Oregon Ducks: Michael Clay

Chaos could happen. Alabama could lose to Auburn. Florida State could go down in the ACC title game. Ohio State could lose to Michigan. Baylor could falter at Oklahoma State.

[+] EnlargeTyler Gaffney
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezTailback Tyler Gaffney's big day -- 45 carries for 157 yards -- helped Stanford crush Oregon's hopes of playing in the national title game.
Then the Pac-12, in the form of either Stanford or Oregon, could slip into the final -- final! -- BCS national title game. Honestly, it wouldn't even require all of that. Because of the top-to-bottom quality of the conference this year, a one-loss Pac-12 team might end up first among equals in the BCS standings. Unbeaten Alabama and a bunch of one-loss teams? Stanford probably would come first among those with a single blemish, though then the nation would commence a bitter and grotesque "quality loss" debate.

So it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the Pac-12 wiggles its way back into one of the top two spots.

But our premise here is that doesn't happen, that things don't go all 2007 again. Our premise here is the Pac-12 again is shut out of the national title game.

A CliffsNotes version of what follows: Drat. But justifiable.

The Pac-12's last national championship was USC in 2004, which means the drought will be a full decade when we head into the first season of the four-team College Football Playoff in 2014.

The conference did play a supporting role in two of the best BCS title games: USC falling to Texas after the 2005 season in one of the greatest college football games in history, and Oregon being nipped by Auburn by a last-second field goal after the 2010 season.

Still, in the preseason this felt like the year of a breakthrough. This felt like the year in which the Pac-12's two top dogs, Stanford and Oregon, had the pieces in place to win a title and dethrone the SEC after seven consecutive championships. They both had experience at quarterback. Both looked strong on the offensive line. Both had A-list talent on defense.

(And both had united to defeat evil!)

Sure, both had questions. But all teams do. Stanford and Oregon had begun to look like programs that answer questions on an annual basis. You know: Like Alabama, which was supposed to be questionable on defense and, well, isn't.

Yet after both the Cardinal and Ducks went down, those questions returned. Stanford's middling passing attack was a major reason the Cardinal lost at Utah. And one suspects that if linebackers Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay were on hand, Oregon wouldn't have allowed Stanford to convert all seven of its third-and-2 or shorter plays with Tyler Gaffney runs last Thursday.

Might have things been different for either team if, say, Stanford had a healthy Henry Anderson for Utah, or if Oregon QB Marcus Mariota was 100 percent last Thursday? Maybe. But that's speculation trying to subvert the bottom line reflected on the scoreboard.

Judging who should play for the national title, which is always subjective in our present system and will continue to be with the four-team playoff, ultimately involves the totality of the season, so how things look on Nov. 11 is pretty meaningless. But how things look to me today is that Alabama and Florida State should play for the national title and that they both look better than either Stanford or Oregon.

Maybe that changes, because a week ago I was ranking Oregon No. 1. It probably would change if Alabama lost to Auburn, or if Florida State went down in the ACC title game. Stranger things have happened.

But my chief reaction after the Stanford-Oregon game was: Neither of these teams would beat Alabama. My feeling wasn't as strong for Florida State, but the Seminoles have yet to reveal any weaknesses so far this season.

I can feel the rage already exploding out there from Pac-12 fans. Such an assertion surely will make Pac-12 fans angry, but I suspect that 75 percent of those currently enraged actually, perhaps not even that deep down, agree with me. They just don't want to hear it or read it.

But the role of the Pac-12 blog is not to advocate for the conference. It distributes tweaks to other regions when necessary or even just for the amusement of doing so. But there's also a credibility issue. If we're telling folks Oregon/Stanford has the best chance of any team in the nation to beat Alabama and end the SEC's run, it should be a honest assessment, not a stroking of the regional ego or some public-relations move.

So today's assessment, impermanent as it may prove to be, is this: The Pac-12 will not play for the national title this season because it doesn't deserve to.

Again: Drat. But justifiable.
Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is pleased. It has just been noted to him that his Ducks showcased brilliant coverage in the secondary during their 45-24 win at Washington. It's the same observation that had been made by Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian, but you get the feeling that Aliotti is not weary of hearing about it.

He admits he even allowed himself some extra time to savor the blanketing of white on black during a postgame film session with his players.

"I said, 'Look at this! There's nobody open for [Washington QB Keith] Price to throw the ball to!'" Aliotti said.

[+] EnlargeNick Aliotti
Steve Conner/Icon SMINick Aliotti spent 24 years on the Oregon coaching staff, including 17 as defensive coordinator.
Just like any other coach, Aliotti will tell you the only statistic that matters is about three letters, not numbers: W-I-N. That said, he takes a lot of pride in his defense and the players he sends onto the field. While Aliotti projects an amusing, avuncular personality, just below the surface is an intense competitor. That pride and competitiveness led to his postgame tirade two-plus weeks ago after Washington State scored two late touchdowns against his reserve players in a 62-38 Ducks win.

"That's total [bleep] that he threw the ball at the end of the game like he did," Aliotti said to reporters. "And you can print that and you can send it to [Cougars coach Mike Leach], and he can comment too. I think it's low class, and it's [bleep] to throw the ball when the game is completely over against our kids that are basically our scout team."

