The Oregon Ducks surprised the college football world during the 2010-2011 season by reaching the BCS National Championship game under second-year head coach Chip Kelly. The Ducks went 12-0 (9-0 in the Pac-10) before falling to Auburn 22-19 in an exciting title game.
Oregon's offense last season was, to say the least, explosive.
The Ducks led all of Division I college football in yards per game and points per game last season. They scored more points than any other team in the country, with 608. Oregon's per game average of 46.8 points bested the marks set by Boise State (45.1), Oklahoma State (44.2) and national champs Auburn (41.6).
Their NCAA-leading 530.7 yards per game came by way of 286.2 yards rushing (fourth) and 248.8 yards passing (49th), keeping in line with Oregon's hurry-up option style.
Although they'll return just 12 starters (seven on offense and five on defense), the Ducks will bring back the majority of their core.
Jump ahead to find out why last year's No. 2 team will finish on top this season.
Chip Kelly likes breaking records.
He also happens to be one of the most innovative offensive minds in college football.
Prior to arriving at Oregon in 2007 as offensive coordinator, Kelly spent seven seasons in the same position at New Hampshire where he had previously coached running backs and offensive linemen.
His offense at New Hampshire broke 29 school records in 2004. In his first year at Oregon, Kelly's offense led the Pac-10 in scoring at 38 points per game and in total yards at 467 yards per game—both of which were school records.
He broke those new records in 2008 as the Ducks' offense cruised to 485 yards and 41.9 points per game. Oregon's all-time winningest head coach, Mike Bellotti, stepped down at the end of the season; Kelly immediately took over his job. He became the first rookie head coach to win the Pac-10 title in 2009, guiding the Ducks to a 10-3 mark.
Prior to the 2010 season, returning senior quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was kicked off the team for burglary charges. With backup Darron Thomas at quarterback, Kelly and Heisman-hopeful LeMichael James led the Ducks to a 12-0 regular season and No. 1 ranking in the BCS polls.
Along the way they shattered the 2008 school records by 45 yards and 3.9 points per game.
With Chip Kelly at the helm, Oregon will continue to feature an explosive offense that will be tough to contain. Now that the players he personally recruited are beginning to fill out the roster, the Ducks should keep improving; if that's even possible.
In reaching the National Championship game with an undefeated record, Oregon disproved some notions about recruiting services and the star system.
In the four recruiting classes leading up to their 2010 run, neither Bellotti nor Kelly was able to haul in a top-10 class.
Even though Kelly's first class during the changeover in 2009 was perceived as weak, finishing 32nd best according to rivals, his immediate success on the field helped him land the 13th best class in 2010 and the No. 9 class this offseason.
Bellotti's final two classes weren't bad either, each placing in the top 20 (19th and 11th). Recruiting isn't everything but it still matters; consider the following from saturdaydownsouth.com:
"1. Each team that has played in the BCS National Championship game in the last five years has a top 20 or better four-year class average. The lowest four-year average was the 2010 Oregon Ducks with an average of 18.75.
2. 8 out of 10 teams had Top 15 four-year class averages.
3. 6 out of 10 teams had Top 10 four-year averages.
Four out of five BCS Champions had Top 10 four-year averages. The winner with the lowest class average was 2010 Champion Auburn with an average of 12.75."
The experts can clearly spot the best players, but differentiating them from that point is much more difficult.
One bad recruiting class (Oregon's 2009) can be rescued if the surrounding ones were solid.
The big get this year was Rival's No. 1 high school cornerback DeAnthony Thomas, who we'll discuss more later.
In 2010 their top signee was No. 3 running back Lache Seastrunk, who we'll touch on next.
Last year, Oregon's offense was led by a three-headed option attack involving sophomore rushers LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and sophomore quarterback Darron Thomas.
Combined with two departed senior running backs, a couple of receivers and the backup quarterbacks, the group amassed 3,721 yards on the ground over 629 carries; good for 5.9 yards per carry.
If he sticks around, Lache Seastrunk will be the Oregon Ducks' running back of the future, perhaps as early as next season.
The 5'9", 190-pound redshirt freshman out of Texas is a bit bigger than teammate James. Other than that, they have identical playing styles. Both are extremely elusive backs who can change direction on a dime or just straight-out run with an extra burst of speed.
Seastrunk is also perhaps a bit stronger than James and will eventually serve as a similar inside/outside workhorse in an offense.
For now, he'll take his reps behind his more experienced colleagues. James, after all, captured the Doak Walker award last season after leading the nation in running. He finished third in Heisman voting behind Cam Newton and Andrew Luck.
After redshirting in 2008, James has run for 1,546 and 1,731 yards the past two seasons. Although a higher workload caused his yards per carry to drop from 6.7 to 5.9, James posted some staggering numbers in box scores.
Barner is no slouch either, having rushed for more than 900 yards in his first 150 career carries.
Though all three running backs could improve their game with better hands and pass blocking, together they form as dynamic a running attack as there exists in the country.
Imagine the possibilities of a wishbone offense with Thomas at quarterback, Barner behind him with James and Seastrunk on either wing. The possibilities would dizzy a defense.
For now, James will get the bulk of the load as Oregon spearheads his Heisman campaign. Good Luck beating Andrew Luck.
We'll all be Seastrunk'd next year.
Darron Thomas is the oft-forgotten cog when discussing the keys to Oregon's offense.
It's odd too, considering the fact that he's a sophomore quarterback who seemingly came out of nowhere.
Thomas wasn't expected to start until this upcoming season, but with the dismissal of Jeremiah Masoli his services were demanded a year early.
