Oregon Football: Does Weak Early-Season Schedule Help or Hurt Ducks?
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The Oregon Ducks are 4-0 through the first month of the 2013 college football season, and though recent weather in Eugene might indicate otherwise, it's been a smooth-and-sunny first month for Mark Helfrich and company.
The Ducks are one of the few undefeated teams that haven't really been tested, and many are still wondering how they'll stack up against tougher competition. Unfortunately, that question probably won't be answered this weekend in Boulder, Co.
But it does give us another question to ponder: How has the weak schedule affected the Ducks?
Tackling this one in October is a much easier task than it would have been before the season began because we have the benefit of hindsight. In late August, one might wonder if Oregon could maintain a spot in the Top 5 by playing inferior competition.
On the other side of the argument would be those claiming that a steady increase in difficulty was the perfect way to get the team ready for a difficult stretch from mid-October through early November.
There are still a few different sides to the debate, but one thing is for sure: The schedule hasn't hurt Oregon in the rankings, because the Ducks are currently No. 2 in both the USA Today and AP polls.
So for those wondering what the perception of Oregon would be because of the cupcake September slate, your answer is loud and clear.
Part of that is because the Ducks haven't just beaten the first four opponents, they've destroyed them in every phase of the game.
So if the Ducks are holding on to a prime spot in the rankings, how could the early schedule have possibly hurt the team?
Well, there's still the matter of having not been tested. Last season, Oregon won every single game by double digits until Stanford arrived at Autzen Stadium. Untested, and seemingly unprepared for a nail-biter deep into the fourth quarter, Oregon's offense struggled to make clutch plays late in the game, and the run at an undefeated season was over.
Assuming Oregon tacks on another easy win this weekend, the team will be heading to a renovated Husky Stadium where an improved team and raucous crowd await.
Oregon hasn't had a single pressure-filled drive this season, which could come back to haunt the team at some point. As luxurious as the past couple seasons have been for Ducks fans, close games are on the horizon, especially in a conference on the rise.
It's safe to say that being untested is a negative side effect of an easy September schedule.
However, everything else about the setup has been overwhelmingly positive for the Ducks.
Exhibit A: As mentioned, the team has held steady in the rankings. Because of the margin of victory in each of the wins, voters haven't penalized the Ducks in the slightest for a lack of competition. In fact, Alabama, which has already played several interesting games, has lost ground to the Ducks in recent weeks.
Exhibit B: Health and building depth! Sure, the injury to De'Anthony Thomas is dominating local headlines, but the team is extremely healthy after one month, and the entire depth chart has been given a major workout. If the games had been close, a number of guys who now have experience may not have seen the field.
Consider too that many of the key players on both sides of the ball have less wear and tear on their bodies than key players on other teams around the country.
Due to sitting out the fourth quarter of each game thus far, Marcus Mariota has had fewer opportunities to get hit than other quarterbacks who have played the entirety of every game.
Lastly, the Ducks haven't had to reveal much of the playbook on either side of the ball. Note that I'm the furthest thing from an expert on play-calling and the nuances of the spread offense, but there are several looks we've seen in the past that haven't been utilized this season.
Remember the tight end screen over the middle that Oregon used to run for David Paulson? Colt Lyerla would be perfect in that spot, but Helfrich hasn't needed to dig deep into the playbook with giant leads.
This is huge moving forward because, while Oregon will have tons of game film on its opponents, other teams won't be able to learn much about the Ducks until offensive coordinator Scott Frost is forced to start showing new looks.
Has the weak early-season schedule helped or hurt the Ducks?
Football is an exciting spot, and fans want to see what their team looks like against the best. Unfortunately for those clad in green and yellow (and white, and chrome, and black...), the first month hasn't been exciting in that sense.
But moving forward, the balmy start will continue to be a positive thing as the team has improved health and better depth. It may not be ideal to begin every season this way, but the September schedule in 2013 has helped the Ducks.
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