It might have been the most controversial moment of his 38-year career, and it cost him $5,000 after he was fined and reprimanded by the Pac-12. Aliotti apologized to Leach and called himself "embarrassed" in a release from the school two days later.

"It was probably an old guy who didn't understand the Internet, how the media can get going so fast," Aliotti said. "Just making an honest, simple statement about what I thought at the time. Obviously, I made a huge mistake by overstepping my bounds. I shouldn't have said those things. These days, you've got to be politically correct. Not one of my strong suits."

While, no, those comments weren't terribly smart coming from a veteran coach, it's not difficult to ascertain the source of Aliotti's frustration. While there typically have been hat tips to his defense during Oregon's rise to elite national power, most of the nation sees Oregon as being all about offense. That high-tempo, flashy offense is the big story when it rolls up eye-popping numbers, and it's the big story when it gets slowed down.

Recall the gloating from SEC fans about Auburn, with a middling SEC defense, shutting down the Ducks in their 22-19 victory in the 2010 national title game? Why was it not almost as notable that Oregon held Auburn to 18 fewer points than the Tigers averaged against SEC defenses?

Or when Stanford ruined Oregon's national title hopes last fall in a 17-14 overtime win, it was all about the Cardinal shutting down the Ducks with nary a mention of Aliotti's defense holding Stanford to 10 points below its season scoring average.

There's, of course, an obvious answer: The winning team sets the postgame agenda and analysis. Amid all the Ducks winning since 2009 -- 54-7 record -- the offense almost always leads.

That's apparently the big story again as No. 3 Oregon visits No. 5 Stanford on Thursday: Will the Stanford defense be able to thwart QB Marcus Mariota, the nation's leading Heisman Trophy candidate, and the Ducks again?

Yet here's a bet that the game won't turn on that. Here's a bet that Stanford's defense doesn't even approach its success from last year and that the bigger issue will be whether Stanford's struggling offense can score enough to keep it close.

Because, by the way, it's Oregon that enters the game with the Pac-12's best defense, not Stanford.

Oregon ranks first in the Pac-12 and seventh in the nation in both scoring defense (16.9 PPG) and yards per play (4.41). It leads the Pac-12 and ranks sixth in the nation in both pass efficiency defense and turnovers forced (23).

And this is happening after losing three All-Pac-12 linebackers, Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay.

Stanford coach David Shaw has noticed.

"They are missing three dynamic football players," Shaw said. "The crazy part is, without those outstanding players, the defense as a whole looks better. They are fast. They are big."

Shaw is one of more than a few Pac-12 coaches who frequently gush about Aliotti's defense, about how he maximizes his players' talents and puts them in position to be successful and how his perplexing, flexible scheme is both sound and sometimes baffling.

"It's a different scheme than most 3-4 teams," Shaw said. "It takes some getting used to, to prepare for it."

The enduring ideas about Oregon's defense, even when it is given credit, are quasi-dismissive compliments: scrappy, aggressive, quick, blitz-heavy. Those words are no longer accurate. The Ducks have comparable future NFL talent with many of the nation's top defenses, starting a secondary chock-full of future NFL starters.

Things have changed in part because winning has bolstered recruiting. The Ducks are no longer undersized. They are fast and big -- see eight defensive linemen in the regular rotation who are 6-foot-4 or taller, including three over 6-6. The secondary has become -- and will continue to be -- an NFL pipeline. And at linebacker, things are going fairly well for Alonso these days.

The improved talent has meshed with a good scheme, but Aliotti and his staff also are good at teaching and making sure each player understands what his assignments are. And trusts them.

"Our players believing in what they are doing," first-year Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "I think Nick and the defensive staff have done a great job of taking advantage of our overall strengths and maybe hiding our potential weaknesses a little bit. I think, collectively, it's a ton of guys playing hard."

Aliotti tweaks things every year. This season, the Ducks are blitzing less, due in large part to the myriad mobile quarterbacks in the Pac-12, a group that includes Stanford's Kevin Hogan, though their respectable 2.88 sacks per game suggest they are still getting pressure on the opposing quarterback.

We won't know if this turns out to be Aliotti's best unit until season's end, but it's certainly good enough to merit a spot on the marquee next to the Ducks' ludicrous speed offense.

And, yes, Aliotti wouldn't mind if he and his players received some credit.

"It's about winning games, but we do all take pride in our job," he said.

What are Oregon's weaknesses?

October, 23, 2013
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Oregon is terrible on fourth down. The Ducks have converted on just seven of 18 fourth-down plays this year. Their 38.9 conversion rate ranks 10th in the Pac-12, behind struggling teams like Colorado and California.

We point that out because that's about the only thing Oregon isn't doing well right now.

[+] EnlargeMark Helfrich
Steve Conner/Icon SMIOregon appears to have no glaring weaknesses, yet first-year coach Mark Helfrich says the Ducks can get better in every phase.
The Pac-12 keeps track of 33 statistical categories, covering offense, defense, special teams, penalties, turnovers, etc. The Ducks rank first in the conference in 11 categories, including the two most important: scoring offense and scoring defense. They rank in the top three in 18 categories. Most of the categories they are not doing well in -- time of possession, onside kicks, opponent penalties -- evoke a "neh."

Others are deceptive. Oregon ranks sixth in total defense but is No. 1 in the far more revealing stat of average yards surrendered per play, where they rank eighth in the nation at 4.46 yards. The Ducks are 10th in red-zone offense, but their touchdown percentage in the red zone -- 72.1 percent -- ranks second.

