Which team will be the fourth seed in the College Football Playoff? That’s the biggest question circulating among college football pundits and analysts right now, even though the season hasn’t even begun for a handful of Power Five teams.
Perhaps a more relevant question is: does it even matter?
This past Saturday confirmed that three teams — Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama — are miles ahead of the pack, and are overwhelming favorites to not only make the Playoff, but also win it all. Whichever team does in fact join these three in the Playoff would likely be a longshot to actually advance.
That brings us to the Oregon Ducks — one of the teams in the mix for fourth Playoff spot. Coming off of a Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl win, it would seem that the next logical step of progression for Oregon would be to make a Playoff appearance.
But Mario Cristobal and company should set their sights higher than being a second-rate title contender in the shadows of the college football titans. It is possible for a non-traditional power such as Oregon to rise to the top, as Clemson proved, and the Ducks are well on their way. What do the Ducks need to do to close the gap between them and the true college football elites?
What’s Oregon’s Missing Piece?
There’s no single formula for building a national power, but there are similarities among all of the recent championship winners. Almost each of them have had consistent, top-level recruiting, excellent coaching and elite quarterback play. This can certainly be said of the three best teams in college football right now.
How does Oregon compare in each of these categories?
Cristobal has undoubtedly raised the recruiting bar in Eugene, pulling in back-to-back top-15 recruiting classes, and his upcoming 2021 class might end up being his best one yet. The Ducks are accumulating more talent than they ever have before, and that’s arguably the most important step in joining the ranks of the elites. Is all that separates Oregon from Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama just a few more top-level recruiting classes?
As for coaching, the Ducks have made some moves in recent years that should certainly move the needle in their direction. They upgraded at defensive coordinator when Cristobal brought in Andy Avalos from Boise State to install an aggressive and diverse 3-3-5 defense. The move paid dividends instantly, as Oregon fielded its best defense in recent memory in 2019.
Offensively, after mixed reviews from the Marcus Arroyo era, Oregon brought in former Penn State offensive coordinator and Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead to open up offense, specifically the running game. We’ll see how that move pays off on November 7th when the Ducks kick off their season, but all signs point to a more creative rushing offense under Moorhead — something that Oregon fans have been clamoring for since Arroyo took over as offensive coordinator. Are these coaching moves enough to take the Ducks from “good” to “great”?
Finally, the Ducks have had good enough quarterback play since the departure of Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, but it hasn’t been spectacular enough to overcome other deficiencies over the years. Now, with Oregon trotting out a new full-time starting quarterback for the first time since 2016, this is arguably the biggest unknown in Oregon’s championship-winning equation.
But just because it’s an unknown, it doesn’t mean it’s a weakness.
Coaches and those close to the program have been singing expected starter Tyler Shough’s praises for years now. While he doesn’t have Justin Herbert’s physical skill set (very few quarterbacks do), he supposedly excels in many of the areas where Herbert struggled at times — consistent accuracy, pocket presence and decision making. Is Shough the quarterback that can truly make Oregon a contender, or do the Ducks need to keep searching?
What do you think — if anything — separates Oregon from the three best teams in college football right now? Are the Ducks on the precipice of greatness, or are their still steps that they need to take to not only be in the discussion for a Playoff appearance, but a contender to win it all?
Morgantown, West Virginia
Top Photo by Kevin Cline
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