Oregon Football: Most-Feared Opponents in 2011
The upcoming 2011 season is the one that will define Oregon's place in the college football landscape for years to come.
Forget the ongoing scandal involving the recently departed Lache Seastrunk and Willie Lyles. It's time to analyze the Oregon Ducks' chances of success in the actual realm of football.
In this article, I'll rank from least to most which teams Oregon fans should worry about going into the 2011 season.
Vs. Missouri State
Missouri State is a FCS team from the Missouri Valley Conference (go figure). The Bears finished 5-6 last year (4-4 in conference).
Missouri State's top two play-makers are Chris Douglas, who ran for 1081 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2010; and Jermain Saffold who had 53 receptions for 869 yards and 5 scores.
Missouri State will have to replace QB Cody Kirby, who completed 179 of his 313 passes for 2307 yards and 10 scoring tosses (all other Missouri State QBs combined for 1 of 4 passing in 2010).
Overall, Oregon fans should worry only about the margin of victory in this game.
Nevada pulled the upset of last year when, to the joy of Oregon fans, they beat Boise State in overtime, 34-31.
Do not take this as a sign of things to come for this year. Nevada loses its top two offensive threats from 2010 in Colin Kaepernick and Vai Taua, who combined to rush for 2816 and 39 TDs out of Nevada's 4091 rushing yards and 52 rushing TDs. Kaepernick also threw for 3022 yards and 21 TD passes.
The Wolfpack also lost its second leading receiver in Virgil Green, who caught 35 passes for 515 and five TD passes. Nevada also loses its punter and kicker.
Returning are backup QB Tyler Lantrip, who completed 8 of his 13 attempts for 155 yards and a TD; and WR Rishard Matthews, who caught 56 passes for 879 yards and 5 TD passes and also contributed in the rushing game with five carries for 79 yards and 2 TDs.
Oregon is 5-1 all time to Nevada with the only loss coming in 1947. Nevada lost way too much senior leadership and talent for Ducks fans to worry about a home loss to them this season.
Is Kevin Riley still the starting QB? No? So, Cal is going to start one of the two guys who couldn't beat Kevin Riley for the job at QB.
Cal does return a talented WR corps with Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen, who combined for 1255 yards 10 touchdown grabs. Allen is also an explosive return man who returned a kick off for a TD that was ultimately called back against Arizona State.
With the departure of Shane Vereen, Cal's RB depth is really thin, too. California also loses a ton of key players on defense, including Cameron Jordan, Mike Mohamad and Chris Conte. Cal does return star safety Sean Cattouse, though.
Cal is 1-8 over its last nine visits to Eugene. This should turn into 1-9.
Vs. Washington State
I really like QB Jeff Tuel. He's done quite a lot with what he's been handed at WSU - Marquess Wilson, his leading receiver, had 1006 yards and 6 TD catches; second WR Jared Karstetter had 658 receiving yards and 7 TDs.
The problem WSU has on offense is at RB. Returning leading rusher Logwone Mitz has rushed for 864 and 7 TDs yards over his 3 years at WSU (263 yards and 4 TDs in '10) and looks to be the starter. Tuel is the second leading rusher returning (he had 199 yards and a TD).
WSU gave up way too many points and yards last year: 430 and 5604, respectively.
In summary, WSU has a competent offense and a terrible defense. The Cougars made strides at the end of last year in beating Oregon State 31-14 and being within a touchdown in the Cal and Washington games. WSU also played Oregon tough in Pullman.
Oregon shouldn't be too concerned with WSU at home, though.
Vs. Oregon State
Boy, Oregon State sure is in a big mess, aren't they?
Since losing half of the Rodgers brothers to the draft, this team has had the injury bug all summer. James Rodgers is still injured and will likely sit out the opener, #1 TE Joe Halahuni will be out until the UCLA game way into September, and starting DT Kevin Frahm and CB Brandon Hardin will each miss plenty of games after getting surgeries.
The bad news for the Ducks, however, is that every single one of these players should be back for the Civil War in November.
The biggest problem with Oregon State is that the team has no clear cut #1 RB in the absence of Jaquizz Rodgers. (The leader, Ryan McCants, has essentially been a silent contributor since 2008). The second-leading rusher for the Beavers last year was WR Markus Wheaton.
The suspect running game places a huge burden on QB Ryan Katz. He has played pretty well in his career at OSU, passing for 2401 yards, 17 TDs and 11 picks (six of which came at the hands of Washington and Oregon) in 2010.
Rivalry games present the unique challenge of providing extra motivation to the opponent. It makes it that much harder when you're the team that everyone is gunning for. It just seems that Oregon State has too many problems and not enough talent to keep up with the Ducks.
In the absence of Jake Locker, the Washington Huskies look to RB Chris Polk to lead the team to success in 2010.
Jake Locker or no, Oregon has dominated Washington since 2003, winning every game by at least thee touchdowns.
But Washington has better coaching and has improved their talent on both sides of the ball.
