Keeping Marcus Mariota on the field is the Ducks' biggest concern in 2014. Yes, they still need a go-to receiver, and their lack of offense against Texas in the 2013 Alamo Bowl (just one offensive touchdown) is cause for concern. But when he's healthy, Mariota is one of the nation's best players and a potential No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL draft. Before a sprained left MCL slowed him in a 26--20 loss to Stanford last November, Mariota & Co. appeared headed to the BCS title game. Still, he finished with 3,665 passing yards, 31 touchdowns and only four interceptions. (He tacked on 715 yards and nine TDs rushing for good measure.) Now the 6'4", 215-pound junior—40 pounds heavier than when he arrived as a freshman—is a preseason Heisman favorite in a conference stacked with quarterback talent.
Oregon lost receiver Bralon Addison to a left-ACL tear in the spring, which means 5'9" senior Keanon Lowe (18 catches for 233 yards and three touchdowns) needs to become the top target. Junior running back Byron Marshall, the Pac-12's top returning rusher (1,038 yards and 14 TDs), and sophomore Thomas Tyner (711 yards and nine TDs) provide a terrific one-two punch.
If Mariota can find a few more reliable receivers, and the backs can deliver against defenses stacked to stop the pass, Oregon can reach the top four by December.
At 6'4" and 200 pounds, redshirt freshman strong safety Tyree Robinson is bigger, faster, taller and has a wider reach than most at his position. Certainly he takes up more space than his predecessor, 5'10" Brian Jackson. A likely starter, Robinson will be the most physically imposing safety in Eugene since Keith Lewis (2000--03). The Ducks lost three starters from the secondary, but Robinson will be an instant fit in their often underrated D.
A Week 2 game against Michigan State in Eugene—where the Ducks are heavy favorites —will have playoff implications. For the second consecutive season Oregon misses USC and Arizona State in the Pac-12 rotation, but mark the calendar for Oct. 11, when the Ducks travel to Pasadena to take on UCLA. That comes one week after they host Arizona, which thumped them 42--16 last season. Defending league champ Stanford, winner of two straight against Oregon, visits on Nov. 1.
SI POWER RANKINGS / By Rotowire.com
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SPECIAL TEAMS 88%
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
Obviously Marcus Mariota is the best player in the conference, and I don't think it's close. They've got some interesting holes to fill. De'Anthony Thomas had such big-play potential, and with [receiver Josh] Huff [going pro] and Bralon Addison [suffering a season-ending ACL tear] they've lost some dangerous playmakers, but they've recruited well and they always do a good job finding a way to get guys the ball in space. They don't get much credit for how good they are defensively, but they're solid schematically and they play so hard. They've got good tacklers in space too. That secondary is pretty darn good, especially with [cornerback] Ifo [Ekpre-Olomu] coming back. They've been really good there the last couple of years, and they're going to be good again in that spot. It's crazy that some fans are mad that [coach Mark] Helfrich won only 11 games last year. People are so jaded and so spoiled—do they have any idea how hard it is to win in college football? We'll see what happens this season, but with Mariota pulling the trigger, they are really tough.
STEVE CONNER/ICON SMI (LOWE)
ERIC EVANS (ROBINSON)