As quarterback Marcus Mariota goes, so too goes the direction of Oregon's 2014 season. It's an equation the Ducks saw in action last season.
"For me I think my first and big priority was to get healthy," Mariota told reporters at the start of spring practice last week, via the Statesman Journal. "That was kind of [No. 1]."
The previous three months gave Mariota time to recuperate from a left knee injury that drastically changed the direction of Oregon's 2013 campaign.
Mariota begins preparation for 2014 with a clean bill of health and bulkier frame, which NFL.com's Bryan Fischer examined. A new season brings a Heisman Trophy candidacy for Mariota and a College Football Playoff pursuit for his team.
Mariota is the engine driving the Ducks' high-octane offense. Surrounded by a veteran corps on both the offensive line and at the skill positions, Mariota can make history in his third year behind the wheel.
Heading into its Week 11 showdown with Pac-12 North rival Stanford, Oregon was undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll and third in the BCS standings.
Moving into the top 2 of the BCS was a mere formality had they won out, though, as the Ducks faced a considerably tougher final stretch than Florida State. All they had to do was win out, which they had no problem doing in the previous eight outings.
However, conditions were not the same in those final weeks as they were in the two months prior, most notably, Mariota's health.
His mobility was hindered, and Stanford capitalized. Mariota's inability to escape blitzes as effectively as he had eliminated one vital component of the Ducks offense, and it contributed to at least one red-zone failure that might have dramatically changed the game's complexion.
That loss and a second two weeks later at Arizona erased any hope of a national championship pursuit, and it ended the program's streak of consecutive BCS bowl bids at four.
Injury is an inevitability every college football team faces in the course of a season. However, different injuries obviously can have a much different impact, and Mariota's is a testament to this.
He battled through the partial MCL tear, even playing one of his best individual halves of the season immediately after sustaining it against UCLA. Offensive coordinator Scott Frost explained to The Register-Guard just how hard Mariota fought in the final month:
The kid couldn’t even jog two days before the Stanford game. We didn’t want anyone to know, obviously, because we wanted to protect him as much as we could...If people would have known how bad he was hurt and watched him perform like that, it was a warrior’s performance, it really was.
There's no question the injury limited Mariota's effectiveness, which in turn limited the Ducks. Like its quarterback, the Oregon offense is at its best when it presented defenses with diverse looks.
|Marcus Mariota in 2013|
|Comp./Att. (Pct.)||Passing Yards (YPG)||TD/INT||Carries (YPC)||Rushing Yards (YPG)||TD|
|Week 1-10 (8 games)||144/225 (64.0)||2,281 (285.1)||20/0||56 (9.2)||511 (63.9)||9|
|Week 11-Bowl (5 games)||101/161 (62.7)||1,384 (276.8)||11/4||40 (5.1)||204 (40.8)||0|
|Totals||245/386 (63.5)||3,665 (281.9)||31/4||96 (7.5)||715 (55.0)||9|
The Alamo Bowl was a reminder of just how effective Mariota can be when both elements of his game are firing.
"Since the last month, I feel the most healthy I’ve been," Mariota told The Register-Guard in December 2013, just days prior to the matchup.
With a month to recuperate, Mariota rushed for 133 yards on the Longhorns. His confident ball-carrying early opened the field and Mariota capitalized with 253 yards through the air and a touchdown.
"He is probably one of the best quarterbacks I have played," Texas defensive end Cedric Reed said after the game per TexasSports.com. "He is fast, he is smart, and he is really a good quarterback."
And when he's at 100 percent, there are few—if any—better than Mariota. The same goes for the Oregon offense.
Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.