2014 football preview: Oregon Ducks

Ducks must navigate a tough Pac-12 to make new playoff

By Mark Morical / The Bulletin / @MarkMorical

Published Aug 27, 2014 at 11:22AM

A top-four ranking in the college football preseason polls means precious little to Oregon. But a top-four ranking in the final College Football Playoff standings on Dec. 7 would mean everything.

To avoid being left out of the inaugural four-team playoff, the Ducks will have to survive a schedule that includes key games against Michigan State (Sept. 6), at UCLA (Oct. 11) and at home against nemesis Stanford (Nov. 1).

“As soon as we lose one game, then everything is up for debate,” says Oregon coach Mark Helfrich. “And that’s fine. As long as our guys trust our process, everything else takes care of itself.”

Oregon opens the season against South Dakota at Autzen Stadium at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Helfrich calls the new playoff “a little bit better” than its predecessor, the Bowl Championship Series. But he notes that “now (Nos.) 5 and 6 are going to be mad.”

After finishing 11-2 last year — with late-season losses to Stanford and Arizona — and winning the Alamo Bowl, Oregon has been picked by media to win the Pac-12 this season.

While the Pac-12 appears to be one of the most competitive conferences in the country, it is also the only one of the five power conferences with both a nine-game league schedule and a conference championship game. The SEC, Big 10 and ACC all play an eight-game league schedule. The Big 12 plays a nine-game conference schedule but has no league championship game.

“It’s great for college football as far as the hype,” Helfrich says in offering an assessment of the new playoff. “I think we still have a ton of heavy lifting and heavy demolishing to do on the path to the playoff, making every conference’s path the same. Fair or unfair, it’s not the same.”

The Ducks will need the arm and legs of junior quarterback Marcus Mariota — whose knee injury was a factor in last year’s two losses — to run the gauntlet of the Pac-12 this season. In each of the past seven years, college football’s national champion has had a healthy starting quarterback for the entire season. Mariota set the school record for all-purpose yardage (4,380 yards) last season. So, what happens if the Ducks’ Heisman Trophy candidate gets injured?

“We don’t sit around having all these doomsday scenarios,” Helfrich says. “Do we plan for them? Absolutely. The best thing you can do is prepare the heck out of that next guy, just like he’s the No. 1 guy. How we practice and the number of reps those guys get, I think those guys get a lot more reps in our system than most others.”

Potential backups to Mariota include sophomore Jeff Lockie, redshirt freshman Taylor Alie and freshman Morgan Mahalak.

Mariota came into preseason camp earlier this month looking bigger and stronger than he was last year, which might help him avoid another injury.

“Being able to gain a little weight will help me in this college game and in the future as well,” Mariota says.

The 6-foot-4-inch, 219-pound quarterback credits much of his added bulk to longtime Ducks strength and conditioning coach Jim Radcliffe, who implemented a weightlifting program to help Mariota add strength without losing his dynamic speed.

“It’s hard when you gain weight to maintain your speed, but Coach Rad and his staff, they do a great job of mixing both in,” says Mariota, who threw for 31 touchdowns last season and rushed for nine more.

He adds that another area of offseason emphasis was footwork in the pocket.

“If I have a good, solid base and I’m in the right body position, I’ll be a lot more accurate and a lot more consistent,” Mariota says. “That’s something I’ve really focused on.”

Mariota will again have two standout playmakers in the backfield in junior Byron Marshall and sophomore Thomas Tyner. Marshall rushed for 1,038 yards last season, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Tyner ran for 711 yards, a school record for a true freshman.

Tyner says he and Marshall are close friends off the field.

“Me and Byron have a good relationship, and I think we work well together,” Tyner says. “Whenever one of us gets tired, send the other one in there.”

Says Helfrich: “Those two guys are really a lot more similar than they are different.”

With Mariota and the one-two punch at running back, Tyner predicts that 2014 could be something special.

“A lot of guys came back, and we have a great team bond going,” Tyner says. “We’re all excited.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0318, mmorical@bendbulletin.com

What else to know

Big test early

After Saturday’s season opener against South Dakota, the Ducks will host defending Rose Bowl champion Michigan State. Both teams have been anticipating the game as a measuring stick for where they stand on the national stage. “Win or lose, we’ll have a better understanding of how we need to improve after that game,” Michigan State defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun said. “As a kid, I feel like everyone looks at Oregon, and you see the jerseys, and everyone loves all this. I really can’t wait to play there, because I want to see how it is.”

Defense rules

Oregon moved Don Pellum from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator when Nick Aliotti retired following the Alamo Bowl after 24 years with the Ducks. Pellum inherits five returning starters, including senior Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the only returnee in the Ducks’ secondary. While it does not get as much attention as Oregon’s flashy offense, the defense allowed just 204.5 yards passing per game last season, best in the Pac-12.

JOHNSTONE INJURY

Starting offensive tackle Tyler Johnstone will miss the entire season after tearing the ACL in his right knee during preseason camp. He tore the same ACL during Oregon’s bowl win over Texas in December. Johnstone has been a starter on the offensive line for three years. He is likely to be replaced by redshirt junior Andre Yruretagoyena, who has appeared in 11 games at both the guard and tackle positions.

— The Associated Press

Oregon Ducks schedule

Sat, Aug. 30

vs. South Dakota

7:30 p.m., Pac-12

Sat, Sept. 6

vs. Michigan State

3:30 p.m., Fox

Sat, Sept. 13

vs. Wyoming

11 a.m., Pac-12

Sat, Sept. 20

at Washington State

TBA

Thu, Oct. 2

vs. Arizona

7:30 p.m., ESPN

Sat, Oct. 11

at UCLA

TBA

Sat, Oct. 18

vs. Washington

TBA

Fri, Oct. 24

vs. Cal

at Santa Clara, Calif., 7 p.m., FS1

Sat, Nov. 1

vs. Stanford

TBA

Sat, Nov. 8

at Utah

TBA

Sat, Nov. 22

vs. Colorado

TBA

Sat, Nov. 29

at Oregon State

TBA