert-level coaching and elite player development, as their on-field performance far exceeded their lowly rated recruiting classes. But at some point, that talent disadvantage proves detrimental, and for Utah, Friday night was that moment. Oregon won in the trenches on both sides of the ball simply because their players were better. No level of coaching could have changed that.
The Ducks are already more talented than most of their conference counterparts; soon they’ll have more talent than all of them. That will keep the Ducks at the top of the Pac-12 and in the playoff conversation until someone out-recruits them.
The Staff Develops Talent
Although talent acquisition is paramount in college football, good coaching is still hugely important. Heading into the season, everyone knew Cristobal was a dominant recruiter; it’s one of the reasons he was promoted to head coach. But what was in question was his and his staff’s ability to develop that talent.
Eleven wins and a Pac-12 Championship later, it’s safe to say Oregon’s staff is just fine in the talent development department.
The Ducks managed to field one of the top offenses in the Pac-12 with former three-star recruits as their leading passer, rusher and receiver. Three of their five starting linemen were three stars as prospects. And the lifeblood of the defense, linebacker Troy Dye, was once a three-star prospect who wasn’t even a linebacker in high school.
Yes, Oregon has plenty of four- and five-star recruits who have greatly contributed to the team’s success this season. But the staff has done an incredible job of utilizing the less-than-heralded prospects on its roster, as well.
As for those four- and five-star players, they need to be coached up, too. Everyone is familiar with how badly some schools such as USC have misused blue-chip talent. The most successful programs both acquire star players and utilize them properly. So far, Cristobal and his coaches are doing a marvelous job of getting their best recruits to play up to their potential.
The whole country was in awe of Oregon’s five-star pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux on Friday night. His dominant performance against the Utes led talent evaluator Matt Miller to place him at the top of his 2022 NFL Draft Big Board. He has emerged as Oregon’s best pass rusher, and maybe even its best defensive player, clearly living up to his lofty recruiting ranking.
A key initial Cristobal recruit, left tackle Penei Sewell has developed into of the best players in all of college football. Pro Football Focus selected Sewell as the Pac-12 player of the year, and currently has him as the best lineman that it has ever graded. He’s dominating in both pass protection and the run game, somehow exceeding his four-star status as a prospect.
Finally, other blue-chip recruits such as Mykael Wright, Mase Funa and Mycah Pittman have each been key parts of the Ducks’ Pac-12 title pursuit. The success of these players proves Cristobal and company can not only recruit with the best of the best, but also get the most out of that elite talent.
Oregon’s victory over Utah was confirmation of a fact that had been developing all year long. The Ducks are no longer in re-building mode; they’re the class of the Pac-12. From here on out, the expectation in Eugene will be playoff appearances and national championships — expectations that Oregon fans had become accustomed to not so long ago.
When the Ducks were in the midst of a dismal 4-8 season just a few years ago, playoff talk seemed a lifetime away. But to the credit of Cristobal, the staff, and a group of driven players, the Ducks are back in the spotlight.
This time, they hope to stay for a little while longer.
Morgantown, West VirginiaTop Photo by Tom Corno
Natalie Liebhaber, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in the financial technology industry in Bozeman, Montana.
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