Pac-12 North Preview: Oregon

The Year That Was

Oregon fielded one of the greatest offenses in recent memory. It signaled plays through over-sized flashcards to minimize breaks. It averaged 47 points and 530 yards per game. It forced teams to fake injury to try and slow it down.

It lost to Cam Newton and Auburn and fell just short of the BCS title.

Key Departures and Returnees

Oregon will need to replace three O-line starters, but nearly every other part of that deadly offense remains intact. Dual-threat quarterback Darron Thomas — whom coach Chip Kelly has said is “the toughest quarterback I’ve been around” — is a perfect fit inside the Ducks’ furious machine. An All-Pac-10 second team selection his first season as a starter, Thomas has potential to eventually become the best in the Pac-12.

The backfield returns LaMichael James, easily the most productive running back in the country a year ago (1,731 yards, 21 touchdowns). Spelling him is the equally quick Kenjon Barner, who could start for most teams in the conference.

Defense is a bigger question mark; Oregon lost five starters from its front seven, including 6-foot-7 defensive tackle Brandon Bair.

Player to Watch

It’s difficult to pick just one given the obscene amount of talent in Eugene, but I’m going with cornerback/return man Cliff Harris. A star on both defense and special teams, Harris led the Pac-10 last year with six interceptions, 546 punt return yards and four punt return touchdowns. Simply put, the 5-foot-11 junior is a threat to take it all the way any time he gets his hands on the ball. Cal fans will remember him for his punt return a year ago that gave Oregon its first six points in a 15-13 road win.

Harris is also worth keeping tabs on for other reasons: he was suspended by the team in June after driving 118 mph in a 65-mph zone with a suspended license. Kelly said Harris would sit out at least the team’s season opener against LSU at Cowboys Stadium. (That Sept. 3 game, by the way, sold out all 80,000 seats in early June.) The secondary is deep enough to withstand a longer absence, but the Ducks will be a much less dynamic team without him.

Key Questions

1. Will Willie Lyles sink the program?  The scouting service owner/mentor/street agent spilled all to Yahoo! Sports at the beginning of July, painting himself as do-gooder who helped recruits like James and five-star running back Lache Seastrunk make their way to college. He also said that Kelly personally approved a $25,000 payment for his services. Lyles also sold tapes to LSU and Cal. Nothing as egregious as Ohio State seems to be happening, but Oregon is clearly the big fish in this NCAA investigation.

2. Can the Ducks win it all? All being the national title, obviously. Assuming all goes well for Oregon off the field, it remains a strong contender. Some minimal on-field regression, however, and an additional Pac-12 championship game might blemish the Ducks’ record and keep them from getting another shot at the trophy.

Outlook

An EA Sports simulation had the Ducks crushing Nebraska to win the Rose Bowl, 42-23. If the NCAA doesn’t come down on them with sanctions, that’s as good a guess as any. Oregon and Stanford clearly reside in the top tier of the Pac-12. The latter must rely more heavily on gifted quarterback Andrew Luck, and the absence of former coach Jim Harbaugh gives the Ducks the edge.

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