Can Anyone Knock Oregon Off Its Perch?
By Paul Myerberg // Jan 31, 2012
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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Tags: Bryan Bennett, California, Chase Thomas, Chip Kelly, Clancy Pendergast, Darron Thomas, De'Anthony Thomas, Jeff Tedford, Justin Wilcox, Keith Price, Kenjon Barner, Mike Leach, Mike Riley, Oregon, Oregon State, Pac-12, Shayne Skov, Stanford, Tra Carson, Washington, Washington State
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