Oregon Football: Early Game-by-Game Predictions for Ducks' 2014 Season
As spring gives way to summer, the college football season inches ever closer. Now that every program is finished with its offseason workouts, attention turns to the 2014 campaign.
Mark Helfrich's first season as Oregon's head coach included championship expectations, disappointment and redemption. With a veteran lineup that includes quarterback Marcus Mariota and All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the Ducks have the talent on both sides of the ball to take another step in Helfrich's second season.
If the Ducks are indeed contenders for the first College Football Playoff, they will certainly prove it via a challenging schedule. Oregon hosts the defending Rose Bowl champion, renews its rivalry with two-time Pac-12 champion Stanford and faces the likely favorite out of the South on the road.
Plenty can change in the months until these games play out, including injury. But were the Ducks' 2014 schedule kicking off now, it might very well unfold as follows.
Aug. 30: Vs. South Dakota
Dating back to 2010, four straight Football Championship Subdivision programs have visited Oregon. Each left with a similar result: 69-0 vs. Portland State in 2010; 56-7 vs. Missouri State in 2011; 63-14 vs. Tennessee Tech in 2012; and 66-3 vs. Nicholls State last season.
That's a 57.5 point average margin of victory.
Sure, South Dakota has a recent upset of a power-conference opponent to its credit—the Coyotes knocked off Minnesota in 2010. But they lost their last such matchup to Kansas in 2013, 31-17, and their final point output that game was right around their final season average of 17.4 points per game, per GoCoyotes.com.
Prediction: Oregon 63, South Dakota 7
Sept. 6: Vs. Michigan State
The 2014 Ducks don't have to wait long for a real test to their championship mettle. Michigan State is coming off a 13-win season that included a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl defeat of Stanford.
This year's Michigan State team might actually be better than the last. And given Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio and his staff employ a scheme similar to that which has given Oregon fits against Stanford the last two seasons, this is a particularly meaningful measuring stick for the Ducks.
Running back Jeremy Langford is the kind of physical, tenacious ball-carrier Oregon's front seven struggled to contain last year in matchups with Stanford's Tyler Gaffney and Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey. Slowing Langford is key to taking quarterback Connor Cook out of his comfort zone.
In the Spartans' passing attack, tight end Josiah Price figures to be a central piece this year. Given rival Stanford's propensity for using the tight end as a pass-catcher, containing Price is a championship precursor for the Ducks defense.
The Spartans make their bones on the defensive side, where end Shilique Calhoun is the anchor. Oregon's veteran offensive line must contain Michigan State's swarming presence, which last season was No. 2 nationally against the run at 86.6 yards per game.
This isn't likely to be the typical offensive eruption customary for Oregon football, and low-scoring games have been the team's undoing in recent years. Proving it can win a grinder is a major step toward the College Football Playoff.
Prediction: Oregon 28, Michigan State 24
Sept. 13: Vs. Wyoming
First-year Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl is a three-time national champion, leading North Dakota State to each of the last FCS titles since 2011.
Bohl's first Wyoming team is probably not as tough as his three title-winning lineups at North Dakota State, the last of which opened the 2013 season with an upset of Kansas State. The Cowboys were a disappointing 5-7 last season, losing three of their final four by a combined 107 points.
Wyoming must replace three-year starting quarterback Brett Smith, around whom former head coach Dave Christensen built his spread offense. Bohl prefers a power style, so Wyoming should rely heavily on running backs Shaun Wick and D.J. May.
But whereas North Dakota State's championship runs were built on defense, Wyoming is coming off a season in which it allowed more than 220 rushing yards per game. Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost should be able to spread carries among the depth chart in a lopsided Ducks' win.
Prediction: Oregon 63, Wyoming 14
Sept. 20: At Washington State
Last year's meeting at Autzen Stadium featured more drama than one might expect of a 62-38 rout. The Ducks coughed up two first-half turnovers that Washington State converted into 14 points—and even at that, Oregon led by as many as 38 points.
Running back Thomas Tyner had what could be considered his collegiate coming-out party, putting on a dual-threat show with 99 yards rushing and 42 receiving.
Quarterback Connor Halliday set a Pac-12 record for pass attempts with 89, which translated into 557 yards and four touchdowns.