Thomas is an extremely mechanical option quarterback. By that, I mean he looks like a robot whenever giving ball fakes or handing the ball off to his backs. He also runs the option at a very slow and upright angle, testing the patience of defenders while waiting to make a read. In doing this, Thomas shows a lot of patience of his own.
Additionally, because his style is identically robotic on every play, Thomas is a master at sleight of hand.
The sophomore quarterback out of Houston also completed 61.5 percent of his passes last season, throwing for 2,881 yards and rushing for an additional 486.
His 30:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio is fantastic for a first-year starter. Though he looked shaky and inconsistent at times, one can't fault a sophomore quarterback for starting his career 12-0.
Thomas did lose top target Jeff Maehl to graduation. Maehl caught 33 more passes than any other receiver.
Look for the rising junior to form a rapport with big senior Lavasier Tuinei and speedy sophomore Josh Huff as he builds a Heisman campaign toward his senior season.
Say what you want about defensive coordinator Nick Allioti and the Oregon Ducks' defense; at least they play a consistent style.
Allioti, who has 35 years of coaching experience and is now in his third stint with the Ducks, has received a lot of criticism in Eugene for his tendency to get lit up by big passing offenses.
The coordinator's philosophy has always been stopping the run, which he tries to do with a variety of disguised stunts and blitzes to keep the offense off-balance.
Sometimes the result is positive; the Ducks held Cam Newton and the high-powered Auburn attack to 22 points (half their season average) in the title game. They also surrendered 30 points or more on four occasions.
But with Oregon's high-powered offense, it doesn't need to have a dominant defense.
Whatever the case, Allioti has an improving unit. Though he'll return just two starters in his front seven—senior end Terrell Turner and senior linebacker Josh Kaddu—Allioti will benefit from an experienced secondary.
As a result, he can force to unleash blitzers to create havoc on opposing backfields. This will be a high-risk, high-reward style, but with Oregon scoring so many points it shouldn't matter.
The Ducks are excited about the future of the young starters they now have in place. These players could form the base of an elite Oregon defense for 2013.
For now, it just needs to be adequate. It can be all that and might be more.
Oregon tends to play a Cover-1 defense. As a result, they're often in man-to-man coverage.
This type of defense requires great athletes with good stamina. This seems to fit with Chip Kelly's philosophy on football.
The Ducks will return all four starters from their secondary last season—corners Cliff Harris and Anthony Gildon, safeties Eddie Pleasent and John Boyett.
Harris and Boyett tied for the team lead in interceptions with five; they each returned one for a touchdown as well.
Harris is easily the most talented among the group. Just a junior, he's a cover corner with tremendous speed who is also a very dangerous punt returner. He could very well play his way into the first round of the NFL draft.
Harris and the rest of the secondary will be joined by 2011's No. 1 cornerback recruit DeAnthony Thomas.
Scout.com had the following to say about Thomas:
"The only player I've ever said that could legitimately be 5-Stars at four different positions, RB, S, CB, WR. The only thing that keeps Thomas from being the No. 1 prospect in the country is that he's on the small side. But his combination of raw speed, change of direction, balance and natural athleticism is at the top of the heap. His long-term future may best be served at corner where his size isn't a liability."
Thomas can be an elite playmaker and should do damage right away if he sticks on defense.
Either way, Oregon's secondary should the backbone of the team in 2011. As they get out to big leads and other teams need to play catch-up, the defensive backs will have to be responsible for keeping the game out of reach.
With great athletes come great return men.
That holds true for the Oregon Ducks as much as any other team in football.
Cliff Harris returned four punts for touchdowns by himself last season. The junior corner uses the quick change-of-direction ability that makes him a good cover corner to elude tacklers in tight space. With a fifth gear of speed, he can turn nothing into something in an instant.
Sophomore receiver Josh Huff is a blazing runner in his own right. He averaged 25 yards per return on 23 attempts last season and took one back 80 yards.
Seastrunk should get a few cracks at both duties this season and might create a few highlight reel runs for himself.
Oregon will have one of the most dangerous return units in the country. With the return of two reliable juniors, kicker Rob Beard and punter Jackson Rice, the Ducks will ensure that they take their points when they can and play for field position.
It's a battle they'll win often, giving themselves a chance in every game.
The Oregon Ducks are currently riding a 16-game winning streak at home.
They've never lost in Autzen under Chip Kelly, and their last defeat at home came on Sept. 20, 2008 at the hands of Boise State. Their last Pac-10 loss at home came at the end of the 2007 season to rivals Oregon State.
Autzen Stadium can absolutely rock; it was engineered specifically to create as loud of an atmosphere as possible.
Several notable people and players in college football have claimed it is the loudest stadium the've ever been in. Even though its capacity registers at 59,000, fans sit extremely close to the field, and the stadium is designed to hold sound.
Though it holds nearly 50,00 less spectators than places such as the Big House, the Horsehsoe or Beaver Stadium, the Autzen Effect is real.
Autzen is the most intimidating home environment in the Pac-10, and it could help Oregon to a three-peat as the conference expands.
Say what you want about experience—its benefits are subject to a metaphysical debate we can save for another day.
But there is something to be said for a team who reached a National Championship game with an undefeated record when ALL of its key players were sophomores.
If LaMichael James, Darron Thomas, Kenjon Barner and Cliff Harris so choose, they can win a National Championship this year and return to repeat next season.
That will never happen obviously. In college football, too many things can go wrong.
But if they don't win it this year, I think they will all come back and win it next year.
This Oregon nucleus is something very special. Clearly this is a school with a football program that is about to enter the nation's elite. The players they have in place, namely James and Thomas, are the guys who can take them there.