The business of offering predictions in a sport that rarely follows a clear, linear path can be a volatile one in which to stake a claim. Unpredictability is college football’s greatest currency; it also makes this part of the year appreciably more taxing for those tasked with connecting the dots as “analysts" or “writers."
That’s basically a fancy way of saying “professional educated-guesser.” Others might use a much different, less flattering description. So consider this particular prognostication as you will.
Oregon will conquer its demons this season. It will win the Pac-12, solve its Stanford problem and single-handedly remove the doubt hovering around a program that has been one or two wins away from cracking elite status. And since we're throwing around guesses already, here are my playoff teams: Florida State, Oregon, Alabama and Oklahoma.
With game week upon us, those are my final predictions. The comment section should begin to spontaneously combust accordingly.
Full disclosure: Ohio State was my pick to win the national championship before Braxton Miller went out with a shoulder injury. While the Buckeyes can still be better than many realize, an injury of that magnitude is too significant to ignore.
So, Oregon, you’re the next man up. As for why I’m pegging the Ducks and not Florida State, Alabama, Oklahoma or [insert your team here that you are undoubtedly angry about being omitted], let’s explore how this educated guess came about.
The Obvious: Marcus Mariota
When you have the best college football player on the planet, you have a chance. That’s the first thing they teach you in football science, and it feels even more appropriate when you assess just how perfectly Mariota fits his team and this offense.
That’s not to take anything away from Jameis Winston, Brett Hundley, Bryce Petty or the slew of deserving names that warrant mention in this conversation. But Mariota—when healthy—stands on a pedestal by his lonesome.
The “when healthy” disclaimer is crucial to this discussion. Late last season, Mariota dealt with a knee injury that hampered his performance. Although the numbers didn’t suddenly reach a screeching halt, the difference was obvious. He wasn't the same player.
Not so coincidentally, this was around the same time the Ducks’ 2014 season unraveled.
Before his knee became an issue, however, Mariota entered a new stratosphere of stardom and he did so without anyone really noticing. We acknowledge just how good he is now, but the transition from open-field highlight creator to complete, all-world quarterback happened somewhat seamlessly.
The next thing we knew, he was who he is today (and undoubtedly a more polished player than what we saw last year). What he has become is where Oregon’s national-championship hopes come into focus.
Review national-championship teams over the past 20 years or so and you will see one glaring trend: To win at this rate, you need a special player under center. There are exceptions, of course, but when you have a quarterback that can create, improvise or simply beat you the ol’ fashioned way, you have the groundwork for something truly spectacular.
The Pieces: A Shutdown Corner and a Potent Three-Headed Attack
Marcus Mariota’s return to Oregon had company in the “good news” department. Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu—a Bleacher Report first-team All-American—also passed on the draft for another year in Eugene.
In a conference bursting with elite quarterbacks, talented wide receivers and gifted offensive play-callers, having an elite corner is paramount. Ekpre-Olomu gives the Ducks security and flexibility on the back end. In turn, other areas—linebacker and safety, for starters—should also thrive because of his presence alone. It’s only one player, but his impact cannot be limited to that.
On the other side of the ball, Mariota will not be doing this whole thing by his lonesome. There will be moments where he makes it look like it, although the supporting cast on both sides will be an integral factor when it comes to breaking down barriers.
The Oregon running backs should have no issue breaking through things. Or around things. Or past things. There may not be a more impressive stable of physically gifted runners in the country, and they are incredibly versatile.
Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner ran for more than 1,700 yards and found the end zone 23 times last season. Both are back and should be utilized plenty, sometimes on the field at the same time. Royce Freeman—one of the nation’s premier running-back recruits in the 2014 class—will also join the group. Freeman, who’s listed at 229 pounds in his Oregon bio, adds a unique element to the explosiveness already in place.
"He's at the point where Tyner was at the end of last year," Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell told Tyson Alger of The Oregonian. "He's fast. He's big and he's tough. A lot of times you get guys like him that come in and have great success in high school and they haven't really had to work at it and when they get into tough competition at the college level they shy away from it.”
Stalwarts at corner and running back shouldn’t immediately have you screaming championship; that part comes next. But forcing turnovers and scoring obscene amounts of points is a part of this team’s identity.