Washington State head coach Mike Leach's commitment to his patented aerial style despite a lopsided margin sparked the ire of former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti.
"I think it’s low class...to throw the ball when the game is completely over against our kids that are basically our scout team," Aliotti said, per Jason Quick of The Oregonian.
The Oregon defense might have something to prove in new coordinator Don Pellum's Pac-12 debut. Halliday is back behind center to guide the Cougars' air raid, and he has a deep receiving corps with which to target.
Washington State will test an Oregon secondary still early into the process of replacing Avery Patterson, Brian Jackson and Terrance Mitchell. Likewise, the Cougars' own secondary is replacing Deone Bucannon and Damante Horton, which should give Mariota free reign to test out his new receiving corps.
Prediction: Oregon 59, Washington State 21
Oct. 2: Vs. Arizona
One date that should be circled in red ink on calendars throughout Oregon is this Thursday night rematch of the program's most surprising loss in years.
Oregon won the previous five meetings with Arizona by an average of 21.2 points per game, including a 49-0 blowout in the Wildcats' last visit to Autzen Stadium. But behind Ka'Deem Carey's four touchdowns and quarterback B.J. Denker's 7.3 yards per carry, Arizona's run game powered a shocking 42-16 blitz that ostensibly ended Oregon's four-year run of BCS bowl appearances.
Both Carey and Denker are gone, so Rich Rodriguez's version of the spread offense will look quite a bit different in 2014. It shouldn't take a significant step back, but it surely won't have a grinder like Carey able to take the air out of the ball.
And with a healthy lineup intact, look for the Ducks to make a statement after last year's loss.
Prediction: Oregon 56, Arizona 31
Oct. 11: At UCLA
All eyes should be on the Rose Bowl for this cross-divisional showdown, pitting the presumptive Pac-12 North favorite against the pick to win the South.
Oregon used a second-half deluge to dispatch the Bruins from Autzen Stadium a season ago, 42-14. UCLA fought to a 14-14 tie through the first half, but its inexperience showed after intermission.
That game offered UCLA head coach Jim Mora insight into where his program stood among the nation's elite. With the most returning starters in the Pac-12, including dual-threat quarterback Brett Hundley and two-way standout linebacker and running back Myles Jack, the Bruins look ready to take that step.
Oregon's ability to beat UCLA's young offensive linemen on the blitz was integral to the second-half romp. Tony Washington made a game-changing play with a forced fumble. The Ducks will need similar efforts from Washington, Torrodney Prevot and Arik Armstead to slow the Bruins.
This could very well be a preview of the 2014 Pac-12 Championship Game, which is scheduled for a neutral field for the first time in its brief history. Home-field advantage could play a big role in this encounter, however, and Mora picks up his signature win in conference.
Prediction: UCLA 31, Oregon 27
Oct. 18: Vs. Washington
Helfrich and Chris Petersen have made some of the same stops in their careers, and they meet as head coaches on opposing sidelines for the first time.
"I will still be a friend of his most days, the majority of days," Helfrich joked at the May 1 Pac-12 teleconference call via Pac-12.com.
One of those Helfrich is excluding is the Oct. 18 renewal of a bitter, regional rivalry that has been decidedly one-sided in the last decade.
Oregon enjoys a 10-game win streak. Conversely, Petersen is 2-0 all-time against the Ducks, with his wins coming at Boise State in 2008 and 2009.
How that translates to Petersen's new gig is a question on Huskies fans' and reporters' minds since his hire was announced in December. He was asked about the rivalry in his introductory press conference 10 months out.
Obviously, snapping its losing skid against Oregon is a priority for Washington. With a talented defense and stout offensive line returning, the Huskies can build off their nine-win 2014. But dethroning the Ducks from atop their Pac-12 perch may not be in the cards.
Prediction: Oregon 38, Washington 27
Oct. 24: At Cal (in Santa Clara, California)
What once looked like a burgeoning rivalry in the mid-2000s became one-sided in 2009. The Ducks have taken each of the last five from the Golden Bears, and save a 15-13 final in 2010, Oregon won by an average of 37 points per game.
Cal head coach Sonny Dykes suffered a brutal initiation to the Pac-12 in his first season, going winless in conference. It's no coincidence Cal was the youngest team in the conference, but an additional year of experience won't be enough to have the Golden Bears ready to reignite the rivalry with Oregon.
