How a Flawed Mario Cristobal Can Win a Title at Oregon

Joshua Whitted Editorials

Mario Cristobal is not yet an elite head coach, and he might never be one. Contrary to what you might think, that might not stop him from getting Oregon its first-ever National Championship.

This isn’t merely wishful thinking from a green-and-yellow homer. Cristobal is acquiring championship-level talent. Talent that — with one notable addition — will likely be enough to overcome his coaching deficiencies for a short-term title run in the near future.

But ultimately, Cristobal’s improvements, or lack thereof, from a schematic and player development standpoint will determine longevity of Oregon’s success.

Talent Wins Titles

National Championships can’t be won without elite recruiting. This point has been stressed by many (especially yours truly), but it bears repeating. Talent alone doesn’t win a title, and coaching obviously matters. But the pursuit of a championship starts with assembling a top-tier roster.

Every championship winner since the beginning of modern recruiting has had a roster comprised of at least 50% blue-chip (five- or four-star) recruits. The Ducks have finally reached this important benchmark, and they sit just outside the top 10 with the 11th-best five-year recruiting average in the country. This in and of itself is a roster that might be able to at least contend for a title.

But this isn’t the final product. Not even close.

Kayvon Thibodeaux (left), Noah Sewell (middle) and Mase Funa (right) were all blue-chip recruits.

Cristobal and his staff are simply on another level when it comes to recruiting. That aforementioned five-year recruiting average factors in Oregon’s lower-ranking 2017 and 2018 classes. Each of Oregon’s recruiting classes since the 2019 cycle — Cristobal’s first full recruiting class — have ranked no lower than 12th nationally, with two top-10 finishes.

Of course, that’s run of the mill for the Alabamas and Ohio States of the college football world, but those are schools that should be recruiting at that level consistently. They’re perennial title contenders, after all. Cristobal is doing this at a school that honestly has no business hanging with the traditional recruiting giants based on its location and lack of championship pedigree.

Josh Pate of 247Sports said the following about Oregon’s recruiting on his show The Late Kick, “Look, people are rubbed the wrong way by Oregon because they’re doing what people think they’re not supposed to be able to do, and that’s recruit at a national level, not taking backup options. They’re coming into your backyard, and they’re taking your A-list options. Oregon is a threat anywhere they show up in America right now.”

Kris Hutson is one of many elite receivers Cristobal has recruited.

Cristobal is building a juggernaut at Oregon, and soon, it will comfortably be one of the most talented rosters in the country. Any team with a roster of that caliber has at least a fighter’s chance of winning a championship.

The Quarterback Factor

Suggesting that Cristobal will build a roster that’s talented enough to win a championship within a couple of years isn’t a hot take. But that’s not the reason many are skeptical of Oregon’s championship potential. Teams like USC, Texas and Georgia have shown that great recruiting isn’t enough in and of itself to win it all.

Many would suggest that elite coaching, player development and game planning separate actual National Champions from the “Recruiting National Champions“. Those who argue this aren’t wrong, per se. In many cases, this is true. But there are exceptions.

Teams can and have won titles without above average coaching, and each of those teams have had one thing in common: a game-changing, Heisman-level quarterback.

Georgia hasn’t been able to get over the hump due to subpar quarterback play.

A top-five collegiate quarterback is impactful enough to offset a bland scheme or poor player development. Such quarterbacks are so valuable that their abilities alone raise the level of play of the team around them, temporarily masking most coaching deficiencies.

The most obvious example of a situation like this is Joe Burrow and the 2019 LSU Tigers. The Tigers have had a top-10 roster since the start of the 2010s, but were never able to capitalize on it due to repeated failed attempts at finding a good-enough quarterback and less-than-adequate coaching. When they finally struck gold at the position in 2019, their previously under-utilized talent shined and they cruised to a championship. That team’s head coach was Ed Orgeron, who was not regarded as a coaching genius by any means, and his track record before and after Burrow’s magical season is underwhelming.

Many point to LSU’s coordinators as the reason for the its success, but I’d argue they get too much credit for Burrow simply being a terrific talent. Joe Brady’s history as a coordinator is limited, but his time with the Carolina Panthers in the NFL hasn’t been overly impressive. When given a replacement-level quarterback, Brady’s offense didn’t look nearly as potent. And while defensive coordinator Dave Aranda had been regarded as one of the top defensive minds in the game, his 2019 defense was actually one of his least impressive, at least statistically.

Did LSU’s coaches get too much credit for Burrow’s talents?

If that season isn’t enough to convince you of how influential the right quarterback can be with a good roster, look no further than the Auburn Tigers and their 2010 championship-winning season. The Tigers had built a team that had just enough blue-chip talent to make some noise in the SEC, but they needed a difference-maker at quarterback. I’d say Cam Newton qualifies as a difference-maker.

Newton was a one-man wrecking crew, and he absolutely carried a team that was led by one of the least impressive coaches to ever win a title. No one would argue that Gene Chizik was anything better than an average coach. And while Auburn did have a good offensive coordinator in Gus Malzahn, he went on to have mixed results as a head coach himself. Both Malzahn and Chizik eventually were fired, while Newton went on to become the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft and a future league MVP. I don’t think there’s any question which of them was the driving force behind that title run.

