GETTING UP TO SPEED
Gone is Heisman-winning quarterback and three-year starter Marcus Mariota, and in his place steps ... a graduate transfer from the FCS? Or a backup who has attempted 41 passes? If Vernon Adams, who threw for 10,438 yards and ran for 1,232 in three years at Eastern Washington, can quickly learn the playbook, the job is most likely his. The other option is junior Jeff Lockie, who has played garbage time for two years with the exception of one meaningful snap in the 2013 Alamo Bowl—which he fumbled.
Whoever runs the show won't have to do much besides take care of the ball. The running back duo of sophomore Royce Freeman (1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns) and junior Thomas Tyner (5.1 yards per carry) returns, as does junior receiver Bralon Addison, the team's top playmaker, who missed last season with a torn left ACL.
The Ducks will stick with their 3--4 and get a boost from the return of 6'7", 290-pound senior DE DeForest Buckner (81 tackles, 13 TFLs in 2014), who had eyed the NFL. But they must replace three members of the secondary and are hoping the lone returnee, junior safety Reggie Daniels (83 tackles), and last year's key sub, sophomore corner Chris Seisay, can anchor a young group.
A Week 2 trip to Michigan State is most likely a loss, but the Ducks will have time to get back in the playoff hunt—provided they don't stumble in Pac-12 play. Thursday nights can be weird in college football, so Oregon should be wary of an Oct. 29 visit to Arizona State. Back-to-back games in November—at Stanford and home against USC—will be decisive.
As a reserve in 2014, outside linebacker Christian French led the team in sacks (6½), even though the former tight end said he lacked confidence in his new role. If the 6'5", 250-pound senior can find his swagger and apply pressure, Oregon will be able to cover its defensive weaknesses long enough to outscore opponents.
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
It's crazy that defenses are sitting around right now hoping the next Oregon quarterback is good. Because if he's just good, not great like Marcus Mariota, it gives teams a chance.... Royce Freeman had a monster freshman season, and it was just a feeler year.... Mark Helfrich is so good at finding what works, and then gashing you. You don't have time to adjust until the series is over, and the majority of times, they've scored. They have so many ways of attacking you; you have to be aware of everyone on the field.... Their pace isn't so foreign anymore. The teams that beat them get on the board early, find a way to possess the ball and make them play from behind.... We're going to find out how much of what they did was Mariota and how much was the system.
ROD MAR FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (FREEMAN)
RIC TAPIA/AP (FRENCH)