The aforementioned Chris Polk ran for 1415 yards and 9 TDs, boasting an average of 5.4 yards per carry.
He wasn't even the guy whom Washington relied upon the most in 2010. Backup RB Jesse Callier played well in relief of Polk, rushing 77 times for 433 yards and catching 18 passes for 98 yards. Recently anointed starting QB Keith Price played pretty well in place of Jake Locker, throwing 2 TDs and no picks.
Since this game will be played in Seattle, it is a mildly dangerous one for Oregon. The University of Washington and its fans are sick and tired of losing to Oregon. This type of hostile environment hasn't affected the Ducks very drastically in the past, at least when the talent isn't there for the opposing team.
USC poses a threat to Oregon from a talent standpoint. QB Matt Barkley is probably the #2 pro prospect in the Pac-12. Add a pipeline of good to great linemen on both sides of the ball coming in every year and you've got a team to be reckoned with.
That being said, this USC team isn't the USC teams of the mid-2000s, and Lane Kiffin is certainly not Pete Carroll. USC also hasn't won in the state of Oregon since 2005. Oregon beat USC at its home turf for the first time in a blue moon last year.
This year, USC looks to be about as good as last year on offense. An older and healthy Matt Barkley should make up for losing Ronald Johnson and Stanley Havili.
The defense is the key for USC in 2011. The unit gave up a lot of yards and points last year: in their four losses, USC gave up 142 points, an average of 35.5 per loss. It also gave up over 450 yards to four teams last year: 498 to Stanford, 536 to Washington, 588 to Hawaii and 599 to Oregon.
Unless USC has seriously shored up its defense, it has a serious uphill battle ahead. Oregon's offense may be even better than it was in 2010, and that's not something USC can handle.
There are a number of factors that Oregon should be wary of when looking at Colorado.
This team has the ability to beat better teams. Last season, Colorado beat Georgia 29-27 at home. That was Georgia's first game with now-Bengals WR A.J. Green back from suspension. It's not like A.J. Green wasn't a factor, either - he snagged a couple touchdowns in the game. No one was particularly spectacular in that game except for RB Rodney Stewart, who ran for a whole football field and a half and a TD on 19 carries.
Colorado also has a fledgling head coach who wants to make a name for himself and his team. Jon Embree is a Colorado guy through and through and has built a good staff around him.
One last factor to consider is that the game is played in Boulder, where the conditions are vastly different than those anywhere else in the conference. Oregon hasn't played a game in the mountains with any of the players on its current roster.
Colorado looks pretty good on offense. RB Rodney Stewart ran foe 1318 yards and 10 TDs in 2010, while Tyler Hansen looks to rebound from a rib injury that sidelined him for his team's last five games.
Colorado's defense also looks to be pretty good. LB Jon Major is coming back off of a serious knee injury that hurt Colorado in the second half of last season.
Oregon needs to focus and make sure it doesn't beat itself in this game - the Ducks are way more talented than Colorado. Coming off the heels of the ASU game into a potential trap is what worries me most about this game.
Vs. Arizona State
Arizona State returns a senior class that boasts 27 members but went 4-6 against FBS opponents in 2010.
I know two of their losses were one-point losses to Wisconsin (which went on to lose the Rose Bowl) and USC (which went on to play with TMZ reporters). The fact remains that ASU lost those games.
ASU has also been hit by various losses. After losing its top WR to graduation, the Sun Devils lost their second WR to a knee injury. ASU also lost an All-Pac-10 CB to a knee injury. QB Steven Threet retired from football because of concussion issues and QB Samson Szakacsy left the team for personal reasons (Brock Osweiler is now starting QB). Lastly, DT Lawrence Guy left for the draft.
That's a lot of talent to replace in the off-season. Despite all of this, ASU boasts one of the best defenses in the country highlighted by a trio of linebackers.
Oregon has had no difficulty handling ASU since 2005: the Ducks have won by double digits every single time. But ASU's defense has a lot of talent, especially in the front seven, making this a difficult task.
The 'Zona Zoo has been an awful place where some great Oregon teams have faltered.
In 2005, Oregon had lost only to the USC, which wound up playing in the championship game against Texas, and was steamrolling its way to a 10-1 record and a potential Fiesta Bowl berth until it met Arizona in Tucson. There, star QB Kellen Clemens sustained a season-ending ankle break, and Oregon was forced to play Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf..
In 2007, the game preceding the Arizona game in Tucson was against Arizona State, which saw then Oregon QB Dennis Dixon go down with a knee injury. Dixon started the game in Tucson the the Thursday after a bye week. The Ducks were an essential national championship lock (if they won out). Dixon would lead the ducks to a couple impressive series while hobbling around on his injured knee. On one of the drives, however, Dixon attempted to make a cut in the backfield to avoid a sack and re-injured his knee. That team would go on to lose to Arizona and its next two opponents before beating the South Florida Bulls in the Sun Bowl.
In 2009, the Masoli-led Ducks weren't in national championship contention, but they were in contention for a Rose Bowl berth. Arizona almost won this game, but the fans' premature rushing onto the field galvanized the Ducks to pull off a game-tying drive and an eventual win in double overtime.