These are just a couple of examples of how exemplary quarterback play can win a championship with little more than a talented supporting cast. This isn’t to say that good coaching isn’t important. (It is.) But teams can go on a title run, at least for a season, without it.

The challenge for Cristobal and company is actually identifying and landing a quarterback of that caliber. Crazily enough, there aren’t that many of them floating around.

Quarterbacks like Newton don’t come around too often.

Unfortunately, quarterback recruiting is such an inexact science that it’s not as simple as signing a five-star and calling it a day. It’s very hard to accurately identify which prospects are going to materialize and which will flame out when they arrive on campus, especially since so much of quarterback success is dictated by a variety of factors, such as situation, environment, and honestly, pure fortune.

Still, although there’s a lot of variability when it comes to recruiting quarterbacks, it’s not totally random. While there are plenty of five-star busts and three-star gems, the higher-rated prospects do generally have a higher success rate. There’s just always going to be a low “hit rate” on quarterback prospects, regardless of their rating. The best way to increase that rate is simply to keep recruiting blue-chip passers, as eventually one of them is likely to be a star.

Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State have all had multiple Heisman-contending quarterbacks over the past decade, and it’s not because they always accurately identify them during recruiting. It’s because they sign so many top-tier quarterbacks that the chances one of them turns out to be really good is more probable than not.

Ohio State has continued to field elite college quarterbacks.

Cristobal has been following this blueprint at Oregon, and because of it, the Ducks are in the running for, and signing, higher-rated prospects at quarterback than ever before. He’s bound to strike gold in the near future. In fact, that future superstar may be on the roster already.

Predicting that Oregon will land an elite quarterback is admittedly the biggest assumption in this piece. But if the Ducks continue to sign blue-chip quarterbacks, which they undoubtedly should, given their recruiting trajectory, there’s no reason to believe they won’t eventually hit on one of them. It’s only a matter of time. And with a top quarterback and an elite roster, the Ducks will have all of the pieces needed to win that elusive championship.

Oregon Should Own the Pac-12

If you’re still skeptical of Oregon’s title chances by this point, I don’t blame you. A great roster and a great quarterback still don’t always lead to a title. But there’s another factor working in Oregon’s favor: opportunity.

Since the Ducks are in a weak conference and hold a growing talent advantage, they should be in the Playoff more often than not, especially with a couple more years of recruiting success. Oregon has every reason to be the “Clemson” or “Oklahoma” of the Pac-12, distancing itself as the clear-cut leader in the clubhouse, and a Playoff mainstay.

Oregon should be leaps and bounds ahead of its Pac-12 competition.

Continuous Playoff appearances would give the Ducks a higher chance of winning a championship based on simple probability. The more Playoff games Oregon plays in, the likelier it is it strings together a couple of wins at least one time to win a title.

It’s not the peachiest prognostication, but I’m not exactly expecting Oregon to challenge these blue-bloods all that often. Most years, I think Alabama and Clemson would make quick work of the Ducks in these future Playoff matchups. But because Oregon should almost always be in the dance, it would just take one of these teams having an off year, or the Ducks fielding an elite quarterback, for Oregon to knock them off and win it all.

A Title Doesn’t Mean Sustained Success

Now, allow me to lay out a disclaimer.

The Ducks can win a championship following this formula, but it certainly isn’t the way to sustain program success. The best teams find ways to contend without waiting for a superstar quarterback to show up at their doorsteps or for their conference to bottom out. They’re able to do so because of great coaching.

That’s why Alabama has won titles without terrific passers while contending in a highly competitive conference, and it’s why Ohio State didn’t skip a beat despite starting its third-string quarterback in the Playoff a few years ago.

Great coaching is essential for long-term success.

When the right quarterback isn’t there to make life easy for a team, or the conference playing field is leveled, which is the case far more often than not, then coaching becomes paramount. Heck, even when a team has an elite quarterback, a top-notch coach can make that team darn-near unbeatable (look at Alabama this past season for evidence of this).

There are examples of teams that have had special title runs without great coaching. That’s why I’m so confident that the same can be replicated in Eugene. But of those examples, none of those teams were able to replicate those runs and remain championship contenders after their breakthrough seasons.

This isn’t is to say Cristobal isn’t the right man for the job. Contrarily, Cristobal has done one of the most impressive jobs in all of college football, creating a recruiting powerhouse out of a program that doesn’t have nearly the built-in advantages that many of its counterparts do. That recruiting success gives Oregon a real shot at making a title run, given it finds a Heisman-level quarterback to go along with its very talented roster.

But just know that if Cristobal is indeed able to finally get Oregon over the hump, that doesn’t mean the Ducks are guaranteed to be title contenders for the foreseeable future. His improvement as a coach will be the biggest determinant of Oregon’s long-term success.

Joshua Whitted 
Morgantown, West Virginia
Top Photo by Eugene Johnson

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