A two-year absence from the Pac-12 championship game isn't an eternity, but for Oregon, a team that likes to do things quickly, it's been long enough.
The last time the Ducks made an appearance? The inaugural conference title in 2011, a 49-31 win over a then-hapless UCLA. For the past two seasons, Stanford has been the gold standard for the Pac-12 North—and the gold standard for the conference, for that matter—by winning the division.
For Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich, Year 2 in Eugene, Ore., means taking the next step by getting back to the conference championship game after an 11-2 campaign last year.
Can he do it? Absolutely.
It starts by addressing some more pressing needs during spring practice—which began on Tuesday—namely in the secondary. Thankfully for the Ducks, even this storyline isn't cause for too much concern.
Yes, this group loses corner Terrance Mitchell and safeties Avery Patterson and Brian Jackson. However, star corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who tied for second on the team in pass break-ups (six) and interceptions (three), returns.
Fellow corners Dior Mathis and Troy Hill have plenty of experience in backup roles, as does safety Erick Dargan. That should bridge some of the concern and make this a matter of reloading rather than rebuilding.
In that vein, Helfrich believes that he can have a seamless transition with first-year defensive coordinator Don Pellum. A familiar face around the program as the team's linebackers coach, Pellum takes over the entire defense with the retirement of Nick Aliotti.
“I don’t think I got hired because I’m an Oregon guy, and for the love,” Pellum said via Ryan Thornburn of the Eugene Register-Guard. “I know coach Helfrich sees the right characteristics and right integrity and right discipline … the right things to make this decision.”
The Ducks were among the best defenses in the Pac-12 a year ago, finishing first in the conference against the pass.
On offense, there's no shortage of playmakers, even with the departures of De'Anthony Thomas and Josh Huff. Quarterback Marcus Mariota should be on preseason Heisman lists after accounting for nearly 4,400 total yards and 40 total touchdowns.
He'll have protection, too. The Ducks aren't lacking experience along the offensive line with seniors Jake Fisher, Hroniss Grasu and Hamani Stevens.
|Year||Points Per Game||Rushing Offense||Score vs. Stanford||Rushing Yards vs. Cardinal|
|2013||45.5||273.5 Yards Per Game||Loss, 26-20||62|
|2012||49.6||315.2 Yards Per Game||Loss, 17-14||198|
For the most part, the Ducks are a year older and wiser on that side of the ball—and they're looking for payback.
For the past two years, Stanford's defense has been the difference when it comes to winning the North Division. Oregon has averaged roughly 48 points a season during that span, yet has only averaged 17 points in two loses to the Cardinal.
Who will win the Pac-12 North?
2014 could be the year to finally break that trend. Like Oregon, Stanford is breaking in a new defensive coordinator, Lance Anderson, for the departed Derek Mason. Furthermore, the Cardinal lose a lot in the defensive front seven with the departures of defensive ends Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro, and linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov.
The final thing to look for with the Ducks is whether this team can reclaim some of the edge it lost down the stretch in 2013.
It's not something that shows up on a stat sheet necessarily, but anyone who watched the 42-16 loss to Arizona saw a more talented team get pushed around. Mariota may have been nursing a knee injury, but that had nothing to do with the Wildcats putting up 304 yards on the ground.
It was the worst loss for the program since falling to USC 44-10 in 2008.
If Helfrich really is cut from the same cloth as former head coach Chip Kelly, he'll have Oregon ready to go in 2014.
With Stanford replacing so much on offense and defense, this year's Pac-12 North belongs to the Ducks.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.