Quarterback Jared Goff showed promise in his freshman campaign but was knocked out of a rain-drenched meeting with Oregon early. The Ducks' ability to get into the backfield and disrupt him early should set a tone in yet another lopsided win.
Prediction: Oregon 62, Cal 21
Nov. 1: Vs. Stanford
Behind a stifling defense and coordinator Derek Mason's antidote for the hurry-up spread offense, Stanford became the bane of Oregon's Pac-12 existence. The Cardinal have twice denied the Ducks the Pac-12 North championship, thus keeping them out of the mix for the conference title.
Mason is gone for the head coaching job at Vanderbilt, and Stanford's Duck-stoppers Shayne Skov, Ed Reynolds and Trent Murphy are all NFL-bound. Still, the Cardinal defense presents the highest hurdle between Oregon and a return to the Pac-12 mountaintop.
Mariota's late-season knee injury hampered his play-making ability, and failed red-zone opportunities proved critical.
"Right, yeah, I mean, it would have been a lot different [had Oregon converted on its red-zone chances]," Mariota said in the postgame press conference, per GoStanford.com.
Emphasis on building strength up front in the offseason should be the difference in cashing in those opportunities this time around. Look for Oregon to exorcise its Stanford demons emphatically.
Prediction: Oregon 35, Stanford 17
Nov. 8: At Utah
Utah's stout defense kept the Utes within arm's reach of Oregon last November, trailing just 17-14 early in the third quarter. But a De'Anthony Thomas kickoff returned for a touchdown broke the game open.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham could be facing a make-or-break season. After reaching a bowl game in each of his previous seven seasons at the helm, Whittingham and the Utes missed the postseason the last two years.
The Utah defense should again present problems for Pac-12 offenses. There's talent across the board, with Nate Orchard at defensive end, Eric Rowe in the secondary and Jason Whittingham at linebacker. It's the kind of style and make-up that has challenged past Ducks offenses.
The addition of former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen as offensive coordinator promises to give the Utes offense a new look, but keeping pace with Oregon is a difficult proposition.
Rice-Eccles Stadium can be a treacherous place for visitors—just ask Stanford, which lost there last season. If the upset bug that has bitten the Ducks in recent November outings is to strike again in 2014, Utah is the most likely candidate.
Prediction: Oregon 35, Utah 24
Nov. 22: Vs. Colorado
Colorado's transition to the Pac-12 is paved on a bumpy road, but no pothole has been quite as unkind to the Buffaloes as Oregon. The Ducks won the previous three meetings since Colorado joined the conference in 2011 by margins of 43, 56 and 41.
Oregon's dominance over Colorado dates back all the way to the 2002 Fiesta Bowl, when Joey Harrington led the Ducks to a 38-16 romp with four touchdown passes.
Although Buffs head coach Mike MacIntyre is turning his program around a corner, don't expect Colorado's struggles against Oregon to lessen. The Buffs enter 2014 without star wide receiver Paul Richardson, who caught for 134 yards against the Ducks a season ago.
Conversely, Mariota had a milestone day in Boulder, Colorado, last year with five touchdown passes. In what is likely to be his last game ever at Autzen Stadium, look for Mariota to produce some similar magic, much like Harrington's Oregon farewell against the Buffs.
Prediction: Oregon 52, Colorado 14
Nov. 29: At Oregon State
Oregon's dominance of the Civil War rivalry with Oregon State came perilously close to ending last November. Had Mariota not engineered a 1:09 scoring drive, culminating with a 12-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Josh Huff, Oregon would have finished the month of November a disappointing 1-3 in Helfrich's first season.
This year, the Civil War should be less about salvaging the final month and more solidifying the Ducks' return to the Pac-12 Championship Game. But Oregon State should put up a fight similar to last season's classic.
The Beavers lost do-everything wide receiver Brandin Cooks, but the Pac-12's single-season record holder for passing yards, quarterback Sean Mannion, has no shortage of targets returning. Coupled with a renewed emphasis on the rush with Storm Woods and Terron Ward, the Beavers offense should be much more balanced.
Another back-and-forth shootout should cap Oregon's regular season and provide a thrilling prelude to the postseason.
Prediction: Oregon 41, Oregon State 35
Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.