As the Ducks flap into the postseason, most likely heading for the Cactus Bowl in Phoenix, they remain a rather duplicitous bunch courtesy of their overall record, which stands at 7-5. However, a midseason swoon bolstered by the absence of Justin Herbert kept them from competing for the Pac-12 North, a goal they probably would have had a shot at had Herbert’s collarbone not given way against Cal at the end of September.
Oregon’s bowl game opponent had best beware because this team is firing on all cylinders with the offense completely rejuvenated under Herbert’s steady hand and the defense becoming an unsung hero behind the brilliance of coordinator Jim Leavitt.
But laboring over “what-ifs” isn’t the progressive way, so instead why don’t we look ahead 9 months to the 2018 football season, a season in which I believe Oregon will return to “Mighty Oregon” and compile 10 wins. This may be an auspicious statement to some so I won’t proceed with it without an explanation why, and there are several reasons.
1. Cupcakes Anyone?
Every season since 2014, Oregon has gone to battle with a nonconference opponent early in the season to whom they had at least a reasonable chance of losing. That, however, won’t be the case in 2018 as the early season nonconference schedule is nothing short of a bowl of marshmallows as Bowling Green, Portland State, and San Jose State all visit Autzen Stadium to begin the 2018 campaign. While not entirely Oregon’s fault (they initially had a home-and-home scheduled with Texas A&M of which the Aggies backed out), this essentially ensures Oregon heads into conference play 3-0 and most likely as one of highest scoring teams in the country.
2. Good Luck Shough
Back in October I wrote a piece detailing how much “safer” I’d feel next season about the signal-caller behind Herbert when 4-star pro-style QB Tyler Shough flipped his initial commitment from North Carolina to Oregon. I stated in this article that after his first start, I didn’t see the proper quarterback fundamentals of pocket presence, downfield passing, and improvisation under pressure from Freshman Braxton Burmiester. I also acknowledged it was his first start and I hoped he would improve and thus render my initial assessment incorrect. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Burmeister continued to struggle handily with downfield passing and decision making. I’ve been singing a lot of praises for Shough and the more videos I watch of the kid the more a fan I become. When he takes snaps, he drops back, feet set, eyes downfield, arm cocked and ready. And that arm is like a slingshot, easily spiraling passes far downfield and hitting receivers right between the numbers. He presents a fair scrambling ability and more than decent wheels for a pro-style quarterback. Hopefully, and in all likelihood, Herbert will not sustain any such injury next season and Shough should be able to comfortably redshirt while learning Willie Taggart’s system. But you never know, and having someone like Shough behind Herbert would help ensure Oregon does not become one-dimensional should he need to sit out for any reason.
3. Home Cookin’
Next season’s home-slate is very favorable to Oregon, with likely its two most dangerous divisional opponents set to visit Autzen. Stanford rolls into Eugene September 22nd to begin conference play. The Cardinal won 49-7 this year to hand Oregon by far its most lopsided defeat of the season, also noting that head coach Brian Shaw elected to continue throwing the football almost entirely through the 4th quarter even with the game well in hand. Three weeks later, the Washington Huskies pay a visit to the same stadium where they humiliated Oregon 70-21 in 2016, highlighted by the infamous “point” by quarterback Jake Browning as he strolled into the end zone. Browning will be back for his senior season. If the Civil War last Saturday taught us anything it’s that Taggart and co. don’t seem to take opportunities for payback lightly, and both teams ought to be high on Oregon’s hit list. Arizona State and UCLA will also be potential revenge games, with the latter featuring the return of Chip Kelly to his former stomping grounds. Pullman and Tucson are never easy venues to visit however, the brilliant Luke Falk will no longer be spearheading WSU’s attack and the dynamic Khalil Tate was manhandled by Oregon’s defense this year. Oregon avoids conference favorite and recruiting titan USC in the regular season once again.
4. They’re baaaccckk
Losing incredible talents like Tyrell Crosby, Royce Freeman, and Charles Nelson is never easy, but Oregon brings back an absolute abundance of talent that has already proven their worth on the gridiron. Herbert will again be under center, behind and offensive line that returns everyone except Crosby, meaning it’ll be the 3rd straight year Herbert and his big uglies take the field together. Tony Brooks-James has already proven himself an electric running back and return-man, and he’ll be accompanied by hybrid speedster Taj Griffin and Jaylon Redd, who’s already looking reminiscent of De’Anthony Thomas and Nelson with his slight frame and flaming speed. Jacob Breeland already proved a more than capable tight end this year and he’ll be catching balls along with Johnny Jonson III, who’s already had multiple highlight-reel grabs, Dillon Mitchell, who had a breakout performance against Oregon State, and the sure-handed Brenden Schooler. On the other side of the ball Oregon returns defensive line studs Jordon Scott and Jalen Jelks, the latter of which had one of the most impressive turnarounds this season under Leavitt. Justin Hollins and tackle-master Troy Dye return at linebacker along with fab freshmen Brady Breeze and Thomas Graham Jr. in the defensive backfield, also accompanied by seasoned vet Ugo Amadi. With major improvement already seen this year, particularly defensively, it’s no long shot to expect big performances out of all these returning athletes.
5. All In
Last, and perhaps most importantly, is the singular fact that the roster as a whole seems to have “bought-in” to what Taggart and his staff are selling. Confidence in a coach is just as, if not more, important than the abilities of the players on the field. When Chip Kelly started his tenure as Oregon’s coach he actually had a rocky start with an embarrassing loss at Boise State followed by underwhelming performances against Purdue and Utah at home. However, at the start of conference play Oregon players appeared to have “bought-in” against Cal as they rolled the 6th-ranked Golden Bears 42-3. From there Oregon was off like a rocket, winning 3 consecutive conference titles and playing in 4 consecutive BCS games. Whether it’s the swag-surfing on the sideline, the new “Do Something” phrase taking precedent in practices, or the sudden cornucopia of top recruits pledging their commitment to the small school in the Northwest over traditional powerhouses, football players are “buying in” to Willie Taggart. With that headlining the other various pros around this program, it’s not unreasonable to believe Oregon could be a double-digit win team as quickly as next season.
Only time will tell.