Well, that took forever. One of the most entertaining, polarizing, and downright insufferable off-season's has come to a close.
It's Game Day once again in Eugene, and there's no shortage of storylines as Oregon opens up its 2015 season. How good is this kid from the FCS? Top-to-bottom, is this the best Oregon team of all time? Can Mark Helfrich, in year three and the clear captain, continue the momentum post-Mariota? What about the defense...a unit that picked up steam towards the end of last season lost some seniors, but appears to be more talented from top-to-bottom; will they be able to carry the load as the offense finds its rhythm?
Some of these questions will be answered Saturday; some will become clearer next week; others will take all season to figure out. But when 5pm hits on the 5th, we finally get our first glimpse at Oregon, version 2015.
The opponent - Eastern Washington - is one of the most respected FCS schools in the country. Unfortunately for them, their big star won't be wearing red...we actually don't know what color it will, but my guess is yellow. Or green. Or both. Either way, Vernon Adams is now a Duck, and the months of speculation - Will he get in? Can he ACTUALLY PLAY, now that he's in uniform? - give way to real, live football being played in front of real, live people.
The big storyline heading into this week isn't necessarily about pulling out the win (although EWU should never be overlooked), but more about how the pieces - old and new alike - fit together.
With that, here's three things to watch:
1: Oregon's ability to get to the QB - without blitzing. Don Pellum, in Year 2 as defensive coordinator, has made it clear throughout the summer and into fall camp that putting more pressure on the quarterback is one of his main goals this season. While Eastern Washington won't present the most stringent of challenges from an offensive line standpoint - especially compared to Michigan State, just a week away - this will be a good litmus test for Oregon's D-line, which has been praised heavily the past few weeks. With a secondary long on talent but short on experience, getting constant pressure from the front-four will be imperative.
2. Vernon's chemistry - not his stats. Unfortunately, stats are the first thing we glob onto as sports fans - they're the measuring stick against the past. For Vernon Adams, however, there's one thing far more important to gain against his old team than a big-stats day, and that's chemistry. Adams is only three weeks into this venture, and no amount of practice reps can replace live-game action. We'll find out real quick just how well this experiment will go. Even if Adams doesn't put up monster numbers - and he shouldn't need to, with Mr. Freeman in his pocket - if after the game we're talking about his crispness and efficiency, then things are going to be fine.
3. Which freshman will make a splash? Let's call it the 'Freeman-Nelson Effect.' Last season, in their first games as a true freshmen, Royce Freeman and Charles Nelson established themselves as difference makers on a playoff team. This season, there's a handful of candidates to play the same role - Canton Kamatule, Kirk Merritt, Taj Griffin - but the one to watch may be redshirt freshman Tony Brooks-James. The coaches have praised him from spring ball on, and with the 2nd-string running back spot clearly up for grabs, the opportunity will surely present itself for the kid that's been compared to both DeAnthony Thomas and LaMichael James.
For all of the talent that returns for Oregon, it's the one piece they took from Eastern Washington that will ultimately make the difference. If Vernon Adams were still an Eagle, there's no doubt they would be a more viable threat. Without him, however, they're relegated to a regular opening-night opponent.
Eastern Washington will provide the absolute perfect warmup for Oregon: stubborn enough to force Oregon's hand; tough enough to give certain pieces real, important reps; but, ultimately, a team that will eventually be overwhelmed physically, giving Oregon a comfortable win. In a perfect world, the starters play the first half, then give way and let backups - important ones - get valuable reps.
It's not a perfect world, though. The starters will play three (gasp!) full quarters, and Oregon slides by with a 45-24 win that isn't quite as close as the score indicates.