Oregon Football: Realistic Expectations for the Ducks' 2014 Season

Kyle KensingContributor IMay 16, 2014

EUGENE, OR - MAY 3: Oregon Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich greets his players  before the Spring game at Autzen Stadium on May 3, 2014 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Throughout the spring practice season—Oregon's first time on field in preparation for the 2014—a recurring point of emphasis was improvement.

The expectation head coach Mark Helfrich set was getting better than the Ducks were a year ago in all phases, starting with how they practice.

"The intensity of practice has gone up and everyone is competing a lot harder,” safety Reggie Daniels told Steve Mims of The Register-Guard. “We’re making sure we’re focused all the time during drills. More people are trying to fill spots, so the competition has gone up."

Improvement also applies to the defense, which at times was the star of Oregon's 2013 season. A second-half shutout en route to a 42-14 romp over UCLA is a prime example.

But defense was also the Ducks' downfall in conference championship-thwarting losses at Stanford and Arizona. Specifically, Oregon was unable to slow the run and get the ball back to the explosive offense.

"Defensively, we're building to where we need to be," Helfrich said on the May 1 Pac-12 teleconference call, via Pac-12.com.

Even quarterback Marcus Mariota, the Pac-12's most productive playmaker each of the last two seasons, was in on the efforts to improve.  

"He's moving faster than I've ever seen him move, it seems like, making dime passes," offensive tackle Tyler Johnstone said to Gary Horowitz for USA Today. "He's doing all the things that Marcus Mariota always does. I'm real excited to see him this season."

Talk of specific milestones was not so much at the forefront, however—certainly not in the manner UCLA has embraced championship aspirations heading into the 2014 campaign.

Improvement for the Ducks comes with a certain implication. Oregon's room for improvement is so narrow from the heights the program has reached throughout the last half-decade.

A national championship has been tantalizingly close to Oregon football every year since 2010. However, a loss in the BCS Championship Game and various late-season defeats in Pac-12 play have kept the Ducks from hoisting college football's most coveted hardware.

This year might be the program's best shot to reach that highest of pinnacles, but first the Ducks must return to the apex of the Pac-12.

Oregon won three straight conference championships from 2009 through 2011. The first and last of those titles book-ended the greatest season in program history, when the Ducks went 12-0 through the regular season and came a field goal away from winning the BCS Championship.

Since that January 2011 meeting with Auburn, Oregon has lost just five games. Four of those losses came in November against Pac-12 opponents.

Certainly, finishing as strong as they start is a priority for the Ducks next season, but the season's first half is loaded with important dates.

Oregon hosts defending Rose Bowl champion Michigan State in Week 2, travels to UCLA in Week 7 and returns to Autzen Stadium the next week to face Washington.

An undefeated season may not be an expectation. Last year's Florida State team was the first unbeaten national champion since Auburn knocked off Oregon in 2011. Navigating a season without a loss is an extraordinarily difficult task and happens sparingly.

In a conference with the top-to-bottom strength of the Pac-12, escaping unscathed is especially challenging. To wit, two of Oregon's three conference championships came with at least one defeat in league play.  

But even if Oregon does sustain a blemish on its record, a return to the top of the conference is a realistic expectation, should the Ducks achieve their own, internal expectation of improvement. And with a Pac-12 title comes the very realistic possibility of a spot in the College Football Playoff.