Oregon Football: Is 2014 the Ducks' Best Chance at a National Championship?

Kyle Kensing@kensing45Contributor IMarch 21, 2014

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Assorted championship near-misses have elevated the bar of expectations at Oregon, and the first year of the College Football Playoff could also mark the first national title in program history. A championship may not be the ultimate measure of a successful 2014 for the Ducks, but rather the only measure.

With a talented offensive core and refocused defensive philosophy, Oregon's offseason outlook heading into 2014 is as bright as any Ducks team during the program's current run of success.

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Quarterback Marcus Mariota is entering his third season steering the Oregon offense, which makes him the most veteran signal-caller the Ducks have had since beginning this run of five straight years with at least 10 regular-season wins.

Mariota is playing behind a veteran offensive line and is surrounded with talented playmakers at the skill positions. The defense has issues to address in the offseason, but the Ducks are not without potential on that side of the ball.

On paper, Oregon has all the makings of a team that can hoist the national championship trophy come January.

But being single-minded in the pursuit of a championship and losing focus on the road to that goal is a fine line. Last season, Oregon might have fallen on the wrong side of it. Wide receiver Josh Huff and running back De'Anthony Thomas were at the center of controversy last November for dismissive comments to ESPN.com about playing in the Rose Bowl.

Their lamentations came after a 26-20 loss at rival Stanford, which seemingly kept Oregon out of the national championship picture. Stanford denied the Ducks an opportunity to play for the BCS title the previous season, as well.

The same week as Huff and Thomas' comments went public, and two weeks removed from the Stanford loss, Oregon found itself on the wrong end of a 42-16 defeat at Arizona.

The Ducks' late-season skid kept them not only out of the Pac-12 Championship Game for a second consecutive season, but out of the BCS altogether for the first time since the 2008 season.

Were it not for Huff's touchdown reception in the final minute of last November's Civil War, Oregon would have failed to hit the 10-win mark in the regular season, which also hadn't occurred since 2008. And that's not to mention the end of a win streak against rival Oregon State that started in—you guessed it—2008.

First-year head coach Mark Helfrich may have dodged some undue pressure with the Ducks' strong finish, which included a rout of Texas in the Alamo Bowl. Fair or not, Helfrich inherited the lofty expectations that were built up by predecessor Chip Kelly.

Kelly's predecessor, Mike Bellotti, told The Oregonian columnist John Canzano on his AM 750 The Game radio show that Helfrich's debut season should not be too harshly criticized.    

Marcus Mariota is such a great athlete. We take so many things for granted. When he's not playing well, when he's injured and we don't know it, we're looking at that and saying, 'Why is that happening?' But 11-2 and a bowl victory over Texas, no matter what Texas was at this point in time, that's still a huge, huge season.

Indeed, 11 wins is a benchmark few programs reach. Stanford is the only other Pac-12 program in the last half-decade to reach that milestone, and Oregon has done it four straight seasons.

Likewise, winning conference championships is exceedingly difficult. Oregon has learned that firsthand over the last two seasons, and the road to claiming the Pac-12 title is only going to become more difficult in the years to come. Stanford has established itself as a perennial powerhouse, UCLA is on the rise and USC is positioning for a return to prominence.

Add Chris Petersen into the mix at Washington, and the conference landscape is much more treacherous than at any other time in its history.

For that reason, combined with the bevy of veteran talent in Eugene, Ore., makes 2014 the most opportune time for the Ducks to contend for a national championship.