After losing a Heisman candidate quarterback in Dennis Dixon and a two year star runningback in Jonathan Stewart, many experts believed that 2008 would be a rebuilding year for the University of Oregon football squad, especially on offense.
Instead, the Ducks offense was more powerful than ever. Led by a rushing attack featuring senior Jeremiah Johnson and first year players LeGarrette Blount and Jeremiah Masoli, the Ducks finished the season with the second most yards-per-game in the NCAA.
Johnson is gone, along with a disappointing receiver in Jaison Williams, but the core of skill players from last years offense remains.
If the Holiday Bowl is a preview of things to come, then the Ducks offense could prove to be even more exciting than last year. Coach Mike Belotti, in his final game, placed the ball in the hands of his young quarterback, and Masoli didn't disappoint.
After relying mostly on his rushing for much of the year, Masoli threw for 258 yards and a touchdown to go with his 106 yards on the ground. Even more importantly, Masoli showed leadership ability and a knack for making the play at important times.
Going into the 2009 season, the biggest question for Oregon may be its offensive and defensive lines. Three starters must be replaced on the offensive line, and only one starting defensive lineman returns from last season.
In particular, the leadership of center Max Unger on offense and defensive end Nick Reed on defense will be sorely missed. Their replacements will be tested immediately, as the non-conference schedule has been ranked as one of the toughest in the league. (http://www.sportingnews.com/college-football/article/2009-07-01/ranking-nonconference-schedules-top-10)
The non-conference schedule begins with Boise State, one of the Ducks losses from last year. Boasting a much-improved defense and a quarterback who was one of the best freshmen in the nation, the Broncos are not an easy first game.
This game will be a big test for Masoli. Was the Holiday Bowl a fluke? Can he really be effective passing the ball? If he throws as well as he did against Oklahoma State, he adds another dimension that will keep defenders honest and greatly improve the offense.
Blount, the probable starting runningback, should have a good game against a small but fast Bronco's defense. With his size and speed, Blount should be able to get consistent yardage.
On the defensive side of the ball, the young secondary will be challenged by Bronco sophomore Kellen Moore, who put up gaudy numbers as a freshman. The new defensive ends will also be challenged to hold their position because of the many trick plays that the Bronco's utilize.
The second test of the season is a rematch against Purdue. Last year, the Ducks overcame an early deficit to tie the game in regulation and eventually won in double overtime.
In that game, starting quarterback Justin Roper was injured and the Ducks struggled to replace him at quarterback. The Ducks rode the duel running attack of Jeremiah Johnson and LeGarrette Blount to victory.
Expect a huge game from Blount and possibly a breakout performance from backup Andre Crenshaw, as the Ducks will attempt to continue their running success against the Boilermakers. Masoli should also put up huge rushing totals.
Last year, Purdue runningback Kory Sheets struck first in the game with an 80 yard scamper on the second play of the game. Without the dynamic rushing attack of Sheets, Purdue could have trouble moving the ball against the Oregon defense.
In the third game of the season, the Ducks challenge the Utah Utes at home. The Utes have lost a lot from a team that finished 2nd in the BCS standings last year, but still are a threat to ruin the Ducks BCS hopes.
New head coach Chip Kelly will have to draw up a perfect playbook against one of the best defenses in the nation. The Utah offense, however, lost a majority of its starters and is facing its first real test at Autzen Stadium.
The Ducks have a major advantage in this game, having already faced quality teams in Purdue and Boise State. The Utes, in comparison, will have faced Utah State and San Jose State.
This game might be the lowest scoring game for the Ducks all season. A game like this that is sure to be won by only a few points will be won by playmakers on both sides of the ball, and the Ducks have plenty of them. If Blount wants a legitimate shot at winning the Heisman, he will have a great shot at proving his worth in this game.
Chip Kelly's offensive genius will be tested in this game. If the Ducks can survive this opening stretch unscathed, they will be in a great position to make a run at the BSC title game.