I'm sure there's joy in writing any best case/worst case prediction piece: you get to indulge your greatest fantasies, however unlikely they may be. Arkansas wins the SEC, Houston makes the playoff, Washington State goes to the Rose Bowl; all predictions highly unlikely, but there's that shred of, "Man, there totally is a timeline where that happens," that makes these things fun to read. Last year, I took a swing at a best case/worst case piece for the first time, and it's maybe the most fun I've had writing anything that wasn't an April Fool's Day prank. The worst case was all my greatest insecurities, the best case was all my wildest dreams. And much of it came to fruition.
Unfortunately, most of what came true (OT games against Washington State and Arizona State, Eastern Washington picking apart our defense, quarterback problems, Thomas Tyner leaving the program) happened in the worst case scenario.
Let's hope that doesn't happen again.
Best Case Scenario
Oregon starting 3-0 to open their 2016 campaign wasn't the news; it was the manner of those three wins that caught everyone's attention. While the offense hummed along to the tune of 48 points per game, led by Royce Freeman's three consecutive 200 yards rushing games, it was Brady Hoke's new-look defense that put the Ducks back on the national radar. A shutout of UC-Davis; a fourth-quarter field goal the only blemish against Virginia; and an hyper-efficient performance against Nebraska, forcing nine three-and-outs as part of a 45-10 road win in which Oregon actually won time of possession.
After a drubbing of Colorado to open Pac-12 play, the Ducks traveled north to take on Washington State. It was all offense to start the game, the two teams combining for 68 first half points as the Ducks took a 37-31 lead into halftime. The Cougars hung tough into the fourth quarter, but two late interceptions by Ugo Amadi and AJ Hotchkins sealed the victory for Oregon.
Undefeated Oregon. Undefeated Washington. ESPN Gameday in attendance, Lee Corso donning the Husky headgear to the boos of thousands. The stage was set for a classic rivalry showdown. The Autzen crowd didn't need an excuse to yell and scream, but Justin Hollins gave them one anyway on the opening series, sacking Jake Browning and forcing a fumble recovered by Rex Manu inside the 20. Two plays later, Darren Carrington cruised into the endzone with his first of two touchdown catches. After a Washington punt, Royce Freeman took the early lead and went to work, with seven carries for 65 yards on Oregon's next drive, the last carry a touchdown for a 14-0 Oregon lead. Dakota Prukop, in his first and only Oregon-Washington game, led a cool headed and turnover-free attack, and the Ducks never let Washington within a score of the lead in a 37-20 victory. Wins over Cal and Arizona State followed, leaving the Ducks at 8-0 heading into a showdown at the LA Coliseum against the 6-2 USC Trojans, who entered the game on a five-game winning streak.
The Ducks hadn't lost at USC since 2008, but certainly looked lost on both sides of the ball as the Trojans built a 21-8 halftime lead. Oregon came out roaring in the third quarter, scoring touchdowns on its first two drives to take a 22-21 lead. The two teams traded touchdowns once, and then again after Prukop found Dwayne Stanford in the corner of the endzone with 1:26 left. The extra point game Oregon a 36-35 lead. But USC quarterback Sam Darnold, in the game after starter Max Browne injured his ankle on the previous drive, found some magic, converting two fourth downs to lead USC into field goal range with :02 left. The kick was good, and Oregon's undefeated dreams were dashed.
