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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Oregon

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.

The least you should know about Oregon...
2006 Record
7-6 (4-5 Pac Ten/T-Fifth)
Past Five Years
37-25 (23-18 Pac Ten)
Returning Starters, Roughly
15 (8 Offense, 7 Defense)
Best Player
Jonathan Stewart was what Phil Steele would call a VHT, PS#1 out of high school, but his production has been easily lapped by the likes of classmates Darren McFadden, Steve Slaton, Ray Rice, Jamaal Charles, James Davis, Branden Ore, Felix Jones, Andre Brown, Tyrell Sutton et al over the first couple years of their careers. Stewart fell just short of 1,000 yards last year after a stint as a freshman short-yardage guy, playing well most of the time but also getting sidetracked by minor injuries and sharing a lot of time with Jeremiah Johnson. SMQ’s Oregon sources say Bellotti has pledged to get Stewart more involved in the offense, presumably a commitment to get more performances lfrom him ike Oklahoma (201 total yards) and UCLA (210 yards) in place of his duds in, well, pretty much every Oregon loss last year .
We get it with the uniforms already and the Nike. Oy. So you’re tight with Phil Knight, or ruled by his iron-polymesh fist. What kind of football team needs 48 possible jersey combinations? And that was tabulated before the debut of the flaming helmets from hell in the Las Vegas Bowl, which brings the possible combiinations to 64. You could start a bracket with Oregon’s uniforms, if you were so inclined - SMQ has "traditional green" helmets, "home black" jerseys and "home black" pants all the way. Learn more from Gameday prior to the Oklahoma snow job last September:
Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
The onside kick call against Oklahoma will live forever in replay infamy, but overlooked last season was one of the most sublime moments of the decade: Mike Bellotti’s successful challenge of an already-overturned touchdown against USC. Late night viewer SMQ wondered if he was entering a sleep-desprived hallucination, and later declared "Instant replay is dead; long live instant replay!": Oregon was down three touchdowns in the fourth quarter when a desperate fourth down pass was tipped to Stewart in the back of the end zone. Touchdown, Oregon. Pete Carroll challenged Stewart had stepped out of bounds before the catch, and won after a lengthy review. No score, USC ball. Bellotti, with nothing to lose, challenged the replay decision, and, after another marathon look, had the score reinstated.You might remember Pete Carroll’s reaction to the result, but the obscenity’s not nearly as fun as the series of events that prompted it.
Don't think we're getting through this without digs at the uniforms. A lot of them. There is something specifically loathsome about Oregon's particular combination of "shock yellow" and truck bed-inspired shoulder designs, and yet - like disgusted, rapt connoisseurs assessing The Kramer - we can't look away. SMQ prefers to address this disturbing issue head on, and will not shy from doing so.

What's Changed: In some fashion, the uniforms, again, more than likely. [You were warned. - ed.] But very little on the field. Both defensive ends graduated, along with the leading tackler and probably the best defensive player, headhunting safety J.D. Nelson (see below); on offense, a pair of veteran Polynesian lineman and a portion of the receiving corps left, but there were no wholesale departures in any one place. The greatest overhaul might be on special teams, where Mike Bellotti hired his old special teams coordinator, Tom Osborne, to address cover units (punt and kick coverage each allowed a return for touchdown) and some fumbling problems on returns. Bob Rickert, for one, loves that hire.

What's the Same: The last two senior quarterbacks at Oregon led prolific, balanced offenses to double digit wins, and Dennis Dixon is probably more physically gifted than Joey Harrington or Kellen Clemens. Certainly he adds an extra element to Mike Bellotti's attack in his ability to scramble and do all the on-the-run stuff. There was a direct correlation between Dixon's performance as a junior and Oregon's fate, but no correlation to explain what kind of performance the Ducks might actually get from him. Against winning non-losing teams:

Opponent Comp. % Yards TD INT Result
Oklahoma 63.4 341 2 2 Win
at Arizona State 63.3 215 3 0 Win
at California 57.1 263 2 3 Loss
UCLA 58.8 144 2 0 Win
at Wash. State 60.0 105 0 2 Loss
at USC 65.2 130 0 1 Loss
Arizona 63.6 88 0 3 Loss
vs. BYU 50.0 122 1 1 Loss

Brady Leaf: Not his brother. But  probably best to go ahead and think of him the same way.
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Quickly, the TD-INT ratio in losses was 3:10, compared to 7:2 in the wins, which is not, of course, incidental. That's poor enough to keep Ryan Leaf's little brother Brady in the mix, especially after he outperformed Dixon when both played significantly in the losses to Washington State and Southern Cal and did okay (274, 1 TD, 1 INT) in the loss to Oregon State. Still, note that Brady Leaf's presence for any extended period of time always meant defeat (the Ducks were 0-5 when he attempted more than 10 passes) and he was equally terrible or worse than Dixon in losses to Arizona and BYU. The two split the second half of 2006 almost evenly, but that was partially due to injury - Dixon appears to be the guy if things are going to go well. That remains an if, though, on a week-to-week basis.

If the quarterback is ever settled, the skill players are pretty enviable, as they've been here consistently under Bellotti. Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson each serve as the only obstacle to the other being all-Pac Ten. Jaison Williams, Brian Paysinger, Cameron Colvin and Garren Strong are all big, fast horsemen of prospective pestilence and death to secondaries; smaller Derrick Jones only caught one pass as a freshman but was a top ten recruit among receivers. Oregon can always be counted on for competency on offense, and even with yo-yo quarterbacks and a horrible turnover margin, it finished ninth in the country in total yards and averaged about 30 points last year; when Bellotti has had a stable, veteran quarterback in the past, the result has been about five touchdowns per game and a serious run at the Pac Ten title (they won it, remember, in 2001, just as Pete Carroll was beginning to prepare his shock-and-awe campaign of the league).

