If defense does indeed win championships, the tone Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich's staff sets now will define the Ducks' 2014 title pursuit.
Oregon built its strategy of overwhelming opponents on the offensive end in part on the contributions of its defense. The Ducks are at their best when a stifling defensive effort sets the table for their quick-strike offense.
With just five losses in the last three seasons, they have been at their best routinely.
However, late-season losses at Stanford and Arizona exposed deficiencies in Oregon's defense—specifically on the line. Solving the issues that vexed the Ducks is a process extending well beyond game day.
Following the Stanford loss on November 7, 2013, former defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti told reporters blame for the Cardinal offensive line's dominance rested on the coaching staff:
I hate to say that they dominated the line of scrimmage because I don’t want to sell my guys short. That’s the only reason I hate saying that. They dominated me because my guys are awesome and warriors and they fought to the end...But they didn’t dominate my guys.They won the game, they won the line of scrimmage.
Aliotti left on a high note and turns over a defense still in good shape to new coordinator Don Pellum.
A 30-7 rout of Texas in the December 2013 Alamo Bowl set the right precedent for the Ducks defense in 2014. It was quintessential Oregon at its best, thriving off turnovers. Both interceptions of Longhorns quarterback Case McCoy went for touchdowns, including the game-sealing return by linebacker Derrick Malone.
Though the Alamo Bowl was notable for Oregon's defense outscoring the Texas offense, the underlining development was the Ducks' inspired play up front.
Texas was limited to 180 rushing yards, including just 55 in the second half.
"Made some schematic adjustments coming into it to combat their bigger bodies with one of our slightly smaller bodies than them," Helfrich said in his postgame press conference following the Alamo Bowl.
Defensive lineman Taylor Hart was vital to that effort, overpowering and outworking bigger Texas offensive linemen to make a game-high 11 tackles. Hart is gone for the NFL, and filling his void is among the program's primary offseason challenges.
But as the line comes together, it will have plenty of support behind it.
Oregon's linebacker corps will be the defensive foundation, particularly in the early weeks of the 2014 slate. Despite losing outside linebacker Boseko Lokombo, this is the team's most experienced defensive unit and certainly its deepest.
Malone and Tony Washington were breakout stars in 2013, each leading the Ducks in various statistical categories: Malone in tackles with 105, Washington in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (12).
Rodney Hardrick is also coming off a solid 2013 and a cast of candidates are making their case for prominent roles during spring practices.
Washington touted the performance of Christian French and Tyrell Robinson to ESPN.com's Chantel Jennings.
Rahim Cassell, Tyson Coleman and Joe Walker should all see expanded roles, and Oshay Dunmore is an intriguing talent.
The many capable linebackers should help take some of the pressure off the oft-criticized line. The 2014 linebacker corps is reminiscent of the Ducks' standout 2012 unit. That group gave Oregon a fearsome look up front, both containing the run and blitzing from a 46 base.
Football Study Hall broke down how the formation overwhelmed Kansas State in Oregon's 2013 Fiesta Bowl romp, and opposing offenses can anticipate a similar look next fall.
Washington told Jennings that the defense's collective mindset is more aggressive this offseason than in years past.
"You can just tell the defense is different: different mindset, different attitude," he said. "Guys are attacking more."
Pellum said at his introductory press conference in January that the principles of Aliotti's hybrid 3-4 would remain intact. Rather than dramatic change, the new coordinator promised tweaks.
Instilling a more aggressive philosophy may be the No. 1 tweak this coaching staff can emphasize between now and kickoff of the 2014 campaign.
By bringing the fight to the offense at the point of attack—and not vice versa, as was the case in last year's losses—Oregon's defense can take the next necessary step toward returning to the pinnacle of the Pac-12.
Statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com.