This seems like a team with few, if any, holes. So what are the Ducks' weaknesses?

"I haven't seen any," said California coach Sonny Dyke, whose Bears lost 55-16 at Oregon on Sept. 28. "They are incredibly fast. I think the difference this year is they are throwing the ball so much better. Their receivers are faster, bigger, stronger, more physical, making more plays than in the past."

In the preseason, there were three questions about Oregon: 1. How would Mark Helfrich do stepping in for Chip Kelly? 2. What would be the pecking order at running back and how would De'Anthony Thomas be used? 3. How would the Ducks replace the dynamic linebacking troika of Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay?

Check, check and check.

The 7-0 record, No. 2 ranking in the national polls -- No. 3 in the BCS standings -- and 40-point average margin of victory suggest that Helfrich is doing fairly well. He might be a softer touch than Kelly -- though he's not afraid to tweak a reporter or two -- but he's not taking any mercy on the field.

Running back? The bottom line is the Ducks are No. 2 in the nation in rushing with 332.4 yards per game, 17 yards better than last year's average, and they've done that with DAT missing the last four games with an injury. Backups Byron Marshall and true freshman Thomas Tyner are both averaging 6.7 yards per carry and have combined for 16 touchdowns. Marshall, a sophomore, ranks 19th in the nation with 106.6 yards rushing per game.

Linebacker? Tony Washington, who replaced Jordan, has nine tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Jordan had 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks in 2012. Derrick Malone leads the Ducks in tackles with 59. And, really, the bottom line is the defensive numbers, including a run defense that ranks 22nd in the nation.

"I think [the Ducks defense is] certainly the best they've been," Dykes said. "The secondary is really, really good. They are good at linebacker and they are pretty active up front."

Of course, Dykes is a first-year Pac-12 coach who hasn't been dealing with Oregon during its rise to consistent top-five team, though he was Arizona's offensive coordinator from 2007 to 2009. If we're going to ask whether this version of Oregon might be the best yet, we need to ask someone who's seen them all.

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, whose Huskies have lost 10 in a row to Oregon, including five defeats during his tenure, let out a big breath when asked if this was the Ducks' best team.

"Hooof," he said. "We've played some pretty good ones. I think the balance they have on offense is probably the best that they've been."

The general consensus is Marcus Mariota is the Ducks' best quarterback during its recent run. He might, in fact, as former Ducks All-American QB Joey Harrington recently volunteered, be the best in program history. Mariota brings a dangerous downfield passing game to a longstanding dominance running the ball. As for the defense, it's very good, though it remains to be seen whether it's as good as the 2010 unit or even the talented crew of 2012 that battled numerous injuries.

Still, every coach who has played the Ducks probably feels there's something he wishes he might have attacked more or tried to exploit.

"I think there is a lot of places," Washington State coach Mike Leach said. "There's always a lot of places."

Washington State lost 62-38 at Oregon last weekend, with Leach's Cougars adding two late touchdowns to make the gap less dramatic. Quarterback Connor Halliday set a number of Pac-12 and NCAA passing records in the game -- he completed 58 of 89 passes for 557 yards -- but also threw four interceptions, one of which Terrance Mitchell returned 51 yards for a touchdown.

"Oregon is really fast," Leach said, echoing a common theme. "As you play Oregon, everything they do -- they can reel plays in quicker. They react to everything quicker. Very explosive... Oregon hits you in the mouth when you throw one up."

Of course, speculating on Oregon's seeming lack of weaknesses and its standing among other accomplished Ducks teams is a mostly a meaningless academic exercise when five regular season games remain ahead, including a visit Saturday from No. 12 UCLA. In fact, the next five Pac-12 games (combined opponent record of 26-7) are far tougher than the first four (combined record of 12-16).

Helfrich isn't really biting, either. When asked about areas of concern, he pointed back to the preseason questions and implied the jury is still out at linebacker.

Yet his overriding conclusion sounded very Chip Kelly-ish, while also offering plenty of room to read between the lines.

"I think everything," he said. "In every phase we can get better, starting with me, everything we do."

That's either coachspeak -- we need to get better every day -- or carries a more ominous implication: No weaknesses? Best Oregon team? You haven't seen anything yet.

Planning for success: Oregon Ducks

September, 12, 2013
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Two games into the 2013 season, the Oregon Ducks have been as advertised. Disposing of lesser opponents with relative ease and nabbing their 16th consecutive road win, the No. 2 Ducks return home to face 2-0 Tennessee on Saturday.

In those two games, the Ducks have already produced five 100-yard rushing performances -- two from running back De'Anthony Thomas, two from quarterback Marcus Mariota and one from running back Byron Marshall. They strike hard and they strike fast, with 15 of their 17 touchdowns coming off drives that have lasted less than two minutes.

But it wasn’t necessarily the offense that drew some preseason concerns -- it was the linebacking corps, which had to replace three key players in Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso and Dion Jordan. So far, coach Mark Helfrich said he’s been very pleased, singling out the play of Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick.

