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After an Up and Down Season, Ducks Future Looks Bright

Taking a step back to examine the Ducks in 2021, and what's on the horizon under Dan Lanning in 2022.

 To say Oregon’s 2021 football season was an interesting one would be an understatement. Expectations were sky high coming into the year. 

A shaky opening win against Fresno State was followed by a thrilling win against Ohio State in Columbus, and it looked early on like the College Football Playoff was a real possibility for the Ducks for the first time since the platform’s debut in 2015.

There were also early signs of concern. Injuries mounted quickly. The offense stalled far more often than expected, and was conservative. The team played down to its competition after beating the Buckeyes.

This ultimately culminated in a Week 5, 31-24 overtime loss to Stanford. The loss felt like it had the potential to dash those playoff hopes that seemed so real.

As the season progressed, injuries continued to pile up on both sides of the ball. Things felt “off” the last two to three weeks of the season heading into the Ducks' first drubbing against Utah. And heading into the Pac-12 Championship rumors of Mario Cristobal’s potential departure grew almost deafening.

More on that later.

Another lackluster performance against Utah gave the Utes their first Pac-12 title since joining the conference in 2009. Oregon finished the year in an under-hyped, and under-appreciated Alamo Bowl matchup with the Oklahoma Sooners, where they were bested 47-32.

In the weeks following Cristobal’s departure and heading into the bowl game, it felt as if everyone was already looking ahead to 2022. Rumors of Cristobal’s potential departure to Miami officially started swirling the week of the Pac-12 Championship and following the game he deflected questions left and right regarding his coaching future, leaving Oregon fans looking for clarity.

But as an outsider looking in, it wouldn’t be a shock to learn that those conversations with Miami started weeks before the move became official. The Ducks seemed unengaged down the final stretch of the regular season, losing three of their final four games. 

Knowing their head coach was entertaining the idea of leaving could partly explain the lackluster play on the field, with close victories coming against teams Oregon far outmatched during Pac-12 play.

Quarterback Anthony Brown and the offense left much to be desired in the passing game, that is until the second half of the Alamo Bowl. Both sides of the ball, particularly the defense, were ravaged by injuries. The projected starting 11 on defense which included Justin Flowe, Noah Sewell and Kayon Thibodeaux, never played a full game.

The Ducks were terrible on third down, which was a constant thorn in their side and limited the potential for the offense to put more points on the board in those lackluster Pac-12 wins. With Cristobal leaving for Miami, it felt for a moment like the Ducks were potentially headed for the dreaded rebuild phase with an uncertain future at the head coach position amid a coaching search that felt like an eternity to some fans.

Enter, Dan Lanning.

Oregon Athletic Director Rob Mullens entertained several other potential names to become the next leader of Ducks Football, including BYU’s Kalani Sitake, Cal’s Justin Wilcox, and most notably UCLA’s Chip Kelly. Lanning, just 35 years old with no head coaching experience, got the nod , and the now former Georgia Defensive Coordinator has every fan in Eugene salivating thinking about the future.

Lanning brings, in the words of Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, “an enthusiasm unknown to mankind” when it comes to football. He said as much in his introductory press conference. Watch a few seconds of film where he’s addressing Georgia’s defense in the locker room, and you’ll want to run through a wall for the man.

Oregon fans were hoping for a hire with the potential for longevity in Eugene, and Lanning offers that. With his hires on the staff (Kenny Dillingham at Offensive Coordinator and Matt Powledge and Tosh Lupoi at Defensive Coordinator), it’s clear the Ducks are introducing a new youth movement on the sidelines. This should bode well with recruiting, and Lanning is known to be a voracious recruiter, similar to Mario Cristobal.

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The Ducks, known mostly for their high-flying offenses under Chip Kelly, are clearly headed towards the identity of a defensive-minded program. Oregon’s third down ranking was atrocious last season, and the defense ranked 72nd nationally in total defense according to

If the Ducks are to make a serious run at the playoffs in the next few years, this will need to be addressed. You can assume it will be Lanning’s top priority, as Georgia’s defenses have been elite under Lanning. The Bulldogs surrendered under eight points per game before their uncharacteristic flop against Alabama in the SEC Championship.

Now, back to recruiting.

Lanning loves it, and working under the likes of Nick Saban and Kirby Smart has shown him firsthand that elite recruiting generally results in wins, and lots of them. Look no further than Georgia’s dominant win over Michigan in the Orange Bowl to tell you that.

Michigan, who was riding a dream season, looked utterly outmatched in every way with all of Georgia’s 4 and 5-star recruits running all over the field. Lanning clearly has the confidence to walk into any living room in the country and feel good about his chances of persuading top talent to come to Eugene. Retaining Don Johnson should also prove to be instrumental with the future development of the recruiting strategy of this staff.

Either way, Lanning is a proven recruiter who had less recruiting attrition than most people in Eugene expected. He’s also got a clear ability to connect with players, exemplified in his ability to convince Seven McGee to remain a Duck just 90 minutes after he announced his intentions to enter the transfer portal.

Expectations for the 2022 Ducks team not only failed to drop off after Mario Cristobal’s departure, but they may have risen with the promise shown by Lanning and his new staff. Oregon is returning most of its young team. Almost the entire offensive line returns, and the defense (assuming the injury bug flies away from Eugene next year), is poised to have one of the most dominant linebacking crews in college football leading the way with a talented secondary and line to boot.

Auburn transfer Bo Nix will headline what should be a very entertaining quarterback competition in the Spring, one that will pin him against highly-touted freshmen Ty Thompson and Jay Butterfield. Furthermore, the young receiving corps showed immense promise in the home stretch of the season, especially in the Alamo Bowl, which inspires confidence in a more potent passing attack. 

Put all that together, and you’ve got the potential for greatness in Eugene. The question is, will this be the team and the coaching staff to get over the hump and get Oregon back into the College Football Playoff?

It’s going to be a long offseason, and the intrigue will only intensify as the Ducks inch their way closer to a week one matchup next year with Lanning’s former team in Atlanta. 

Who’s ready for fireworks?

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