Oregon Football: What Marcus Mariota's Return Means for Ducks' Playoff Chances

Kyle KensingContributor IDecember 3, 2013

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The National Football League will have to wait for quarterback Marcus Mariota. He'll be busy in 2014 leading Oregon toward the national championship for which the program has long waited. 

Mariota's return, announced Tuesday on the official Oregon athletic website, makes the Ducks an immediate front-runner to win a very deep Pac-12. 

A late-season slide with losses at Stanford and Arizona may have pushed Oregon out of the forefront of the title conversation, but this is a program that has reached No. 2 in the BCS standings in the final month each of the last four seasons. Never in this run atop the Pac-12 has Oregon done so with a third-year starter leading the offense. And next season, with the introduction of the College Football Playoff, the Ducks just need to reach No. 4 to nab one of the bids. 

The Ducks defense faces some possible retooling with the graduation of linebacker Boseko Lokombo and junior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu a candidate for early departure. However, the offense looks like it could be especially explosive, even by Oregon's lofty standards.  

While Oregon has never suffered much measurable decline in any season since Chip Kelly joined the program in 2007, the Ducks have also never had a collection of talent quite as impressive as what head coach Mark Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost have returning in 2014.

Along with Mariota, Oregon also announced the return of center and two-time all-conference selection Hroniss Grasu for 2014. Grasu and 2012 Freshman All-American Tyler Johnstone give the underrated Oregon offensive line its foundation—as well as plenty of holes for the bevy of talented skill position players to exploit. 

Running backs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner took turns looking like Oregon's next great ball-carrier throughout 2013. Both rejoin Mariota in the backfield. Should junior De'Anthony Thomas forgo the draft, the multifaceted look that made Oregon the No. 9 rushing offense, No. 5 scoring offense and No. 3 total offense will remain intact. 

Bralon Addison gives Mariota a consistent top target, and tight ends John Mundt and Pharaoh Brown provide bigger options and diversify the passing attack's look.  

And then there's Mariota, already far and away the best quarterback at Oregon since it changed its offensive philosophy to the hurry-up spread under Kelly. 

Both Mariota and Grasu said the right things in their statements—innocuous declarations of their dedication to being student-athletes and pursuing their degrees. Commendable, to be sure, but with so much talent coming back for another run at Oregon, it's fair to suspect the Ducks want more. 

Marcus Mariota is already one of the game's elite quarterbacks. A left knee injury in the home stretch put a damper on his Heisman Trophy candidacy and threw a wrench into the Ducks' title pursuit. It was a sour ending to an otherwise sweet season—and a possible motivator for Mariota's return. 

After all, he was not a pro prospect who needed to improve his draft stock; two stellar seasons captaining the Oregon offense had Mariota tabbed as a top-10 selection on several mock draft boards. Rob Rang of CBSSports.com projected Mariota as the No. 2 overall pick. B/R’s Matt Miller had Mariota as the second-best prospect in this spring’s class.

No, there isn’t a ton of room in terms of upward mobility for Mariota individually. Oregon, however, now has a much higher ceiling as a program. 

Mariota's two years of impressive production—6,089 yards passing, 62 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions—and wowing scouts with his blend of size, speed and field vision were also devoid of championships. The Ducks’ run of conference championships snapped in 2012, Mariota’s redshirt freshman campaign. This year, they'll again spend Pac-12 championship weekend watching from their couches. 

Championship glory has continuously eluded Oregon, but for Marcus Mariota, the third time could be the charm.