The point is that Tucson is an extremely tough place for the Ducks to play, especially against a talented team like the one Arizona fields in 2011. It will be extremely difficult to pull off a win this year, as the game comes early in the season in the heat.
Nick Foles led the Wildcats to the 9th best passing attack in 2010 by finishing with 3191 yards, 20 TDS and 10 picks, even while missing time against Washington, WSU and UCLA. Arizona also has a good run game and defense to back Foles.
The thing that should ease the minds of Oregon fans is that Oregon's match-up comes smack dab in the middle of a brutal opening slate of games for the Wildcats. Arizona opens the season against Northern Arizona University and then plunge into the tar pit of their schedule. Oklahoma State, which Arizona lost to in the Holiday Bowl ,is the game following the NAU game. After that, the Wildcats face games against Stanford, Oregon, USC and Oregon State, all of which Arizona lost to in 2010.
Vs. LSU (in Dallas)
This is a big one. What more can be said about this match-up?
This is a big-time stage that could define Oregon's role in the national spotlight for years to come. Oregon has tried and come up short in its BCS games under Kelly, and this is a game of similar magnitude. In what amounts to essentially the same setting as the national title game, the Oregon Ducks have agreed to take on the LSU Tigers in the immaculate new Cowboy Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
As for LSU, it's one of few teams to have encountered a more tumultuous off-season than the Ducks. Jordan Jefferson's altercation at a Baton Rouge bar has created an enormous distraction for the Tigers and a big time quagmire at quarterback. The more the Tigers wait to announce their starting quarterback, the worse their situation will be heading into the September 3rd game.
Apart from the controversy at QB, LSU is still a great team. LSU's defense is one of the best in the nation. The defensive backfield is stacked with NFL prospects and the defensive line is strong.
LSU also has a very strong offensive line and a great running game. RBs Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, and Alfred Blue ran for a combined 542 yards and 7 TDs behind Stevan Ridley, who declared for the NFL draft in April. LSU does have some big questions at receiver and tight end, as no one has proven himself to be a go-to guy.
Oregon's biggest concern is that LSU has the same type of size and speed that Auburn had in last year's National Championship and which could help them dominate the offensive and defensive lines in the Cowboy Classic.
The difference between the two cases is that Oregon's defensive line is significantly bigger than last year's line. Another key difference is that LSU doesn't have a player with quite the immense talent that Nick Fairley had at Auburn.
Oregon has enough talent to match up with LSU. It's just a question of who has the mental edge going into the game - and that looks like Oregon right now.
At last, here we are. The game that the Oregon fans should be losing sleep and hair over is when their Ducks take on the Cardinal of Stanford.
The last time Oregon played in Palo Alto, the Cardinal safely tucked away any national championship aspirations the Ducks had that year. Last year, by virtue of its victory over Stanford, the Ducks kept Stanford out of the national championship.
Recently departed former head coach Jim Harbaugh built an incredible team by transforming Andrew Luck into a star quarterback and probable #1 draft pick.
Luck not only completed 263 passes for 3338 yards and 32 TDs and only eight picks in 2010 but was also the team's #2 rusher with 55 rushes (including sacks) for 453 yards and 3 TDs.
Stanford also returns its leading rusher, Stephan Taylor (1137 yards and 15 TDs). Stanford does have to replace three offensive linemen, but the two starters it returns are great players.
Stanford has a quality defense - only two teams scored over 30 points on them in '10 (USC and Oregon), and it held nine of its 13 opponents to under 20 points.
Stanford loses two-way player Owen Marecic and leading receiver Doug Baldwin but has enough talent to make up for it. TEs Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz are a great pair of targets for Luck; they caught seven and five TD passes last year, respectively.
Chris Owusu looks to make a huge comeback in 2011. He has shown flashes of brilliance over his career, including his 4 catch, 111 yard and 1 TD performance against Oregon in 2009.
Oregon would be wise to play this game slightly slower to keep the ball out of Stanford's powerful hands. Stanford's offense will play its form of strong ball control; having Oregon's defense on the field for a significantly large portion of the game is a recipe for disaster. If Oregon's defense is forced to play significantly more minutes than its offense, then the defensive line will have to take advantage of Stanford's raw offensive line and harass Luck as much as they can.
Oregon's chances for success will depend on its ability to rebuild the momentum it enjoyed so much during the regular season in 2010, when Oregon's offense looked like it could score as many points as it wanted against any team in the country.
Oregon has a few holes to plug: it lost two starters on the offensive line and Jeff Maehl. Oregon also has to deal with losing key contributors on defense like Casey Matthews, Kenny Rowe, and Brandon Bair.
The good news is that Oregon has been recruiting so well over the past several years that replacing key guys like those mentioned isn't like asking the world of this program. Oregon played the maximum allowed number of players in two games last year, and so its replacement players have plenty of playing experience.
2011 should hold great things for the Ducks. Now let's play some football!