As the clock ran out on the first College Football Playoff championship game Monday night, it was hard to shake the feeling that Oregon squandered an excellent opportunity.
The Ducks had considerable momentum heading into the game and opened as a seven-point favorite after dismantling Florida State in the semifinals on Jan. 1. Quarterback Marcus Mariota is a strong candidate to be selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft and will likely be remembered as the best player in program history. The team featured a spate of pro talent on both sides of the ball, the product of several years worth of improved recruiting. Even though they were forced to weather a spate of injuries, the Ducks seemed poised to win their first title.
Yet Oregon couldn’t physically match up against an Ohio State team anchored by underclassmen and led by a third-string quarterback. All of which raises the question: if the Ducks couldn’t win the championship this year, when will it happen?
That’s hard to say, but Oregon does appear in good position to continue to compete on the national stage for years to come. Over the last two decades, the Ducks have evolved from a middling Pac-12 program into a perennial juggernaut. With the financial backing of Nike co-founder CEO Phil Knight, Oregon developed a unique identity defined by speed, finesse, innovative coaching and flashy uniforms. The program attracted better players to Eugene, built first-class facilities and, by the end of the 2012 season, had become so successful that the NFL came calling for coach Chip Kelly.
|Jake Fisher||Offensive lineman|
|Hamani Stevens||Offensive lineman|
|Hroniss Grasu||Offensive lineman|
|Keanon Lowe||Wide receiver|
The train didn’t stop rolling when Mark Helfrich was promoted to replace Kelly. After winning 11 games and failing to qualify for a BCS bowl in 2013, the Ducks went 12-1 in the regular season before destroying last year’s national champion and coming up short against arguably the top coach in the sport. Monday night's loss was a bitter end to a memorable season in which many expected the Ducks to hoist the inaugural College Football Playoff trophy. But the defeat doesn’t gloss over everything that Oregon did to reach this point -- the rise from obscurity that preceded the Ducks’ championship run.
Late Monday night, Helfrich was asked how confident he was that Oregon would be back on this stage. “Extremely confident,” he said. “It’s really hard, but Oregon, the University of Oregon, is a place that obviously that can happen and has happened. Everything is in place from a support standpoint and facilities standpoint and infrastructure standpoint, talent, our coaching staff is outstanding, and the leadership is outstanding. That’s kind of all the ingredients.”
The biggest question moving forward is how Oregon will fare without Mariota, who is expected to turn pro but on Monday declined to reveal whether he had made up his mind yet. [UPDATE: Mariota announced Wednesday that he is entering the 2015 NFL draft]
The Ducks must also replace a number of key contributors on both sides of the ball, including defensive backs Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Erick Dargan and Troy Hill; linebacker Tony Washington and offensive linemen Jake Fisher and Hroniss Grasu. In addition, two defensive linemen who received all-conference recognition, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, could elect to turn pro. Filling all of those holes would be a huge challenge for any program.
Yet Oregon’s stretch of double digit-win seasons has naturally helped it accumulate more talent and depth. Dating to 2002, the Ducks have finished lower than 30th in Rivals.com’s team recruiting rankings only three times. Consider the scenario Oregon faces at the most important position on the field. Among the players poised to compete with backup Jeff Lockie to fill in for Mariota is Travis Waller, one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the class of 2015. The Ducks will also welcome in promising prospects at other positions of need, including defensive back (four-star Ugo Amadi) and defensive line (four-star Canton Kaumatule).
In addition, the Ducks will bring back a strong group that includes standout running backs Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner, a deep receiving corps and multiple offensive linemen that received first-team reps as the unit battled injuries throughout the season. Whether those returning pieces can help Oregon reach the heights it did this season will depend in large part on the situation at quarterback. If the dropoff from Mariota to his replacement is significant enough, Oregon could struggle to maintain the identity -- explosive offense, opportunistic defense -- that has driven its recent run of success.
Depending on who decides to return, Oregon should be viewed as one of several contenders in the Pac-12. To win the conference for the fifth time in seven years, a presumed requirement to qualify for the second version of the College Football Playoff, the Ducks will need to fend off Stanford, USC, Arizona State, UCLA and Arizona, among other potential challengers. Even if Oregon isn’t considered one of the top candidates to reach the title game, expect the Ducks to turn in another strong season.