Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 22 Oregon.
College football—any sport really, but especially college sports—does not have a long memory. Shiny recruiting classes fade and go their separate ways, once-great coaches are fired after a couple bad seasons, top-25 programs become afterthoughts with one postseason miss, shitty coaches are rehired after sitting out a couple years. It’s the way of the college football world and it ain’t going to change anytime soon, not even for Phil Knight and his precious Ducks.
Oregon has been down in the dumps for three years now and I’m not quite sure they’re done wallowing in the slop. Last season was an improvement over their 4-8 2016 season, sure. Head coach Willie Taggart came to town, iced out reporters for no good reason and hired defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, a man who knows college defense and how to get away with grabbing players by the throat and slapping them. With a quarterback in his second year and an improved defense, the Ducks finished 7-6, losing to Boise State in their bowl game.
But past some marginally better coaching, Oregon didn’t truly impress me one time last season. They beat the teams they should have and got fucking clobbered by anyone with a rank next to their name—their average scoring margin against top-25 teams was -27.5 points. I know quarterback Justin Herbert was up-and-down with his broken collarbone recovery, but damn.
On top of that, Taggart, realizing he didn’t want to be on the chopping block come 2019, jumped town to take the Florida State gig, giving way to the newest Oregon head coach, Mario Cristobal. Cristobal helped build FIU’s football program before being fired in 2012; within a month, he had a job on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama, where in addition to serving as tight ends coach and assistant head coach, he quickly became the star recruiter for the Crimson Tide. He finally joined the Ducks last January, initially signing on as a co-offensive coordinator.
Cristobal’s team has a long way to go before it can say it’s returned to the mountaintop, even just in the Pac-12. Their defense couldn’t cut them a break when they needed it, and the offense sputtered far too frequently. But all hope is not lost, not for a winning season at least.
The most inspiring thing about this Oregon team, if you’re a Ducks fan, is the stability under center. Junior Justin Herbert didn’t have a spectacular season in his second go-round—playing in only eight games, just like he did his freshman season, Herbert bumped up his completion percentage, but a nagging midseason collarbone injury seemed to derail any potential he had for really breaking out. Still, it’s undeniable that the guy is a talented college QB—he’s got the size and speed to take the ball outside the pocket and an arm that, when paired with flashes of veteran eyesight, can be lethal. He’s still waiting for a season in which he puts it all together and fulfills the Mariota-sized hole Ducks fans carved out for him; for their sake, they better hope that’s this year.
Oregon loved to run the ball in 2017—that happens when you have a guy like Royce Freeman. The Ducks averaged 48.3 rushing attempts per game to 23.9 passes, with Freeman averaging 122 rushing yards of his own every week. But Freeman is gone to chug along in the NFL and the No. 2 rusher, Kani Benoit, was also lost to graduation. This leaves the 2018 collection of Oregon running backs looking thin and inexperienced.
It’s not a terrible position group or anything—the Ducks have been cranking out new 1,000-yard rushers for a while now. The question to be answered is who will snatch the starting spot. Right now, it looks like Darrian Felix will be the guy, given he’s the only one that’s seen the field. Behind him, a pair of redshirt freshmen, CJ Verdell and Cyrus Habibi-Likio, are talented but have yet to run through a college defense.
With that being the case, Oregon will now likely reverse that run-pass ratio, or at least even it out, given their receiving corps is built to thrive in the Pac-12. Last season’s No. 1 receiver for the team is back in Dillon Mitchell, as are five of the top six receivers from 2017, half of which are upperclassmen. That’s not all, though. In addition to the whole dang squad coming back, they added Wake Forest transfer Tabari Hines, who is not some down-the-depth-chart hopeful, but the 2017 Demon Deacons’ leading receiver.
So, that’s the good news: Oregon’s offense should be good again and lean on the passing game. Here comes the medicine: The defense is a big ol’ question mark.
That shouldn’t register as a shocking claim. The unit is on its second defensive coordinator in Leavitt, and the guy that preceded him was Brady fucking Hoke. Leavitt has the team running a tight 3-4 defense, one that is much better than Hoke’s at frustrating the opponent and much worse at giving up the back-breaking Big Play. In theory, addressing your defense’s inability to just finish out a stop by not colossally fucking up should be easier to fix than retooling your defense to stop giving up first downs every two plays.
The Ducks will be healthy and experienced where they need it most, among the linebackers. Juniors La’Mar Winston and Troy Dye are both back, as is senior Justin Hollins. The trio ranked No. 2-4 on the team in tackles for loss last season and should be counted on once again to snuff out offensive plays before they materialize. They’ll be backed up by a secondary anchored by senior corner Ugo Amadi and a slew of underclassmen that, while young, got their sea legs last season as freshmen, meaning those big plays I was talking about earlier should peter out, if they’re paying attention. But the real fun on defense isn’t found a ballhawk or a sideline-to-sideline backer; it’s found up in the trenches.
Listen. I know this is Oregon, college of a million speedy offensive stars, the place that gave us Marcus Mariota, De’Anthony Thomas, LaMichael James, Jonathon Stewart, and LeGarette Blount. But this is also the school of Haloti Ngata and TJ Ward. So, yes, not only is this year’s Guy To Know on defense, but he’s an end in a 3-4 defense. That should tell you something about Jalen Jelks.
Jelks is a force in the backfield in a position where his main concern should be gap coverage and lateral pocket contain. Last season, he led the defense from this position with 7.0 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss, and he added seven defended passes, good for third on the team. The redshirt senior decided last December that he would forgo the NFL one more season to get his licks in with the Ducks. At the time, a scout told the Oregonian that Jelks would be a second-day pick; if he can come back with the linebackers intact behind him and make life difficult for Pac-12 offenses, I’d expect the 6-foot-5 Phoenix native will make the jump to the first day.
Oregon has little hope of making the playoff—I didn’t say no hope, but you’re only about one rung up from utter hopelessness. Again, this shouldn’t be upsetting, it’s a high bar and Oregon made plain last season that it’s just not quite in the position to have its sights set on a one-loss season or better. That said, the Pac-12 is feeling more open than it has in a couple years, and while I still don’t expect the Ducks to challenge for a conference title this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if they either stick around in the conversation well into November or at least seriously ruin the hopes of the teams above them.
Sept. 1:Bowling Green
Sept. 8: Portland State
Sept 15: San Jose State
Sept. 22: Stanford
Sept. 29: @ California
Oct. 13: Washington
Oct. 20: @ Washington State
Oct. 27: @ Arizona
Nov. 3: UCLA
Nov. 10: @ Utah
Nov. 17: Arizona State
Nov. 23: @ Oregon State