Coming into the 2014 college football season, questions were swirling about whether Mark Helfrich was really the guy to lead the Oregon Ducks long term. Sure, he was a nice guy. Yes, he was a native son that wasn't likely to pull a Chip Kelly and ditch us for the NFL. But was he too nice a guy? Did he have the 'it' factor that Kelly possessed?Losing to Stanford with an injured Marcus Mariota wasn't the worst sin. But getting absolutely run in Tucson with a team that looked like it had no interest in being at the game? It seemed unforgivable. It was a sin Kelly never would have committed, and seemed an obvious sign that Oregon's window left right along with the Chipster.
If that was the concern heading into the season, the early part of the year did nothing to dispel it. Yes, the Michigan State game was nice, with both sides of the ball showing the types of halftime adjustments that we hadn't yet seen from this staff. But another loss to Arizona, albeit with a beat up offensive line, in which we again looked lost and inept had the "Fire Helfrich" bandwagon once again out in full force.
It could have been a breaking point for any team. The Ducks had guys--Marcus Mariota and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu--come back for the express purpose of making a championship run. While those chances weren't exactly dead after the Arizona loss, it seemed unlikely that a team that had been shaky against Washington State and downright bad against Arizona, with a defense that was very questionable the entire way, was capable of making the kind of run necessary to get to the playoff. Not with the Pac-12 South being so good. Not with Stanford still on the schedule. Not with the next game being a trip to UCLA. There were just so many loseable games left on the schedule.
And Oregon crushed them all. They didn't just beat the remaining schedule, they obliterated it. Oregon was up three scores in the fourth quarter at UCLA. Beat Washington by 25. Stanford by 29. Utah by 24. Oregon State by 28. They got a rematch by Arizona in the Pac-12 title game. It was a 38 point laugher.
Helfrich rallied this team back from adversity, and gelled them into the best Oregon team of all-time. The shots kept coming--Tyler Johnstone and Bralon Addison going down in the preseason. Pharaoh Brown going down. Ifo Ekpre--Olomu. Devon Allen. The team seemingly got stronger with each elite player that went down. Guys were completely bought into the system.
Oregon didn't have the most talent. Florida State was a more talented team, but with lesser coaching and guys who weren't as bought in, and they left the Rose Bowl 39 point losers. And while Oregon finally met it's match with Ohio State in the title game, that loss came to the best coach in the country with top five recruiting classes in spades. Oregon simply doesn't have that kind of talent. And while Helfrich isn't Urban Meyer, Meyer isn't walking through that door, and Helfrich's performance this year shows that he could be one of the top coaches in the nation. To a man, his players absolutely love him. The fact that he places a much higher emphasis on recruiting than Chip ever did doesn't hurt, either.
There are questions for Oregon next season. They have to replace a Heisman trophy winning quarterback. They have to rebuild the secondary and the offensive line. They have to do something at the linebacker position, which proved to be the weakest unit on the team this season. Addressing these issues is no small feat.
But I have full trust and confidence in the guy who's job it is to address them. And that's a pretty great feeling.