The Necessary: Solving the Stanford (and Now Michigan State) Problems
In some ways, the reputation is unfair. After watching Stanford physically dominate Oregon at the line of scrimmage over the past two seasons, the Ducks have acquired a “soft” label because of the outcome of these two games.
While Stanford's brutish style has clearly presented a problem, Oregon held up rather well late in games against quality opponents. Just last year, the Ducks outscored UCLA and Washington—two ranked, physical teams that hung around the first two quarters—52-17 in the second half.
Oregon can play that brand of football, although it has come undone on the biggest stages. There’s no arguing that. The only thing that can help cool this conversation is a plan to fix what has been its undoing. At the very least, things are in place that tell you this is possible.
The Ducks will feature one of the nation’s premier offensive lines. The loss of starting left tackle Tyler Johnstone due to an ACL injury is crushing, but this unit should still be immensely talented (and experienced) without him. If you’re into quality center play, make a point to focus in on Hroniss Grasu as often as you can. No direct quarterback protector does it better.
On the other side of the ball, the answers aren’t quite as concrete. Still, there are reasons for optimism.
This is where this prediction takes a leap of faith. By picking Oregon to win the national championship, I'm banking on defensive linemen Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner realizing their immense potential. Each is powerful, checking in at least 6’7” and 290 pounds. Thus far, however, their play hasn’t matched the foundation.
According to their head coach, they have looked the part this spring. Take this coach-speak for what it's worth:
Helfrich: "Arik Armstead's really learning how to practice and has done a really nice job leading those guys along w/ DeForest (Buckner)."— Andrew Greif (@AndrewGreif) August 10, 2014
How all this comes together against Stanford—and an early, out-of-conference matchup against Michigan State, who plays a similar brand of football—will dictate this season (and the proclamation of a title) greater than any item on the championship checklist.
The Verdict: The Perfect Time for a Breakthrough
The schedule is by no means easy. Outside of Michigan State and Stanford, Oregon will travel to UCLA, Utah and Oregon State. The Ducks will also welcome Washington and Arizona—a foe it knows quite well after last season’s 42-16 beatdown.
|Oregon's 2014 Regular-Season Schedule|
|Aug. 30||South Dakota||Eugene, Oregon|
|Sept. 6||Michigan State||Eugene, Oregon|
|Sept. 13||Wyoming||Eugene, Oregon|
|Sept. 20||Washington State||Pullman, Washington|
|Oct. 2||Arizona||Eugene, Oregon|
|Oct. 11||UCLA||Pasadena, California|
|Oct. 18||Washington||Eugene, Oregon|
|Oct. 24||California||Santa Clara, California (Levi's Stadium)|
|Nov. 1||Stanford||Eugene, Oregon|
|Nov. 8||Utah||Salt Lake City, Utah|
|Nov. 22||Colorado||Eugene, Oregon|
|Nov. 29||Oregon State||Corvallis, Oregon|
Chances are, there’s at least a loss on there. That’s not a knock on the Ducks, but rather a realistic and honest observation that can be made about every program not named Florida State.
Finishing a regular season unbeaten is incredibly demanding. Finding your way into the College Football Playoff won’t be quite as trying—with four teams now included in the mix—although the margin for error remains minuscule. You need luck—quality bounces, favorable injury fortune, game-to-game breaks—and this certainly applies to Oregon. In fact, it applies to everyone.
Even if you benefit from all of these things, nothing should be assumed. There are plenty of exceptional, fortunate teams that never come close to a championship. Reaching that next echelon of success—the one Oregon is seeking out—is just really, really difficult.
The doubt that has slowly crept its way into the usual discussions about Oregon football will surface until that breakthrough finally arrives. Points, stats and neon-flavored tempo have done wonders for the brand; now, it’s a matter of that next, next step. At the very least, the pieces are in place to wonder if 2014 is the year it finally comes together.
With a quarterback teetering toward video-game cheat code, plentiful weapons at positions Oregon relies on and a working blueprint to stop the Stanford TNT from blowing the whole thing up yet again, this has all the makings to be that kind of year.
That is my opinion as a certified educated-guesser.