Oregon fans got used to a certain standard of living with Chip Kelly as their head coach. A BCS bowl was to be expected. Long touchdown plays and 40 point wins were commonplace. And you never entered a game thinking the Ducks were gonna get blown out. The first year of the Mark Helfrich era brought some of those things, but the energy and confidence that Chip's teams brought to the field just wasn't there. There was the loss to Stanford that never felt close until the furious fourth quarter comeback, and the loss to Arizona that never was close at all. There was the inconsistent defense, the relative absence of De'Anthony Thomas, and the fact that we almost lost the freakin' Civil War. 2013 was a really unsettling 11-2 season. Obviously, I'll take a shaky 11-2 over Washington State's "HOORAY WE LOST THE NEW MEXICO BOWL BUT IT'S OKAY WE MADE A BOWL GAME" 2013 every time. But I'm capable of being reasonably unreasonable. And it's reasonable to think that Oregon football enters 2014 as the favorite to win the Pac-12 conference and contend for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Here's what I expect:
I expect that Marcus Mariota will continue to be brilliant. He was the Heisman front-runner until a bum knee, two losses, and playing on the west coast took him completely off the map. But he's perfect for Oregon, and the best quarterback in college football. There's no reason to expect anything less than Heisman-caliber in his third season as a starter. I also expect that this season will be his last as an Oregon Duck.
I expect a better offense under Scott Frost in 2014. Last year's playcalling lacked the rhythm of Chip Kelly's offenses, and rightly so. It was Frost's first year calling plays, so for us to expect that things would just keep on humming was misguided. But with a year on the job, thirteen games and hundreds of practices with the keys to the fastest car in the country, I expect Frost's gameplanning to be more polished. And I expect far fewer fade routes inside the 5 yard line, or I will freak the hell out.
I expect Byron Marshall to be a true #1 running back. After beginning 2013 behind De'Anthony Thomas on the depth chart, and raising further questions after a Virginia game where he averaged 2 yards a carry and Thomas Tyner scored two touchdowns, he came into his own after the Black Momba sprained his ankle against Cal. Beginning with that Cal game, Marshall rattled off five straight 100 yard rushing games, showing increased confidence with every game. An injury sustained in the loss to Arizona cut his season short, but he still finished with over 1000 yards rushing, a number he should again eclipse should he stay healthy. The competition at running back, with Tyner, Kani Benoit, and freshman Royce Freeman and Tony James, will be stiff. But I expect Marshall to play a pivotal role in Oregon's success next year.
I expect Don Pellum's defense to not look a whole lot different than Nick Aliotti's defense. The two worked together for almost two decades. Their outlooks and philosophies on football aren't very different. Pellum won't be asked to reinvent the wheel, and he doesn't want to.
I expect the rest of the Pac-12 to be a little worse than last year. Stanford loses key pieces on defense, USC is destined for seven wins with Sark at the helm, Arizona will be breaking in a new QB and RB, Washington has a new coach, as well as a presumed-starting quarterback in a world of trouble, and Cal and Colorado will continue to be pretty bad. Don't get me wrong, the Pac will still be one of the two best football conferences in the country next year, and easily the best on offense. But Oregon will be a little bit better, while others may take a tiny step back.
I expect lots more passing. Last year, Oregon attempted more than 400 passes for the first time since 2007, when Dennis Dixon won the Heisman Trophy and brought a national championship to Eugene. Marcus Mariota is a better quarterback than Dennis Dixon, in pretty much every way. To not put the ball into Mariota's hands as much as possible would be silly. Add in a deep receiver corps led by Bralon Addison and Keanon Lowe, and the threat of a running game looming over every play and dragging safeties closer and closer to the line of scrimmage, and you have the potential for a lethal passing attack.
I expect to see at least one breakout star. In 2013, it was Bralon Addison; In 2012, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Marcus Mariota; 2011? De'Anthony Thomas of course. Who will be the one in 2014? Could it be a true freshman, like Arrion Springs, Royce Freeman, or Jalen Brown, or perhaps a returner who makes the leap, like Chance Allen or Torrodney Prevot? I can't wait to find out.
Lastly, I expect Mark Helfrich to begin to become more than just "the guy that replaced Chip Kelly". We all love the Win the Day philosophy, the speed, the aggressiveness, and those aren't going anywhere. But Mark Helfrich is the shepherd of that ideal now, and he needs to make this program his, for better or worse. Chip Kelly may have changed the entire landscape of Oregon sports, and that is a lot to live up to. But Helfrich didn't get to be Oregon's head coach without also being brilliant. It's time for him to show the world Mark Helfrich, head football coach. If that means a return to relative football normalcy, so be it. If Helfrich spends his coaching career trying to replicate Chip Kelly, that outcome of regression is certain. But if continuing to innovate is the Oregon way, then I'd rather see Mark Helfrich's Ducks lose by moving forward in his own image, instead of trying to hold on to the glory years and probably losing anyway. I'm not 100% sold on Helfrich yet; it's too early to tell what the next years will bring for him. But I want him to own this job, and I expect to see at least some of that in his second year at the helm.