Last year, the Oregon Ducks started out on fire, whipping Houston, thrashing Michigan, beating up Fresno, and generally looking like one of the best teams in the country. Indeed, for a while it looked like nothing could stand in the way of the Ducks waltzing into the national title game. And then, Dennis Dixon got hurt. And then the losing started. A fantastic team turned into a crummy one, losing at Arizona, getting shut out at UCLA, and then losing at home to rival Oregon State, their first Civil War home loss in years.
Now, they have to pick up the pieces, without Dennis Dixon, without Jonathan Stewart, without some key contributors on the offensive line and defense, and without the luxury of having all of their big games at home. So can they pick up the pieces and make another run at greatness? Probably not, but they should still be a very good team.
The worst case scenario has arrived, with quarterback Nate Costa out for most of the season at best. And that's a very big problem for these guys. Oregon is at heart a team that likes to run the ball with the quarterback, and Justin Roper simply isn't that kind of guy. Having to go to a totally different gameplan is going to be a major issue for these guys, especially given how important the running quarterback has been to the offense of late.
That said, they do have a good running back in Jeremiah Johnson and a good backup in Andre Crenshaw, and they do have a decent set of receivers highlighted by Jaison Williams and Ed Dickson. The line should be good as usual despite needing to work in some new blood. So even without Costa, this will still be a good offense, but it won't be as dangerous as it would have been with him.
Whatever happens with the offense, the defense should still be very good. The secondary isn't just one of the best in the Pac-10, it's arguably the best in the country (at least according to Phil Steele). They've got a great set of backs in Patrick Chung, Walter Thurmond, and Jairus Byrd. Passing teams beware, because this is a flat-out nasty group of guys to try and throw against.
The run defense won't be in the same league as that great secondary, but it should still be decent. The linebacker corps had to deal with a bunch of injuries last year but ought to be healthier this time around. The defensive line has some rebuilding to do, but return a pair of very good ends in Nick Reed and Will Tukuafu. All in all, they should be decent but not great against the run.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
At its best, Oregon plays very good defense and runs a powerful offense that other teams aren't used to seeing. That's a great recipe for knocking off USC.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
A team that's breaking in a new quarterback, starting running back, and a few offensive linemen will find September to be a pretty challenging month. Honestly, other than Utah St, I don't see any slam-dunk wins here. Boise would be a really surprising loss, but Purdue could be dangerous, if Jake Locker is healthy Washington could win the opener at Autzen, and if Wazzu is a bit better than advertised and the Ducks are looking forward to USC, that could be a major trap game.
There could be some early growing pains, but this looks like a legitimately good football team. Road games against USC, ASU and Cal will keep the Ducks from being a contender for the league crown, but they should still finish near the top.
OREGON STATE BEAVERS
No matter what you think of the Oregon State Beavers this season, you'll have plenty of company. CNNSI.com picked them to go 6-3 in conference, coacheshotseat.com picked 8-1, CFN picked them 5-4 (so did the forum consensus), and Athlon picked them 1-8. It's almost unheard of for there to be such a high level of variation, and yet that's exactly what we're seeing.
And, oddly enough, it actually makes sense. This year the Beavers have questions virtually everywhere, and could easily crash and burn. But they also have a lot of older players, a potentially great receiver in Sammie Stroughter, and quarterback play that could very well take a big leap forward from the issues of last year. They have most of their winnable games on the road, which means that if they're not very good things could be extremely difficult. But they also play a bunch of good teams at home, which means that if they're better than expected they could have a huge season. Add it all up, and they easily win this year's "who the hell knows" award; to be honest, they probably even win this decade's.
Since this is Oregon State, after all, the logical place to begin is the running game. Last year this was a team that ran the ball a lot more often than they passed, and found most of their success on the ground as well. So it has to be considered a problem that their leading rusher, Yvenson Bernard, is gone. However, four starters return on the offensive line, which should be a very big boost, and they've generally been good at finding effective backs to plug in the lineup. Overall, they have the potential to be even better than last year, but only if someone steps up and becomes a good feature back; otherwise, this will take an appreciable step back.
The passing game is an area which could be a lot better, or it could remain a problem for the Beavers. Last year, both of their quarterbacks, Canfield and Moevao, threw picks far too often; each one had a completion to pick ratio of barely above 10, which is completely unacceptable. One of them ought to improve, but there's certainly no guarantee, and if they both continue to struggle, a season-long quarterback derby will only serve to make things worse. On the other hand, they get a great receiver in Stroughter back, which should certainly help. Unless, of course, he's not over the issues that sidelined him last year, or he's simply not the same great receiver he once was after the long period without football. Overall, the passing game should improve, but it's impossible to say if it'll be by a little (in which case it'll still be poor), or by a lot (in which case it could be very good).
Perhaps the single biggest question mark on this team is the defense. The bad news they only return three starters, which means they need to fill in a lot of holes. But the good news is that they have a bunch of juniors and seniors with some gametime experience. Then again, that means that they've got a bunch of career backups who weren't good enough to start as the guys they'll be relying on. Just as with the offense, they could be good, bad, or just about anywhere in between.
The secondary looks like a relative strength, with both corners and a starting safety returning. However, the front seven is a major question mark, with a bunch of guys who've had some experience, but none who've stood out. In other words, the run defense definitely looks suspect until proven otherwise.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
The obvious ones are home games against USC, ASU, Cal and Oregon. Of them, ASU looks a bit more promising than the others, as it'll be homecoming, and the Sun Devils will have just played a tough game against Oregon while the Beavers will be off the bye. As always, though, the Civil War is brutal for the visitors, so it's easy to see an Oregon St win there too.
And though it seems like a reach right now, but I wonder about that week two trip to Happy Valley. Yes, it's a cross-country trip, and yes, the Beavers have a suspect run defense against a running team and interception-prone quarterbacks in a massively hostile environment, but I'm starting to wonder if the Lions might not be as good as people think. If that's the case, the Beavers will have a shot at the shocker.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
There are a boatload of road games that could give this team fits, but one game I have a bit of a weird feeling about is home against Washington St. It comes right after two big games against USC and Utah, and it's one of those series that have just been weird from time to time.
I just don't know about this team. They could make a huge run, and conceivably win a tiebreaker for the league title at something like 7-2. Or they could collapse and finish last. Or they could do just about anything in between. A nasty pair of non-conference road games means that they'll have to be above .500 in the league to earn a postseason berth, but I think that's doable. There's plenty of room for error on both ends, but right now I think that they'll probably end up 6-6, maybe 7-5.
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