“I think at the linebacker position, I think we have a lot of really good players,” Helfrich said. “They just need some experience and some reps in there and some live action and tackling in space. We’re going to have a different set of challenges this week from skill people than we have the last two games. But [Malone has] done a good job. He and Hardrick have done a good job playing older than they are, getting those guys lined up. ... I like where we’re headed as a group at that position.”

Tennessee and new head coach Butch Jones haven’t faced much adversity yet in 2013. With a 45-0 win over Austin Peay in the opener, followed by a 52-20 win over Western Kentucky, the Vols have gotten good production out of running back Rajion Neal, who is averaging 6.9 yards per carry with four rushing touchdowns.

But the Ducks' defense continues to be extremely opportunistic. Since the start of the 2012 season, Oregon boasts 40 takeaways -- tops in the country. It already has six in 2013, with three fumble recoveries and three interceptions.

Last week also saw the collegiate debut of touted running back Thomas Tyner, who rushed for 51 yards on four carries with two touchdowns. While he’s nowhere near ready to challenge Thomas -- who has 29 carries through two games and appears to be settled as the No. 1 back -- Helfrich said they’ll continue to give Tyner opportunities to mature.

“He was OK. I thought he had a natural feel for a couple of things. ... So far, so good,” Helfrich said. “He’s another guy that just needs to play. He needs to get hit. He needs to do some good things. He needs to make some mistakes. Although we’d like to have those in practice rather than in games. But we’re excited about his future, for sure.”

Five things to watch for Oregon

August, 30, 2013
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Five storylines to keep an eye on for Oregon’s game against Nicholls State.
  1. Coaching style: Few are expecting much resistance from the Colonels, a team that was in the state of Oregon last December and was blasted 77-3 by the Beavers. So if you are wondering how similar or different Mark Helfrich will be compared to Chip Kelly, this probably isn’t a good measuring-stick game. We know what Chip Kelly would do on fourth-and-3 from his own 35 – and it didn’t matter if it was Southern Middle Tennessee Tech School of Interior Design or Stanford. What kind of game manager will Helfrich be?
  2. LB spotlight: With the departures of Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso and Dion Jordan, the spotlight is on the linebackers to try to match the production of its predecessors. It’s not a young or inexperienced group by any means – just the opposite. Boseko Lokombo, Derrick Malone, Rodney Hardrick and Tony Washington have all been in the system and have experience and quality reps. While the linebackers might be a question mark on paper, chances are the group flourishes with more reps as a unit.
  3. Playing time? How long will we see the starters? In the nonconference schedule last season, the starters pretty much only played in the first half. Some argued that with more playing time and padded stats, quarterback Marcus Mariota could have been in Heisman contention. Mariota is no longer an unknown as he was before last season and coming off a quarterback competition with Bryan Bennett. But he’ll still probably play the first half, considering what the score will be 30 minutes into the game.
  4. What about DAT? Helfrich was noncommittal earlier this week when talking about the number of carries for De’Anthony Thomas, who might take on a bigger role in the rushing game this year with the departure of Kenjon Barner. However, he also said that Byron Marshall had a strong camp – and it’s more likely that he assumes Barner’s old role, which frees up Thomas to do what he does best. Don’t think of Thomas’ production in terms of carries -- think in terms of touches. Rushes, receptions, kick and/or punt returns. How many touches he gets is more vital than how many carries.
  5. Fresh faces: Right now, there are five true freshmen listed on the depth chart for this week’s game, and only one is a “starter.” Kicker Matt Wogan is listed to handle kickoffs and he has an “or” between his name and Alejandro Maldonado’s. But if the Ducks are up big early – which is expected – don’t be surprised to see running back Thomas Tyner get some carries and others such as right tackle Cameron Hunt or linebacker Tyrell Robinson could make appearances.

Lokombo leads Oregon LBs

August, 28, 2013
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Just because a position is questionable in the preseason doesn't mean it's not answerable.

Questionable: Oregon is replacing three A-list linebackers. Dion Jordan was first-team All-Pac-12 and the third overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay were both second-team All-Pac-12, with Alonso getting picked in the second round of the draft. Clay was cut this week by the Miami Dolphins.

The lone returning starter is Boseko Lokombo, who only ranked 10th on the team in tackles last year.

Answerable: Lokombo, a fantastic all-around athlete, has been a dominant playmaker during preseason practices, and the Ducks have five other linebackers with significant playing experience.

With the first official depth chart out, Tony Washington, as expected, will step in for Jordan at the position listed as defensive end opposite Taylor Hart, though everyone and their grandmother knows the Ducks defense is a base 3-4 and Washington will be an outside linebacker opposite Lokombo.

Juniors Rodney Hardrick and Derrick Malone, who were injured during spring practices, are the starters inside.

The three new guys are hardly green. Washington started twice for Jordan last year and finished with 20 tackles. Malone had one start and finished with 41 tackles, which ranked eighth on the team. Hardick had 11 tackles.

Depth? Backup Tyson Coleman, who can play inside and outside, had 34 tackles last year, and Rahim Cassell had 19. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if the Ducks played nine linebackers against woeful Nicholls State on Saturday.

Still, Lokombo is the one to watch. The 6-foot-3, 232-pound senior could play his way into the early rounds of the NFL draft next spring if his production equals his potential this fall.

"He's a guy who is almost limitless from a potential standpoint," Oregon's first-year coach Mark Helfrich said. "We expect huge things from him. But he needs to be more consistent."