This is more highly-rated talent than those teams had to work with - thanks to the uniforms, no doubt, Just Do It, baby! - and with three starting linemen back potentially as dangerous an offense as you'll see next year. It's all about the quarterback and his consistency; there is no question of talent there or anywhere else. The pieces are here in spades.

The culprit for the four-game slide to end 2006 was primarily a run defense that was gutted for nearly a yard more per carry than over the first nine games. The "Gang Green" defense, besides being possibly the most disgusting sports nickname this side of "The Big Unit," allowed well over four yards per carry on the season for the first time this decade, continuing an overall spike that began even with Haloti Ngata chewing up blockers in 2005, but it was the last month that truly done `em in. There is no apparent explanation in personnel or injuries for USC, Arizona and BYU (the run D actually held up okay in the very close loss at Oregon State) suddenly breaking off five and a half yards a pop, but it was not exactly a new trend in the Ducks' struggles: where the first nine opponents were held to a respectable 4.1 average collectively, Cal (5.6) and Washington State (4.7) did considerably better in defeating UO earlier in the season, and Oklahoma topped 200 yards, too, before its apparent victory was given away.

The loss of Ngata's mass inside and career tackle-for-loss leader Devan Long's knifing presence at one end was obvious and severe. David Faateete and much smaller Nick Reed (260 pounds) wound up holding down most of the starts among a rotation of tackles and we also have the presence of safety-sized, 210-poundish outside linebackers here - Nick Aliotti employs a 4-2-5, actually, which despite the confusion the formation sometimes causes on NCAA Football proved too light too often without its humongous anchor. More key departures this time: leading sacker Darius Sanders, big 300-pound end Matt Toeaina and leading tackler Blair Phillips at middle linebacker. History/reversion-to-mean theory says this area will be better, but personnel does not.

Overly Optimistic Offseason Chatter: See the clip under "Bizarre Tradition(s)" above right for some insight into Nike's influence on this program, and then take this note from one of SMQ's anonymous Northwest correspondents about the university's odd AD hire in January:

New AD had much to do with a new basketball arena Oregon wants to build. Perception was that Bill Moos couldn't get it done, because of a fractured relationship with major donor Phil Knight of Nike. New AD Pat Kilkenny, also a major donor, has a better relationship with Knight, and thus will probably get the arena project going pretty quick.

Remember, Phil Knight owns you, too. At least Oregon is honest enough to embrace it.
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Kilkenny is an insurance man. As well as, if early returns are any indication, a man of the people. Richard Nixon should have tried muffins and coffee with the students at the Lincoln Memorial. Anyway, Kilkenny's no fat cat, paper-pushin' bureaucrat who's going to bite the be-swooshed hand that feeds out of some misguided, archaic notion of ivory tower independence. SMQ is not being srcastic here: he would put a swoosh on the 50-yard line if it could help attract the next VHT. This is America. Phil Knight started his monolithic capitalist giant out of the trunk of his car, and that's the kind of ethic that gets rewarded where SMQ comes from (which is America, generally, not Oregon, specifically. Oregon is a weird place to be from. No stereotypes exist for Oregon).

Oregon on YouTube: The University of Oregon is a very liberal school, which is cool in a lot of ways, unless you happen to be attempting to preach your rather personal, unsolicited version of the Good Word. Not sure who comes off worse here, the rude preachers, the rude students or whoever elected to associate the Velvet Underground with either:

See also: An Oregon tailgate tour that's more fun than it has any right to be (Huck the Fuskies!); Maurice Morris amazes in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl, with Brent Musburger in classic confused-but-game form; you were promised J.D. Nelson; and what did we do for calls this bad before YouTube? Or were there calls that bad? SMQ doesn't remember life B.Y.

Best-Case: Offensively, this team has the potential to be outstanding, like, 450 yards and 35 points per game dangerous, which would match the production of its 10-2 season in 2005. That's the only season of Bellotti's tenure - including the 2001 team that finished No. 2 in the polls but fell at midseason to Stanford - Oregon hasn't lost a game at some point to a team everyone knows it should beat. The last six seasons include losses to unranked Arizona, Washington State, Oregon State, UCLA, Washington, Arizona State and Utah, most of those twice. The Ducks will probably be picked behind Cal for the league's Holiday Bowl bid, but the defense improves just to the Aliotti norm, Oregon ought to be able to score enough to beat the Bears and hit double digit wins for the fourth time since 2000. With USC and Michigan, though, the Holiday Bowl is the likely peak.

Worst-Case: This will become familiar when dealing with the Pac Ten: it's a muddled conference. Behind a frontrunner or two, and save one or two truly awful teams per season, the middle six-seven programs in the league beat each other with no rhyme, reason, predictability or forecastable trend on a yearly - some years, weekly - basis. So any team that can go 7-2 or even 8-1 in the conference, as Oregon is good enough to accomplish, can go 3-6 in the next breath. The questionable trends are present here for disappointment: inconsistent quarterback(s), a gradually slipping run defense, a consistent history of random losses to slightly inferior teams. SMQ will not go so far as to say the Ducks could miss a bowl game, with standards being what they are these days, but it could be the Las Vegas again; five losses, especially for a team that has occasionally struggled don the road, is easily conceivable. Actually, with potential threats Houston and Fresno State bracketing Michigan, so is six losses.

Non-Binding Forecast: SMQ is generally high on this bunch. They ought to score a lot, and a reduction in the turnovers that ate them alive in `06 could get them in the neighborhood of 9-3. Major defensive improvement - not that it appears likely - could get UO to 10-2. Too bad that can't get it any closer to New Year's Day than the Holiday or Sun bowls.