Of all of the teams in the Pac-10, the Oregon Ducks seem like the trendy pick to make some noise, and it's easy to see why. This team was on fire at the end of last year, winning back to back games against Stanford and Arizona, then thrashing rival Oregon St in Corvallis and then grabbing a highlight bowl win against Oklahoma St. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli came on strong towards the end of the year, and LaGarrette Blount is a very good running back, so at the highlight position the Ducks look loaded. Moreover, new coach Chip Kelly is extremely well-regarded as an offensive mastermind, so it's easy to see why they're expected to roll up another boatload of points on the way to a big season.
However, this team has a lot of issues to overcome. They have a new offensive line, a largely new defense, little depth at quarterback, a coaching transition, and extremely high expectations to have to deal with. It's possible they solve all their issues and have a big year, but it's also possible that things go very wrong and they really struggle.
The good news is Masoli. He struggled for most of the year, but in the last two regular season games plus the bowl game he took a major step forward, throwing for over 250 yards and running for over 50 in each, with only one interception. If this progress is real, as opposed to a timely hot streak, he should do well this year. However, he is still a running quarterback, and especially at this program, with their history of quarterback injuries, that's a dangerous situation, even moreso considering that his backup is Nate Costa, who missed most of the past two seasons with a pair of ACL injuries. If Masoli stays healthy, and he really is the guy who did so well at the end of 2008 (as opposed to the mediocre performer for most of the year), this position will be good, but if not, it could be a problem.
Making things much worse is the offensive line. Just one player (Ce Kaiser), has started more than five games in his career, which means that there's a whole lot of work to do in order to get this line to where it needs to be. The Ducks put up a bunch of points with an offensive line much better than this one; it remains to be seen whether they can do anything nearly as good with this group.
The Ducks also lost their starting running back and two of their three leading receivers. However, the guys who are stepping in look pretty good, so there may be a small step back at those positions but it shouldn't be much of one. Ultimately, if Masoli is healthy and plays well for the whole year, and if they figure out something on the line this offense could be very good, but if not they could revert to the level they were at in 2003, 2004 and 2006, where they were under 30 points per game, a huge step back from last year, where they averaged just shy of 42.
The story with the Duck defense in many ways resembles the offense. There are a few very good players (Will Tukuafu, Walter Thurmond, TJ Ward), and a few fairly experienced ones (all three linebackers), and everything else is a big question mark. How those questions get answered will determine whether or not this becomes a good defense.
Linebacker looks like the best unit on the defense; they may not have any stars, but all three players are good and all have contributed in the past. It won't be a great unit, but it should definitely be solid. Secondary is a bit of a concern, with one new corner and a new free safety, especially given how good the players they had there were last year. It is the defensive line, however, that is the biggest concern. Defensive end Will Tukuafu should be excellent as usual, but the other three positions are major question marks, especially since they have basically zero experience at each. Overall, the defense should be fairly decent, but will probably take a minor step back from where they were at last year, given how much they've lost.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
It's hard to see this team scoring a big upset on the road, but at home with the Autzen crowd they can be tough to beat. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them split tough home games against Cal and USC.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
The game that really catches my eye is a road game against a bitter rival, who should be much improved, and hungry to finally turn around a five-year losing streak against the Ducks. Yes, I'm talking about Washington. UCLA, Stanford and Arizona will also be dangerous road trips, given that each gave them a game at Autzen last year and two of the three beat them in 2007.
I can see why this team has attracted a lot of hype, but I'm just not buying it. There are too many personnel holes, too many expectations to shoulder, and too many losable games on the schedule to think that this ought to be an elite team. They should still make a bowl, but I expect that they won't hit six wins until very late in the year. 6-6 or 7-5 is my projection.
OREGON STATE BEAVERS
After last year's "who the hell knows what will happen with this team", it's nice to have a bit more certainty about where they ought to be. Of course, they still have some issues; once again, they're replacing huge chunks of their defense, and they'll definitely miss their two best receivers, but they have a lot of talent returning, they're very well coached, and they ought to be in the top half of the league.
Last year, Oregon State featured a balanced offensive attack that found a lot of success both on the ground and through the air. This year, I expect more of the same. They return two good quarterbacks with a lot of experience in Canfield and Moevao, though Moevao's health concerns make depth a definite question mark. Whichever one ends up winning the job, they should be well set at the position. At running back, Quizz Rodgers will be excellent again (and will probably again spend some time catching balls as well), with McCants a solid backup.
The receivers and offensive line lose a few good players, but still have plenty returning. James Rodgers is a very good receiver, Darrell Catchings was good as a freshman (though didn't do much last year), and while no one else is proven, they ought to be able to find at least one more solid contributor. The offensive line is much the same. They have three players with substantial starting experience, and will need to fill in the gaps in the other two spots. The line could take a small step back from last year, but not likely a substantial one. Overall, they lose a few too many good players to think that the offense should significantly improve, but it should be about as good as last year, maybe a bit better.
The defense, however, should struggle a bit. Of course, it seems like every year they lose a boatload of starters and find a way, but this may be the year where it doesn't work quite as well.
The major issue they face is the secondary. Zero of the four starters have much experience, which is a very big problem in the secondary. They should improve as the year goes on, but at least early in the year they could get burned a lot. It is without a doubt the biggest issue on the team, and until and unless it gets solved it will be a major weakness.
The rest of the defense ought to be OK. Defensive tackle Stephen Paea will be good, and linebacker Keaton Kristick was 2nd team Pac-10 last year and should again be an important contributor. While many of the other players in the front seven lack much starting experience, most have some playing experience, and as mentioned before, plugging new guys into the defense has consistently been a strength of this team. Overall, the defense will be worse than last year; the run defense should be fine, but the pass defense will have some serious issues, and that's not good news in the Pac-10.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
Nothing jumps out at me as being obvious. Winning at USC or Cal is very unlikely, given the issues the Beavers have at secondary. One game which might be possible, though, is rival Oregon. For whatever reason, the "home team dominates" rule has fallen by the wayside, and while it would be a very difficult win, it's certainly possible.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
This team always, ALWAYS struggles in early season road games. That means that both UNLV and Arizona St are dangerous landmines. With a severely rebuilding secondary, Cincy and Arizona could potentially come in and simply out-throw them, though I'd be fairly surprised to see upsets there.
This should be a pretty good, but not very good, team. They should cruise through most of their home games plus the trip to Wazzu (should win six or seven out of those seven), they should lose at USC and Cal, they have a (not very good) shot at Oregon, and games at UNLV and ASU are more like tossups. Add it up and you're probably looking at 8-4 or 7-5.
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