Lokombo had 39 tackles last year, with 4.5 tackles for a loss, two sacks and two interceptions. Look for the sack numbers, in particular, to go up. Lokombo is powerful -- 500 pound squat -- and fast, though he's more quick than a 40-yard dash guy. He started all 13 games last year and the native of Congo has seen action in 40 since arriving at Oregon from Abbotsford, British Columbia four years ago.

He doesn't seem too worried about the new starters surrounding him.

"Some of them already played a lot last year," he said. "They are ready to take on their roles. It's next man up and that's that."

It also helps that Oregon's defensive line and secondary are both among the best units in the Pac-12, with the secondary widely considered as good as any in the nation.

The Ducks 2012 defense was very good. This one might still be able to match it, even with a question at linebacker.

Said Helfrich, "We have a lot of unproven guys, but a bunch of guys who have played to this point in camp really hard and really well."

Most to prove in the Pac-12

August, 28, 2013
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Across the ESPN blogosphere on Wednesday, we’re looking at players/coaches/position groups with something to prove in each conference. In the Pac-12, the answers should be fairly obvious. Here are 10 from the league in no particular order.

1. Lane Kiffin: OK, maybe this one is in particular order. USC’s head coach is on the hottest seat in America after a disastrous 2012. There were embarrassments for the program on and off the field. That has led to plenty of speculation about what he needs to do to keep his job. Win 10 games? Nine? Win nine and beat UCLA or Notre Dame? Or both? This is a storyline that will no doubt carry deep into the season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
James Snook/US PresswireLane Kiffin isn't the only Pac-12 coach feeling growing pressure for a successful season.
2. Steve Sarkisian: His seat isn’t as hot as Kiffin’s. But the heat index has certainly risen in the wake of another seven-win season. The Huskies have a lot of returning talent – including a quarterback with potential, a healthy offensive line, an outstanding running back and receivers (including TE), and a fairly veteran defensive core. The pieces are in place for Washington to, at the very least, get over the seven-win hump. Seven wins or fewer will be met with harsh criticism and questions about whether Sarkisian is the right guy for the job.

3. Oregon’s linebackers: This appears to be the only question mark for the Ducks, at least on paper, because they have a solid front and an outstanding secondary. Losing Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso and Dion Jordan is a big hit in terms of production, talent and leadership. Boseko Lokombo is a veteran presence, and Tony Washington, Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick have all been in the system for a few years. If they can match the production of their predecessors, the Ducks should be fine defensively.

4. Stanford’s wide receivers: Ty Montgomery headlines this list. At the end of 2011, he showed explosive playmaking ability and his future looked sparkling. But injuries slowed him in 2012. With the Cardinal doing some overhauling after losing their top two tight ends, the receiver spot will likely take on more emphasis in 2013. Players such as Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector and Kelsey Young will need to be productive as well.

5. Paul Richardson: The Colorado receiver missed all of last season with a knee injury and had to sit and watch his team fall apart around him. The Buffaloes went 1-11 and their coach was fired. A new coach, a new offense and a new enthusiasm in Boulder is motivating Richardson to make up for lost time. He is Colorado’s most explosive player and knows he has the potential, and responsibility, to carry the offense. Now he just has to go out and prove he can do it.

6. Oregon State’s receivers: We know what we’re getting with Brandin Cooks. He proved last season that he's an outstanding player. How much of that, however, was a product of the guy across the field, Markus Wheaton? With Wheaton gone, either Richard Mullaney or Obum Gwacham will have to step up as a complementary threat to Cooks -- along with Kevin Cummings in the slot.

7. QBs, old and new: Not all the quarterback competitions are completed. But whoever wins the job at Arizona and USC will likely be looking over his shoulder for the bulk of the season. Connor Wood is back in the starting role for Colorado, true freshman Jared Goff gets the start for Cal, and Sean Mannion finally won Oregon State's job after a grueling seven-month competition with Cody Vaz. Nothing is set in stone at Washington State, so Connor Halliday will need consistent play to hold the job (we’re assuming, for now, that it’s Halliday). Expect these players to be under the microscope all season.

8. UCLA’s running backs: There are big shoes to fill with the departure of running back Johnathan Franklin, the school’s all-time leading rusher and a Doak Walker finalist last year. Jim Mora has said that he’ll likely use five backs throughout the season. Jordon James is the front-runner of the committee and has the best opportunity to distance himself. But expect Paul Perkins, Malcolm Jones, Steven Manfro and Damien Thigpen (health pending) to all fight for time and carries.

9. Utah’s secondary: It’s not necessarily young. Just inexperienced. And in a pass-happy league, that could spell trouble. Free safety Eric Rowe has the most playing time among the group. Cornerback Davion Orphey is a juco transfer and opposite him is Keith McGill, a former safety and juco transfer who appeared in five games in 2011 but suffered a season-ending injury and then missed all of 2012. There is talent there. It’s just mostly untested.

10. Arizona State: Yep, the whole team. This is what you wanted, ASU fans … for the sleeping giant to be awoken. The alarm clock just went off. Now it’s time to prove all the hype is worth it. A challenging schedule early -- including Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks -- will be a good measuring stick. Though the USC game is really the one that has South title implications. Still, the other three will go a long way toward determining how ASU is viewed nationally. Going 1-3 and beating USC wouldn’t be disastrous. Going 0-4 will draw the requisite “same old ASU” criticisms.

