It seems like yesterday the Oregon Ducks were on the verge of a free fall, trying to save face after Willie Taggart spurned the program that Mark Helfrich (despite his good intentions) nearly dragged to the gutter. But here we are, just a couple of years later, and the Ducks are right back in the thick of the playoff race.
Mario Cristobal, his staff and his players have impressively risen to the top of the Pac-12, showing marked improvement in each season since Cristobal took over. That upward trajectory should continue in 2020, as the Ducks are not only early favorites to repeat as conference champions, but many expect them to make a legitimate playoff push this season.
But this can’t be the ceiling for Cristobal’s crew. These aren’t uncharted waters for Oregon, which has been to the playoff and multiple national championships in recent years. The next step for the Ducks has to be progressing from “playoff contenders” to “title contenders.” Entering this elite top tier isn’t easy by any stretch, but it’s possible. And although the Ducks have made tremendous strides, they can still climb a little higher.
It’s Playoff Time for Oregon
If a college football team isn’t improving, it’s getting passed up. Luckily, the Ducks have been steadily improving each year since Helfrich’s firing, most recently earning a Pac-12 Championship and winning the Rose Bowl.
The Ducks are projected to improve once again in 2020 due in large part to returning the majority of their defensive starters. Specifically, Oregon enters the season with the best secondary in all of college football. Starting cornerbacks Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir return for their senior seasons, with each seeing playing time since they were freshmen. They both were among the best at their position in the Pac-12 in 2019, and they’ll look to build upon that success this season. Graham and Lenoir will be joined by former four-star prospect Mykael Wright, who arguably out-performed both of the starting cornerbacks in his freshman campaign.
To make matters worse for opposing offenses, the Ducks have one of the best defensive weapons in the game at the nickel position in safety Jevon Holland. The talented playmaker is a gamechanger with his elite instincts and his Velcro-like coverage. All four of these players have a good chance to hear their names called at the NFL Draft when they depart, but until then, they’ll be busy terrorizing Pac-12 passing attacks.
That is, if opposing quarterbacks even have the time to throw the ball before elite edge rusher and former five-star recruit Kayvon Thibodeaux and running mate Mase Funa get to them. Throw in a couple of five-star freshmen linebackers, some role players on the defensive line and a bunch of experienced players at deep safety, and this has the makings of one of the best defenses in the country.
And although there’s not as much certainty surrounding the offense, there’s still plenty of potential and talent on that side of the ball. It would be a shock if assumed starter Tyler Shough isn’t at least serviceable, as all indications are that he’ll live up to his four-star billing. The wide receiver group gets an influx of talent, with the return of Mycah Pittman, who was arguably Oregon’s best receiver before his season ended due to injury, and the addition of 6’5” receiver Devon Williams, via transfer.
Every running back who took meaningful carries in 2019 returns for another year in Jim Mastro’s rushing attack. And although left tackle Penei Sewell is the only returning offensive lineman, he’ll be joined by a host of former blue-chip recruits.
All in all, Oregon is the best team in the Pac-12 right now, and the gap between the Ducks and whoever is second place is widening. The expectation should be a playoff appearance, and this seems to be the sentiment among the national media as well. Preliminary rankings from ncaa.com have the Ducks ranked sixth. Considering they’re slotted behind three SEC teams, only one of which will conceivably make the four-team playoff, the Ducks are essentially viewed as a playoff team in this position.
This Isn’t the Finish Line
As impressive and exciting as it is to have Oregon back in playoff contention for the foreseeable future, this can’t be the endgame. While it’s extremely rewarding to make the College Football Playoff, the goal for any premier program is obviously to compete for, and win, national titles. Plenty of teams are considered playoff contenders on a yearly basis, but only a few are actually expected to compete for a championship. The Ducks have to be careful not to linger in the former category for too long.
Schools such as Oklahoma, Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Auburn and Notre Dame are typically good enough to at least compete for a playoff spot in any given season. They generally recruit very well, and that, combined with their program stability and pedigree, gives them a good chance of ranking highly at the end of the year. These teams have higher floors than most programs, winning at least nine games for the most part. And having such a high baseline means that when an elite individual talent emerges (typically at quarterback) at one of these programs, their ceiling is a playoff appearance.
However, none of these programs are in a position to actually win once in the playoff and legitimately compete for a championship. While they have enough talent and a good enough infrastructure to win nine or more games regularly, they lack the components of the programs in the tier above them, which are built to win it all. The true championship contenders — Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State and LSU — have consistently elite recruiting classes, top-tier coaching staffs and a long-running track record of success. These elements enable them to not only make the playoff, but to win and advance once they’re in it.
Of course, Oregon (like every other program in the country) wants to be among those fortunate few, the true title contenders. But unlike most programs, Oregon actually has a realistic chance of becoming one, which is why it’s so important that the Ducks don’t rest on their laurels and settle for conference championships and playoff appearances.
Right now, the Ducks are among the good-but-not-great, playoff-contending teams that are just behind their championship-contending counterparts. That’s no reason to panic or to discredit Cristobal, as getting to the top tier is far easier said than done. To become a championship contender, Oregon will have to string together multiple years of top-10 and potentially even top-five recruiting classes, assemble a coaching staff that is among the best in the country, have sustained success and maintain continuity at head coach.
The Ducks aren’t traditional blue-bloods like most of the programs in college football’s top-tier, but as Dabo Swinney and his Clemson Tigers have shown, any team can sneak its way into the group as long as it follows the aforementioned formula. Oregon is as good of a candidate as any to be the next program to enter this elite circle, and now is the time to start the ascension.
Oregon has improved tremendously over the past couple of seasons, and it looks to be on track for its first playoff appearance since the days of Marcus Mariota. The Ducks have a drastically improving roster and are poised to control the Pac-12 for years to come.
The next step in their progression is to go from playoff contender to championship contender. Although Oregon appears to be a mainstay in the playoff conversation for a while, it has to do what it takes to join the elite few that not only make the playoff consistently, but also have championship ceilings. It’s certainly going to take time and require some patience, and there will be speed bumps along the way, but if the Ducks don’t take this next step as a program, then heartbreaking playoff losses will be the norm.
Oregon’s endgame needs to be celebrating a national championship victory at the end of the season, not just a trip to the playoff.
Morgantown, West VirginiaTop Photo by Kevin Cline
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