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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Can Anyone Knock Oregon Off Its Perch?

Oregon knew – or had a very strong suspicion – that LaMichael James was going to forego his final season of eligibility; Darron Thomas’ decision to follow James out the door came as a bit of a surprise. It was certainly surprising on a national level, as Thomas, while certainly one of the top quarterbacks in the Pac-12, could probably have used another season of college seasoning before taking his game onto the next level. Oregon’s offense shouldn’t have much trouble replacing James, as strange as that might sound, since the Ducks can turn to the three-headed monster of Kenjon Barner, De’Anthony Thomas and Tra Carson to help pick up the slack.

Replacing Thomas will provide a sterner test to Chip Kelly and Oregon’s frenetic offensive attack. The offense hit another gear not merely when James took over at running back – he was the primary back in each of the last three years – but when Thomas, then a sophomore, replaced Jeremiah Masoli following the 2009 season.

Thomas gave Oregon a passing game to go with its ground attack. In 2010, Thomas threw for 2,863 yards and 30 touchdowns with 9 interceptions; the year before, with Masoli under center, the Ducks as a team threw for 2,344 yards and 16 touchdowns against 7 interceptions. As a junior in 2011, Thomas upped the ante to 2,761 yards and 33 touchdowns with 7 interceptions.

Bryan Bennett, Thomas’ backup in 2011 – and now full-time replacement in 2012 – added another six touchdowns without an interception. Now a sophomore, Bennett will step into a major role one year ahead of schedule; how he fares, how he develops in this new role, will likely determine whether the Ducks can fend off U.S.C. and remain the class of the Pac-12.

Oregon’s loss may be Washington’s gain. The Huskies, along with the rest of the Pac-12 North, hope to make up ground in a division that should be far more wide open than it was in 2011, when the Ducks and Stanford lapped the field. The Cardinal will take a step back from last fall’s 11-win finish – as would any program needing to replace Andrew Luck – but won’t, as most expect, fall completely off the map. Can Stanford, or another North division rival, step forward and knock Oregon off its perch?

Stanford’s issues go beyond the hole at quarterback. The offensive line, for instance, needs to replace a pair of early N.F.L. entrants. The Cardinal’s focus may very well switch to the defensive side of the ball, seeing that it’ll be nearly impossible for David Shaw’s offense to retain its 2011 pace. While the defense needs to replace a good portion of its secondary, the Cardinal return linebackers Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov, with the latter working his way back to full health after missing most of last season with a knee injury.

California seems close to breaking out: Jeff Tedford located a new offensive identity over the final month of the regular season, one based on a commitment to the running game, and will carry this run-focused philosophy over to 2012. The team’s biggest concern is its own defense, which has played with minimal consistency since adding Clancy Pendergast as coordinator heading into the 2010 season.

And what about Washington? The Huskies are undergoing a massive defensive transformation, as noted earlier today: Nick Holt and his assistants are out, replaced by Justin Wilcox, Peter Sirmon and a pair of Pac-12 coaching steals – new defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi, a former California assistant, will be the program’s point man when it comes to recruiting along the West Coast. It all hinges on Wilcox; the offense is there, even if the Huskies need to find a new starting running back and a new leading target in the passing game. After shining in an Alamo Bowl loss, Keith Price is ready to take his place among the top quarterbacks in the country.

Want to keep pace with the rest of the Pac-12? Well, seeing how offense now rules the day, hiring Mike Leach seems like a good start. Washington State reeled in Leach days after dismissing Paul Wulff after another bowl-less finish, and thanks to Wulff’s painful and error-pocked work rebuilding the program’s foundation the pieces are in place for Leach to taste immediate success. Quarterbacks? Leach has two, including a healthy Jeff Tuel, and as we saw at Texas Tech, the Air Raid offense is predicated on quarterback play.

Expecting Oregon State to notch back-to-back disappointing seasons under Mike Riley would be a mistake; after hitting rock bottom in 2011, Riley will have the Beavers back in bowl play this fall. Last year’s team had a multitude of issues – the defense was historically bad – but none loomed larger than the shuffling cards in the offensive backfield, where the Beavers seemed ill-equipped to replace N.F.L.-bound Jacquizz Rodgers. With no running backs capable of shouldering the load and a freshman quarterback under center, the Beavers never had a chance against the prolific Pac-12.

So can one of these five teams leapfrog past Oregon and take the Pac-12 North? I wouldn’t bet on it. The Ducks, despite losing Thomas to the N.F.L., remain far more complete than any one of their five divisional rivals. This is true not just on offense, where we know the Ducks will continue to excel, but also on defense, where Nick Aliotti continues to put together competent groups every fall. But unlike last fall, look for far more competitiveness along the division’s second tier: From Washington through Washington State, it’s relatively easy to see any one of the quintet take second place in the division.

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Comments

  1. Mallrat92204 says:

    I think you have it reversed for Cal, the defense is holding the team together while the offense is in shambles.

    Paul: I touched on both sides of that coin late last week. The offense needs help (http://www.presnapread.com/as-maynard-goes-so-goes-cal-and-tedford/), just as the defense needs to step up its game (http://www.presnapread.com/the-year-in-review-california-7-6-4-5/). Didn’t go very in-depth here, but I think there are question marks on both sides of the ball. But you make a fair point: Cal needs to score points to keep pace with the rest of the Pac-12.

  2. Andrew says:

    No one can catch Oregon! MWA HA HA HA HA.

    Seriously though, UW and Cal have a shot, but until they find balance on both sides of the ball, there’s no way that UW’s defense can stop Oregon, and no way Cal’s Offense can keep up.

    Although Price is a beast, the offense leaned really heavily on Polk, his loss not mentioned above.

    Truth is that USC and Oregon are relevant on a national level, everyone else is not.

  3. Andrew says:

    P.S. I fully expect to have my foot shoved squarely into my mouth come mid October :)

  4. WashingtonDCduck says:

    Great piece Paul. The issue with Oregon will not be on the offensive side of the ball, as many close to the Oregon program feel they will actually receive an upgrade at the QB position in 2012. Crazy as that sounds, Thomas who had a ton of big time game experience still lacked that running threat that really makes the zone read option hum. Dennis Dixon mastered it in 2007, launching Oregon to a #2 spot and a collision course matchup with LSU in the Sugar Bowl – then his knee blew out on the grass in Tucson. Darron Thomas was a very talented guy, and Oregon fans loved him, however, Bryan Bennett has a stronger more accurate arm and will run for double if not triple the amount of yards in Kelly’s run based spread attack.
    Can Kenjon Barner stay healthy? De’Anthony Thomas is not an every down back. So, depth at RB could come and haunt Oregon at some point during the year. (to really nitpick here)

    Defensively Oregon will be tested by strong ariel attacks in the conference, in particular USC feared air show and competent QBs who have time to attack Oregon downfield. Nick Alliotti loves to disguise blitzes, but leave secondary often times on lonely islands. Barkley exposed that in 2011 and that’s why USC walked out of Autzen with a “W”.

    An early indication seems that nobody in the north will touch Oregon, and USC and the Ducks will do battle to determine the conference with possibly Utah as a dark horse.

  5. travis says:

    Andrew:

    “…the offense is there, even if the Huskies need to find a new starting running back and a new leading target in the passing game.”

    Seems to be a reference to Polk’s departure.

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