 
Oregon UniformsUSA TODAY SportsQuarterback Marcus Mariota, wide receiver Keanon Lowe and running back De'Anthony Thomas are all possibilities to leave Oregon early for the NFL.

The Oregon Ducks will enter the 2013 season having lost a possible top-five pick to the NFL draft, the No. 2 rusher in the Ducks' history and two all-league linebackers. The loss of Dion Jordan, Kenjon Barner, Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay will hurt, but potential losses after the 2013 season could sting a lot more.

The 2013 recruiting class was solid, but not spectacular. Next year, the potential of losing De'Anthony Thomas, Marcus Mariota, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Terrance Mitchell, Hroniss Grasu and Colt Lyerla early to the NFL would be a huge blow to the Ducks as they try and continue their run of BCS appearances. The Ducks will definitely lose three impact players on the defensive line, two safeties, a linebacker and star wide receiver Josh Huff to graduation.

With heavy losses ahead, the Ducks must land a strong recruiting class in 2014. There are negatives to having a roster loaded with NFL talent, and the Ducks are about to learn that the hard way.

Pac-12 top 25 for 2012: No. 1

February, 25, 2013
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Our countdown of the top 25 players in the 2012 season continues.

You can see our preseason top 25 here.

No. 1: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

2012 numbers: Mariota completed 68.5 percent of his passes for 2,677 yards with 32 touchdowns and six interceptions. He also rushed for 752 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 7.1 yards per carry.

Preseason ranking: Unranked.

Making the case for Mariota: It's pretty extraordinary that a redshirt freshman quarterback earns first-team All-Pac-12 honors. And tops this list. But Mariota had an extraordinary season. He ranked first in the Pac-12 and seventh in the nation in pass efficiency. It's reasonable to wonder how ridiculous his numbers would have been had Oregon played more close games, and therefore Mariota's A-game was needed in the fourth quarter more than three or four times. Consistency? Mariota threw a touchdown pass in every game. He threw one interception in the final seven games. He led an offense that ranked second in the nation in scoring (49.5 ppg) and was fifth in total offense (537.4 ypg). The Ducks scored 11 points per game more than any other Pac-12 team. The 6-foot-4, 196-pound Honolulu native is an extremely accurate passer who also might be the fastest quarterback in the nation -- see 86 and 77 yard runs this year. Against USC on the road, he completed 87 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He tied a school record with six TD passes against California. He rushed for 135 yards at Arizona State. In the Fiesta Bowl victory over Kansas State, he passed for two touchdowns and ran for another and earned game MVP honors as the Ducks ended up ranked No. 2 in the nation. Mariota will enter the 2013 season as one of the top-five preseason Heisman Trophy candidates. Said All-American Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown: "He's a great young player. He has a bright future." Yes he does. If current trends continue, Mariota will become the greatest player in Oregon history and be a first-round pick in the NFL draft. That's a lot. But it's the truth.

No. 2: Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
No. 3: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
No. 4: Matt Scott, QB, Arizona
No. 5: Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
No. 6: Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon
No. 7: Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA
No. 8: Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford
No. 9: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
No. 10: Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State
No. 11: Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
No. 12: Jordan Poyer, CB, Oregon State
No. 13: Zach Ertz, TE, Stanford
No. 14: Matt Barkley, QB, USC
No. 15: Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
No. 16: Trent Murphy, OLB, Stanford
No. 17: Chase Thomas, OLB, Stanford
No. 18: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
No. 19: David Yankey, OL, Stanford
No. 20: Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon
No. 21: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
No. 22: Ed Reynolds, S, Stanford
No. 23: Michael Clay, LB, Oregon
No. 24: Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State
No. 25: Reggie Dunn, KR, Utah

Season review: Oregon

January, 24, 2013
1/24/13
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Before we focus forward, we're going to look back with team-by-team season reviews.

We continue today in reverse alphabetical order.

OREGON (12-1, 8-1)

Grade: A

MVP: Quarterback Marcus Mariota went from being the Ducks' biggest preseason question to first-team All-Pac-12. He ranked first in the conference and seventh in the nation in passing efficiency, completing 68.5 percent of his throws for 2,677 yards with 32 TDs and just six interceptions. He also rushed for 752 yards and five TDs, averaging 7.1 yards per carry.

What went right: A lot. When a team finishes ranked No. 2 in both major polls, tying the school's best-ever final ranking, it's difficult to cast things in a gloomy light. The only way to have done any better was to win the national championship. The Ducks were dominant on both sides of the ball, ranking second in the nation in scoring offense (49.54 ppg) and 25th in scoring defense (21.62 ppg). Most games were over at halftime. Other than the lone loss to Stanford, no team was within 11 points of the Ducks. In fact, eight of 12 foes went down by at least three TDs. The Ducks vanquished their top rivals, Oregon State and Washington, in dominant fashion, and won a second consecutive BCS bowl game, this time topping a top-five Kansas State team decisively, 35-17, in the Fiesta Bowl. What went right? Just about everything, other than ...

