Every year is make or break for someone in football. Whether it is a head coach on the hot seat, a QB with a chance to start, or a veteran skill position player trying to hold off someone younger and more talented, every year brings a plethora of storylines for every team.
With the benefit of hindsight we can now ask: did 2020 make or break Oregon football?
Think about every season as a wager by each team. They are wagering: the health and development of their players, the perception of their program and the culture surrounding their team. So all we have to do to determine if Oregon is made, or broken, is decide if they got a solid return for their wager.
The Health and Development of the Players
The 2020 sports world saw careers put in jeopardy. The pandemic ravaged rosters all over the sports world while out of shape players suffered soft tissue injury after soft tissue injury. The San Francisco 49ers saw significant portions of their roster injured in the first few weeks of the season, never to return to the field.
Oregon had a tall order: get players in shape and ready to play with an abbreviated camp that was not preceded by an offseason of team workouts. They also had to convince college kids to avoid going out to parties and social gatherings, risking not only their lives but the lives of their teammates.
In this regard, the Ducks were arguably the most successful team on the West coast. With zero games cancelled due to contact tracing within the Oregon program, and no career threatening injuries, Oregon came out of 2020 looking good. Oregon did have several players sidelined for large chunks of the season, but most players should be ready to go for 2021.
As far as the development of a few particular players goes, the season may not have been as successful.
Specifically at QB, there seemed to be regression for starter Tyler Shough. The first time starter got his shot week one against Stanford and performed well. He was among the best passers in the Pac-12 heading in to the Cal game, where he fell apart completely and never recovered in the games that came after. For Shough, 2020 wasn’t worth it. His confidence is shot, and the coaches lost all faith in him at the end of the year.
Outside of Shough however, several players shone throughout the short season. Travis Dye had a minor breakout (just as I predicted). The junior running back showed burst and vision that has been lacking in the past several years for Oregon. Mycah Pittman showed an ability to make plays at receiver that, personally, I have never seen in Eugene.
Despite the struggles of the QB, player development looks like it was also a success for the Ducks, meaning that overall their first wager was a good one.
The Perception of the Program
Did Oregon improve the perception of their program in the 2020 season? They, along with the rest of the Pac-12, got no respect nationally. There are media members going on national television saying that the Pac-12 is closer to the talent of a group of five conference than they are to any other power five conference.
Sadly, the perception of the conference determines the perception of every team in that conference. The Pac-12 failed to make the playoff again, meaning they did not get the chance to measure themselves against the best teams in the country. The conference was also a paltry 0-2 in bowl games.
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Unfortunately for Oregon, they were one of the two losses for the conference in the postseason. The Pac-12 champion Oregon Ducks got blown out by Big 12 runner-up Iowa State inside the Pac-12 footprint. Along with losses to Oregon State and Cal, the bowl loss put the Ducks in the odd position of being a mediocre conference champion, and it was obvious to everyone watching that the Ducks weren’t that good.
Overall, the perception of the program was, at best, stagnant in 2020, while at worst it was damaged heavily. This wager was a massive failure.
The Culture Surrounding the Team
Mario Cristobal has carefully built a culture at Oregon that is the envy of the conference. His team fights hard for him, they do the right thing for him, and they play well for him. Cristobal has created a culture based on outworking their opponents on and off the field.
2020 saw that culture tested with bad losses, unavailable players and an offseason where they could not outwork their opponents, because they couldn’t work in the first place. In the past, we saw Mark Helfrich lose his team at the first sign of trouble. His culture was built on being Oregon and on being fast. When a team played physical with a Helfrich team, they crumbled.
This Oregon team responded in those moments. After losing a nail biter in Corvallis, and getting blanked in the second half against Cal, Cristobal got his team up and ready to go against USC, securing his second straight conference championship. The team once again struggled against Iowa State, but so did every other team this season.
The culture of the program appears to be intact. Oregon should be able to continue building on their solid foundation in a more regular offseason, despite a struggle of a season in 2020.
This wager was a win.
The Ducks bet on themselves in 2020. They bet that they could overcome those opt-outs and prove they were among the best teams in the country no matter what. Unfortunately their bet didn’t have a perfect return, as several losses derailed their playoff bid. Despite the disappointing season, Oregon escaped with their health and their culture intact, with several playmakers emerging as potential stars.
If you ask “did 2020 make or break the Oregon Ducks?” the answer has to be that it made them.
Top Photo By: Eugene Johnson
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