Here at Crystal Ball Run, we’ve spent this entire week previewing our Preseason Top 10 headed into 2012. You’ve seen profiles on West Virginia, Ohio State, Arkansas, Florida State, Oklahoma and Georgia.
Now though, it’s time to talk some big-boy football, with one of the smallest (in stature, anyway) teams in FBS football: The Oregon Ducks. Chip Kelly has turned the program into a West Coast gold standard, with three Pac-12 titles in three years as a head coach, including his first Rose Bowl win last January.
But with Darron Thomas and LaMichael James gone, and USC emerging as the 2012 BCS title favorites, can Oregon continue their strangle-hold on the conference?
Let’s take a look:
Crystal Ball Run Preseason Top 10
No. 4- Oregon Ducks
Oregon in a Word: Super-Power
Sure Oregon isn’t one of your granddaddy’s college football super-powers. They don’t have the history of Alabama, the cultural significance of Notre Dame or the painfully boring uniform scheme of Penn State. But on the field and in the win column, Oregon is in every way, shape and form a college football super-power.
Looking at Kelly’s raw numbers since arriving at the school proves that beyond a reasonable doubt. In his three years at Oregon, the Ducks are 34-6, a staggering 25-2 in the Pac-12 and incredibly, 20-1 at Autzen Stadium. And oh, as we just mentioned he’s also won three straight Pac-12 titles.
What’s maybe more impressive than who Oregon has beaten though, is actually who they’ve lost to; of their three losses in the last two years, one has come to a BCS champion (Auburn ‘10), one to a BCS title runner-up (LSU ’11), and one to a team which unanimously finished in everyone’s Top 5 and enters this season No. 1 in the country (USC ’11). Since September of 2010, Oregon has beaten every other team they’ve played.
Simply put, no one has his teams better prepared to play on a week-in, week-out basis than Chip Kelly does.
Why Oregon Will Live Up To Their Billing:
Did you read the last paragraph? Oregon simply doesn’t lose to teams they’re not supposed to, and when you factor in the talent they return on both sides of the ball and another top-heavy Pac-12 on paper, it isn’t easy to identify any game (outside of when they play USC) that the Ducks won’t be overwhelming favorites in.
It’s hard to find any reasons at all that Oregon won’t live up to their billing.
Why Oregon Will Disappoint:
Again, with Oregon “disappoint” is a relative term. There aren’t many places where a 10-2 regular season would be a disappointment, but somehow, Eugene has become one of them (didn’t I tell you Oregon was a college football super-power?).
Anyway, using the impossible standard that Chip Kelly has created at Oregon, the only real way that the Ducks will disappoint (i.e. lose to anyone not named “USC”) is if their quarterback play is truly atrocious. We’re still not sure if it’ll be Bryan Bennett (more on him coming) or Marcus Mariota under center, but whoever it is, they’ve got to be ready to take the keys to one of college football’s toughest offenses to run. Given that both Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas have struggled in the past with fumbles and reads (Thomas was nearly benched for Bennett at times last year), it isn’t inconceivable.
Then again, given all the Ducks return on defense and at the skill positions, I’m not convinced that even subpar quarterback play could sink this program. Remember, for all the “struggles” Masoli and Thomas have had the past few years, the two combined to win a lot more football games than they lost.
Nope, for Oregon, what it all comes down to is…
Key Game: at USC (Nov. 3)
Much like Alabama-LSU (which coincidentally will be played the same day), the entire 2012 season will likely come down to November 3 for both Oregon and USC.
Because of the Pac-12’s new format, the Ducks will almost certainly have to beat USC twice to win the Pac-12, and potentially play for a National Championship, meaning that November 3 showdown holds extra weight this year. If Oregon were to pull the upset in the Coliseum (and as things are looking right now, it would be an upset), it would almost assuredly set up a Pac-12 title game in Eugene, and make them the favorites to win their fourth straight Pac-12.
But if Oregon loses? It would likely mean that under a best case scenario, they’d have to go back to the Coliseum for a return engagement December 3 in the Pac-12 title game.
And if the Ducks were to lose back-to-back games to USC? It would mean no Pac-12 title, potentially no Rose Bowl (depending on if USC advanced to the BCS title game), and- in the eyes of many fans- a disappointing 2012 season.
On The Spot: Rahsaan Vaughn
The obvious choice here would be the quarterbacks, but we’ve already touched on them. And regardless of who wins the job, what’ll be most important is finding a receiver that’ll be able to spread the field and keep opponents from loading the box against the run. That’s where Vaughn comes in.
The simple truth is that for all the success that Oregon has had running the ball with the likes of LaMichael James and the returning Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas, they’ve also always had a big receiver to throw to on the outside. Two years ago it was Jeff Maehl, last year it was Lavasier Tunei, and this year, it seems like Vaughn is the guy. At 6’2, Vaughn has the size that Barner and Thomas simply don’t, and after making 14 catches last year, expect him to step up into a bigger role in 2012.
To put it in a different way, think about it like this: Thomas and Barner are the names folks know. Bennett and Mariota will be the ones to get heat if things go wrong. But for the offense to truly reach maximum capacity, Vaughn very well might be the difference.
Every year we try to pick apart Oregon (when Kelly took over as head coach from Mike Bellotti; when Thomas took over at quarterback for Masoli; when Oregon broke in almost an entirely new defense last year), and every season the Ducks go out and finish atop the Pac-12 standings. This year there’s little reason to think the Ducks won’t be right in the hunt again.
What it all comes down to is that November 3 trip to Los Angeles. Win there, and Oregon could be playing for its second BCS title in three years. Lose, and they’ll be playing catch-up the rest of the way.
Again though, that really just speaks to the brilliance of Chip Kelly. He has this program operating at a level that virtually no one else in the country can compete with.
Best Case Scenario: Pac-12 Championship & National Championship Game Appearance, 12-1
Worst Case Scenario: 10-2, second place in the Pac-12 North.
For all his articles, opinions and insights into college football, please follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.