What went wrong: Nov. 17. That's the evening Stanford went into Autzen Stadium and shut down the Ducks' previously unstoppable offense in a 17-14 overtime win. There were plenty of "what ifs?" in that game. What if De'Anthony Thomas turned around and provided a chip block on Devon Carrington, which would have turned a 77-yard Mariota run to the Stanford 15-yard line into an early TD? What if the officials had ruled Zach Ertz didn't have control of that 10-yard pass that tied the game at 14-14 with 1:35 to go? What if kicker Alejandro Maldonado hadn't missed a 41-yard field goal in overtime that set Stanford up for the easy winner? That loss did two things to the Ducks' season: 1. It made Stanford the North Division and the Pac-12 champion; 2. It prevented the Ducks from playing Notre Dame for the national championship, a game that most figure the Ducks would have won fairly easily. So, as good as the season was, there are some regrets. Oh, and Chip Kelly bolting to the Philadelphia Eagles is probably a downer for many fans.

2013 outlook: The Ducks have 15 position player starters coming back. By every early account, this team will be ranked in the preseason top-five. So Oregon will begin Year 1 under new coach Mark Helfrich as a national title contender. Again. If Mariota improves, which is typically something you'd assume a guy would do as a second-year starter, he will become a leading Heisman Trophy candidate. His offense will have plenty of other weapons, including Thomas (running back/receiver), receiver Josh Huff and tight end Colt Lyerla. Three starters are back on the offensive line, including both tackles and All-Pac-12 center Hroniss Grasu. The biggest question is replacing running back Kenjon Barner. The defense has a few holes. It loses defensive end Dion Jordan and linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso, but the entire two-deep in the secondary is back and there's plenty of experience on the defensive front. The big issue is replacing Clay and Alonso, an elite tandem. It also might help to figure things out at kicker. The schedule is forgiving. The Ducks probably will be favored in every game they play. The redletter date, of course, is at Stanford on Thursday, Nov. 7. That game could have national title implications. Expectations will be extremely hire in Year 1 for Helfrich.

Oregon Class of 2009 review 

January, 24, 2013
1/24/13
8:00
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Only after a few years can a recruiting class truly be measured. And while there were plenty of success stories in Oregon's Class of 2009, several players who signed with Oregon and never made an impact.


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Signing day primer: Oregon 

January, 23, 2013
1/23/13
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With national signing day exactly two weeks from today, DuckNation looks ahead to what Oregon has coming and who the Ducks still need and why.


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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The overwhelming sentiment at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl is the game will be Chip Kelly's last as the Oregon head coach before he fills one of the seven new NFL vacancies. If that is so, the equally overwhelming sentiment is that offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich will step into Kelly's spot atop the program.

Kelly, clearly anticipating the NFL questions, has fought off all inquires on the matter by saying he is only focused on the Fiesta Bowl on Thursday. He has emphasized that the NFL talk is not a distraction to him or his team, and that he and his players have not addressed it.

His players have been on message, too.

[+] EnlargeMark Helfrich
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/USA TODAY SportsMark Helfrich was a quarterback coach at Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado, before joining Oregon in 2009.
Said linebacker Michael Clay: "He doesn't talk about it. No body talks about it."

And offensive lineman Kyle Long: "There isn't really a lot of talk about that. You can control what you can control. What we can control is our attitude, our effort and our preparation."

And quarterback Marcus Mariota: "Whatever happens, happens. Coach Kelly will make a decision that is best suited for him. Whatever he does, this team will support him."

And center Hroniss Grasu: "He's our head coach right now. That's the only way I can look at it. I will play for whoever is our head coach right now. Right now, it's Coach Kelly. I won't look too far ahead."

As for Helfrich, he also is staking out a "wait-and-see" position: "I don't think [Kelly leaving for the NFL is] a slam-dunk like everyone else does. I hope he stays at Oregon forever," he said.

It's important to note there have been no concrete reports of contact with NFL teams, and Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said he's received no courtesy calls from an interested NFL team. It's plausible -- and very, very Chip Kelly -- that Kelly's non-denials emerge from his enjoyment in making the media awkwardly tap dance in front of him.

Still, if Kelly's departure is just days away, it is reasonable to get an early measure of Helfrich, who has been a quarterback coach at Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado -- he was the Buffs' offensive coordinator, too -- before Kelly hired him in 2009.

"He's really smart, really intelligent," Kelly said of why he made Helfrich his first offensive coordinator. "He brought a different perspective to our staff, because he had a different background. He wasn't a spread guy. I wanted to bring someone in who wasn't going to tell us what we already knew."

When asked what advice he'd give to Helfrich if he became a head coach, Kelly said he'd give him the same advice Rich Brooks gave Mike Bellotti and Bellotti gave him: "Be yourself. You can't be someone else."

Which is interesting in itself, because Helfrich is different than Kelly. Very different.

"Coach Kelly is the yin and he's the yang," Ducks senior running back Kenjon Barner said. "Coach Kelly is on you. He knows what he wants and he's going to get it out of you. Coach Helf is kind of that guy who brings you along smoothly, rather than rough. Good cop, bad cop. Sometimes they switch roles."

That said, continuity is a big reason to promote Helfrich. Oregon has a team culture, system of practicing and schemes on both sides of the ball that have been working fabulously over the past four years with Kelly. Helfrich wouldn't be expected to change much. Further, he'd likely be able to retain some of the Ducks' staff because Kelly probably will need to hire veteran NFL coaches to offset his lack of professional experience.

