Oregon seemed like an absolutely unstoppable force last season, especially during the team's 10-game winning streak to open the year. During the streak the Ducks never scored fewer than 42 points and only once beat a team by fewer than 20 points. After the win streak the Ducks had risen to No. 1 in the country and all that stood in the way of Pac-12 Championship and National Championship appearances were tests against Stanford and at Oregon State.
Well Stanford certainly did its job as the Cardinal earned a 17-14 win in overtime, holding the Ducks to their lowest point total since 2009. After the loss Oregon dispatched of Oregon Sate rather easily (48-24) and made another BCS bowl appearance where the Ducks blasted Kansas State, 35-17.
Though the setback against Stanford was certainly tough, the biggest loss came in the offseason when four-year head coach Chip Kelly, after proclaiming his intention to stay, shipped out to Philadelphia to lead the Eagles. The offseason also saw Oregon take some hits in terms of sanctions from the NCAA due to recruiting violations, though there was no bowl ban.
OFFENSE: In the hopes of keeping the team on an even keel, Oregon promoted offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich to the head coaching job.
"We don't look at it as someone replacing someone, we look at it as 'the next guy up'," Helfrich said about taking the reins. "We're going to talk the same, work the same, practice the same."
It is on the offensive side of the ball that Oregon has made its name and Helfrich should be overseeing yet another stellar unit this season. Last year Oregon ranked fifth nationally in total offense (537.4 ypg), while being the only program in the country to average 300 yards rushing and 200 yards passing every game.
Although he was just a freshman, quarterback Marcus Mariota was sensational in his first year as the starter. Though Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel got more attention, Mariota also deserved some as the dual-threat signal caller completed 68.5 percent of his pass attempts for 2,677 yards and 32 touchdowns, while showing a ton of poise in tossing just six interceptions. Mariota is just as lethal with his legs as he rushed for 752 yards and five scores in leading the Ducks' run-heavy offense. He may get more opportunities in the passing game under Helfrich.
"This guy is the best quarterback in the country but he doesn't care how many passing yards he has, he cares what it says before and after the hyphen in the team record and that's how we operate," Helfrich said about Mariota and a possible shift to more passing on offense. "We want to score. We don't care about the method."
Kenjon Barner and his 1,767 yards and 21 touchdowns have gone on to the NFL opening up the starting running back position to the exciting De'Anthony Thomas. Standing at just 5-foot-9, Thomas is extremely difficult to wrap up with his speed and ability to avoid tacklers. Thomas is a multi-talented back that scored 16 total touchdowns last season and racked up 1,146 yards from scrimmage. Bolstering a loaded backfield is sophomore Byron Marshall (447 yards, four TDs), who is poised to burst on the scene in 2013.
Interestingly enough Thomas actually led the team in receptions (45) last season but that doesn't mean there aren't some solid options at receiver. Josh Huff (32 receptions, 493 yards, 7 TDs) may be targeted more if Mariota is given more freedom. That should also be the case for tight end Colt Lyerla (25 receptions, 392 yards, 6 TDs).
Oregon is also loaded on the offensive line where three starters return including left tackle Tyler Johnstone, center Hroniss Grasu and right tackle Jake Fisher, all of whom have the ability to be All-Conference selections.
DEFENSE: Even though the headlines all went to the offense during Kelly's reign, the Ducks weren't a team to be taken lightly on defense. The team ranked in the top half of the nation in total defense last season (374.2 ypg), while leading the nation in turnover margin (+21).
There are certainly holes to fill, namely defensive end Dion Jordan, but the Ducks still have plenty of talent. That is especially true in the secondary where a number of ball hawks, who are adept in wrapping up receivers and forcing turnovers, return. Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu snagged four picks last season and had 20 passes defended. His ability as a shutdown corner is unquestioned. Fellow starter Terrence Mitchell returns as well. At the safety slots Avery Patterson (44 tackles, 3 INTs) and Brian Jackson (69 tackles, 2 INTs) gave the Ducks plenty of production last season.
The linebacking corps and the defensive line have a bit more retooling to do. Taylor Hart led the team with eight sacks last season at defensive end and will be looking to help make up for the loss of Jordan. Meanwhile, Wade Keliilikipi has starting experience at tackle.
Jordan's replacement will be Tony Washington, who got tested in the same regard at the end of last season when Jordan missed games with a shoulder injury. Among the rest of the linebackers the only player returning with starting experience is Boseko Lokombo (39 tackles, 4.5 TFL), who is a solid player.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A true freshman is set to take over the place kicking duties, which are often light in terms of field goals at Oregon. That player will be Matt Wogan who takes over for Rob Beard, who had just four field goal attempts last season. Alejandro Maldonado hit 3-of-6 field goal attempts and should factor in as well.
It remains to be seen if Thomas will continue to be a returner after he totaled 611 yards and two scores on kickoff and punt returns combined last season. Helfrich may wish to keep his star running back away from contact when possible though, which could lead to Bralon Addison taking on a bigger role.
OUTLOOK: Most teams would be in for a real struggle if their head coach departed for the NFL. That is not the case for Oregon as Kelly left a phenomenal foundation in Eugene before leaving, though it will be less sturdy with the NCAA sanctions. This year with Helfrich at the helm, the Ducks should stay right on course.
Oregon gets a nice warm up for the season on August 31 against Nicholls. Then non-conference contests against middle of the road teams from other BCS conferences (at Virginia, Tennessee) take the Ducks into mid-September. Oregon opens Pac-12 play at home against California and then travels to face Colorado and Washington before wrapping up October at home against Washington State and UCLA. Nov. 7 is definitely the game to circle on the calendar for the Ducks as they travel in search of revenge against Stanford. A home game against Utah, what should be an offensive shootout against Arizona and the annual Civil War with Oregon State finish off the year, though Oregon will more than likely be playing past that date.
Most teams are lucky to have one Heisman candidate or even a handful of all- conference candidates. With Mariota and Thomas the Ducks have two bona fide Heisman contenders to go with a roster chock full of All-Pac-12 talent. Kelly may be gone but the Ducks won't see any fall off. If they can get by Stanford, the Ducks could rise even higher.