The Ducks took their anger out on the rest of their schedule, hanging 44 on Stanford, 46 on Utah, and 59 on Oregon State in three straight wins to clinch the Pac-12 North title, and earn a rematch with USC in the Pac-12 championship game.The Ducks entered the title game sitting at #6 in the CFP rankings; The two-loss Trojans, winners of nine straight and buoyed by wins over UCLA and Notre Dame, were #5. For all intents and purposes, this was a playoff play-in game, and Oregon came ready, jumping out to the quick start that eluded them four weeks earlier. Tony Brooks-James got the party started with a kickoff return past midfield. On the next play, fans were treated to Devon Allen and Adoree Jackson matched up one-on-one on a go route. Allen outjumped his track star counterpart, and Oregon had the lead. Both teams leaned on the run game; Royce Freeman became Oregon's all-time rushing leader with a 45 yard jaunt early in the third quarter, and both Justin Davis and Ronald Jones eclipsed 100 yards in the game. Late in the fourth quarter, USC found itself with the ball and a chance to repeat history, this time down 4 points. But Oregon's defense was up to the task this time, Tyree Robinson intercepting a desperation heave as time expired, giving the Ducks the Pac-12 title and a spot in the FBS playoffs for the second time in three years.
Despite the efforts of Heisman finalist Royce Freeman, the Ducks fell to Clemson in a thrilling playoff semifinal. But a 12-2 season, along with a bevy of returning starters on defense, has Oregon fans feeling ecstatic heading into 2017.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
If last season was a tipping point, where Oregon might no longer be the seemingly unconquerable monster it was during Chip Kelly's tenure, then the 2016 Oregon season must certainly have been the long, aggravating slide back to mediocrity. Everything began well enough, with back-to-back wins over UC Davis and Virginia, but neither game felt sturdy. The offense came and went in inconsistent spurts - with just as many 3-and-outs as scoring drives. The defense, still in its infancy under Brady Hoke, looked confused with itself at times, allowing a number of big plays to offenses that had no business making big plays. Both trends proved crucial in Oregon's Week 3 tilt at Nebraska. A stout Cornhusker defense frustrated Dakota Prukop and the Oregon offense, holding the Ducks to only two touchdowns and four Aidan Schneider field goals, and the big play bug bit the Duck defense again and again, the biggest one coming on a 48 yard Tommy Armstrong scramble early in the fourth quarter which gave Nebraska its first lead of the game at 31-26. Down 34-26, Prukop and the offense faced one final play, a fourth down at midfield. The Hail Mary fell incomplete, and Mike Riley did something he hadn't done since 2007: beat Oregon.
After a win over Colorado, the Ducks traveled to Pullman, where Luke Falk showed Oregon fans what it looks like to develop a quarterback, throwing for six touchdown passes in a 45-35 Cougar victory. A week later, Jake Browning and the undefeated Washington Huskies entered Autzen Stadium, hellbent on breaking Oregon's 12-game winning streak. Browning and the offense took the crowd out of the game early with three first-quarter touchdowns, and Washington's talented defense did the rest, holding the Ducks offense at bay until the clock struck 00:00. Final score: 35-23, Washington. The streak was over.
Oregon rebounded, winning their next two games against Cal and Arizona State. But the wheels came completely off for the Ducks in November. The 31-27 road loss to USC, though not a total shock, gave Oregon its third conference loss of the season, all but sinking its conference championship hopes. The little chance they had left was extinguished when Christian McCaffrey and Stanford rolled through Autzen. McCaffrey returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, added 178 yards rushing, and Stanford beat Oregon in Eugene for the second time in their last three tries.
The boiling point came on November 19th in Salt Lake City, when a lethargic and seemingly disinterested Oregon team sleepwalked to a 31-19 loss to Utah, dropping the Ducks to 5-6 on the season. That was enough for Rob Mullens to make the big decision: Mark Helfrich was out as Oregon's head coach. Steve Greatwood would serve as Oregon's interim head coach for the remainder of the year.
The Ducks beat Oregon State to finish the season 6-6, avoiding its first sub-.500 season since 2004. After a 72-66 4OT win over Texas Tech in the Cactus Bowl, simultaneously the worst football of bowl season and the most entertaining bowl of the year, Oregon's season was mercifully at an end. Rather than continue its trend of hiring from within, Ducks leadership decided the program needed a new direction. Mullens and company went out and got a coach with defensive prowess, recruiting ties in the south, and a national championship pedigree: North Carolina defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.
There you have it: it'll be the playoffs, six losses and a shiny new Chizik, or something in between. Yeesh.