Still, Helfrich, as Kelly would advise, is unlikely to transform into a Kelly clone. He's worked with a number of successful coaches, so he'd likely put his own stamp on existing systems.

"You take a little bit of everybody with you," Helfrich said. "I've learned a ton from Chip."

While some players seemed -- for obvious reasons -- uncomfortable with the topic, there was a strong undercurrent of support for Helfrich, and not just with offensive players.

"He's a great guy and knows what he's doing," linebacker Michael Clay said. "Everyone respects him on the team and around the league. I think he'd do a great job as a head coach."

Helfrich is certain to be a head coach at some point. The big question to be answered after the Fiesta Bowl is whether that ascension is just days away.

A closer look: Tostitos Fiesta Bowl

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
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As the bowl season approaches, we're going to be looking a little closer at each game. We'll go down the Big 12 bowl schedule in chronological order.

TOSTITOS FIESTA BOWL

No. 5 Kansas State (11-1) vs. No. 4 Oregon (11-1)

Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.

When: Thursday, Jan. 3, 8:30 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

About Kansas State: Bill Snyder's boys proved they could get over a painful Baylor loss. With the Big 12 title in the balance, K-State thrashed Texas with a second-half surge to win the Big 12 title on its home field. K-State made the first 10 games of the season look pretty easy, even with close wins over Oklahoma and Iowa State on the road. The Wildcats largely controlled both games but blew out a whole bunch of 7-5 Big 12 teams like West Virginia, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. The Wildcats have a great case as the best K-State team ever, even though a painful loss to Baylor cost them what looked like a really likely shot at a national title after reaching No. 1 in the BCS for the first time ever after a win at TCU. This was K-State's first Big 12 title since 2003 but the first time it's truly been the Big 12's best team throughout the regular season since 1998.

About Oregon: The Ducks are all about go, go, go and this season's been no exception. The run-heavy offense didn't miss a beat without LaMichael James and Darron Thomas. We'll talk about the Ducks trio more a little later, but Oregon nearly reached the national title game for the second time in three years before a painful overtime loss to Oregon's super offense's kryptonite: Stanford. The Ducks hadn't scored fewer than 42 points all season. Stanford held them to just 14 in an overtime loss the same night K-State lost to Baylor. The teams were No. 1 and No. 2 in the BCS on Nov. 17, poised to block the SEC from playing for a seventh straight national title, but the loss also cost Oregon a bid to the Pac-12 championship and a second consecutive Rose Bowl berth. Instead, the Ducks are headed to the desert where they lost to Auburn in the title game two years ago. The Ducks are 4-1 against top 25 teams, but haven't played anyone ranked higher than No. 13, which was Stanford. Those four wins, though, came by an average of almost 29 points.

Wildcats to watch: In case you missed the second half of the Wildcats' win over Oklahoma State, Heisman finalist Collin Klein is K-State's offense. Receiver Chris Harper and running back John Hubert are fine talents in their own right, but Klein is the man who makes it all go. When he's out or plays poorly like he did against TCU and Baylor (performances that ultimately cost him the Heisman Trophy), K-State can look very, very average offensively. Linebacker and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Arthur Brown has led one of the Big 12's best defenses along with cornerback Nigel Malone and big-time pass-rusher Meshak Williams.

Ducks to watch: How many players on any team ever have had three different players earn legitimate Heisman hype at some point during the season? Scatback De'Anthony Thomas was an early-season splash before slowing with limited touches as the season moved forward, though Kenjon Barner emerged as the team's best back throughout the season. In the middle of the season, though, quarterback Marcus Mariota landed on a few ballots with some big games, too. Barner is the team's best player, ranking fifth nationally with 1,624 rushing yards, but Mariota's passer rating of 165.36 is higher than every Big 12 quarterback but J.W. Walsh. Linebacker Michael Clay racked up 92 tackles and fellow backer Kiko Alonso led the team with 12 tackles for loss (two defensive linemen, Dion Jordan and Taylor Hart, combined for 20.5), but let's be honest: It's all about the offense on this squad.

Did you know? Because of expansion quirks, there have been six Big 12 teams to play in this game in the past five years. No Big 12 team won the game from 2001-08, but the league is 3-1 in the game in the past four seasons, including huge wins over No. 10 Ohio State and No. 4 Stanford over that stretch. (There were also rumors of a win over a five-loss team from somewhere in the Northeast, but I don't know anything about that.)

More on the Big 12 Bowls:

Ducks shift LB focus with new offers 

December, 6, 2012
12/06/12
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Mike MitchellBob Przybylo/ESPN.comMike Mitchell of Plano, Texas, is among the top uncommitted linebackers in the 2013 class.


The impending departure of seniors Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso have made linebackers the biggest area of need for the Oregon in the class of 2013. As the countdown to signing day hit the two-month mark this week, the Ducks took their linebacker recruiting in a whole new direction.

The Ducks are still recruiting ESPN 300 members OLB Mike Mitchell (Plano, Texas/Prestonwood) and OLB Peter Kalambayi (Matthews, NC/Butler), but they also issued two new offers this week while the coaches have been visiting dozens of targets on the recruiting trail.

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Impact Performance Nominees
The Capital One Cup Impact Performances of the Week include Colorado State's Dee Hart, Oregon's Marcus Mariota, East Carolina's Justin Hardy and Oklahoma's Samaje Perine.
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