It’s been barely a week since the Mario Cristobal “era” (if we can call it that) came to an end in Eugene and the Ducks have already secured his replacement, Dan Lanning, who served as Georgia’s defensive coordinator and this season had the Bulldogs playing some of the stoutest defense in the nation.
Lanning is only 35 years old. He has already proven to be an elite-level recruiter. He is full of youthful energy and enthusiasm. One might say he could be viewed as a friend by players who just happen to be coached by him.
If you feel like that’s a description you’ve heard before, you wouldn’t be alone. Cristobal pretty much encapsulated the same qualities. But at the end of the day, is that truly the most important thing to look for when selecting someone to man the helm of a program trying to finally achieve a national championship? It seems there may be a huge factor that isn’t being addressed with the kind of emphasis it should be.
Namely, what the Ducks need most is a man who can coach, and coach well.
There’s not much one can say negatively about Cristobal on a personal level. He’s a family-oriented man with a down-to-earth personality that resonates very well with college players and, particularly, recruits.
Under Cristobal, Oregon experienced levels of recruitment success previously unheard of in the Pacific Northwest. The Ducks were no longer competing with Oregon State, Cal, or Washington for recruits, but had joined the ranks of the Ohio State’s, Notre Dame’s, and LSU’s. Oregon finished 13th, 7th, 12th, and 6th nationally in 247’s recruiting rankings in four years under Cristobal.
There wasn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind that Cristobal could reel top-tier talent into Eugene. The question was, what could he do with it?
It may be nitpicking, but there were some red flags during Cristobal’s tenure in relation to his in-game coaching prowess.
In his first full season as Oregon’s coach in 2018, Cristobal had the Ducks off to a 3-0 start when they hosted Top 10 Stanford at Autzen in late September. For three and a half quarters, Oregon was dominating the Cardinal, but a called-back touchdown that turned into a score on the other end for Stanford suddenly proved to be more than the Ducks could overcome mentally.
Oregon’s lead melted away and they ended up losing 38-31 in overtime. The change in momentum was something, it seemed, a great coach should have been able to adjust to.
Three weeks later, Oregon rebounded and gave Cristobal the first signature win of his tenure, defeating Top 10 Washington at Autzen in another overtime thriller 30-27.
With that win, the Ducks had what appeared to be a fast-track to the Rose Bowl, but they proceeded to let it slip right through their fingers by going 1-3 over their next four games, landing themselves instead in the Redbox Bowl where they squeaked out a 7-6 win over Michigan State in which the offense was stuck in neutral (more on that in a moment).
The 2019 season was Cristobal’s finest as he led Oregon to a Pac 12 championship and Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. From where the Ducks had been only a few years before, it was a crowning achievement. But not without a little frustration.
In the opener, Oregon was again dominating a highly-ranked foe as they had Auburn on the ropes in front of a national TV audience. However, once again Cristobal was unable to stymie a change in momentum and the Tigers roared back in the final quarter for a come-from-behind win.
Despite that loss, the Ducks had put themselves in position for a College Football Playoff spot by late-season, but they inexplicably were tripped up by a mediocre Arizona State team and eliminated from playoff contention.
Though they still had a great run, the 2019 team, which was loaded with NFL talent and senior leadership, seemed like they could have accomplished more.
In 2020 Oregon had what appeared to be a relatively easy shot at the playoff with a shortened season. And though they started 3-0, they then suffered absolutely head-scratching losses to conference bottom-dwellers Cal and Oregon State.
Thanks to health and safety measures which caused a forfeit in their regular season finale, Oregon got a shot at the Pac 12 crown and took full advantage, defeating USC to earn a spot in the Fiesta Bowl. Once there, however, they were blasted by Iowa State as Cristobal seemed to struggle to find a way to keep the offense moving.
Finally, we come to this current season, in which Cristobal secured one of the biggest wins in school history early in the season and, despite a mind-boggling loss to another bottom-dweller in Stanford, still remained in the playoff heading into the final weeks of the season.
We all know how that turned out. Twice in three weeks, Utah obliterated Oregon by doing the exact same thing, and Cristobal appeared to have no answer.
To be clear, I am not saying Cristobal is a sub-par coach. He led Oregon to consecutive conference championships and lost only one game at home his entire tenure.
He has been able to bring in the kind of talent most Duck fans could only dream of. But with that talent he managed only a Fiesta Bowl blowout loss and an Alamo Bowl berth (the 2019 team was led almost primarily by players he did not recruit as head coach).
Again, Cristobal is a great family man, mentor, and recruiter. But when it comes to on-field coaching and in-game adjustments, it seems he’s coming up a little shorter than what should realistically be expected.
He was a lineman in college and has a lineman’s mentality when it comes to offense; run behind your offensive line and pound teams into the ground. It can be an effective way to play in some circumstances but in modern-day college football, particularly on the West Coast, an aerial attack and ability to score in bunches are crucial.
The Ducks have been saved by their defense several times this year in games they could have run away with if the offense consistently found the end zone after stops.
The offensive outputs against Utah were downright embarrassing, particularly in the rematch in which Oregon had ample time to prepare and correct previous mistakes.
It is true that defense wins championships, and Oregon wanted someone who could shut other teams down. Lanning fits that bill. But offensively, what can he create so that the defense doesn’t have to come out completely gassed after multiple three-and-outs and try to save the day again? He has already selected Florida State’s Kenny Dillingham as his new offensive coordinator, who hopefully can inject some pizazz into the Ducks’ attack.
But more importantly, when Oregon finds itself in less than favorable situations, can he make the in-game adjustments necessary to win games the Ducks are in danger of losing?
Oregon’s roster is loaded with as much young talent as it has ever had. They feel like a Kraken waiting to be released (all due respect to Liam Neeson). Right now, what Oregon needs isn’t necessarily someone who can bring in more of it, but someone who can make the most out of what’s there.
Is Lanning that guy? We’re about to find out.