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NCAA Football Preview - Oregon Ducks

2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Grading the 2013 campaign, the first under head coach Mark Helfrich after Chip Kelly jetted off to the NFL, is a difficult task.

For the second straight season, Oregon's hopes of playing for the national championship were put to an end by a Stanford team that plays a much different style of football.

The Ducks rolled through their first eight games, with an average margin of victory of 38.8 points, however week nine ended in a disappointing 26-20 loss during a visit to the Cardinal. They were also undefeated when they dropped a 17-14 decision in overtime to Stanford in 2012. Last year's loss wasn't the only one of the campaign, with the Ducks finding themselves on the wrong side of a rout for a change, falling to Arizona in a 42-16 final.

Oregon still reached the postseason and blew past Texas, 30-7, in the Alamo Bowl, but its 11-2 record was a step back from three straight 12-win campaigns. A stretch of four straight seasons in a BCS Bowl also came to an end.

Most teams would give top marks to its program for accomplishing what Oregon did last season, but for a team that is always in the national championship conversation, the 2013 season was more disappointment than success. That's just a testament to how dominant the Ducks have been.

"Looking back to last year, it's a great thing for our players to kind of slap ourselves in the face and go back to process, go back to culture. Go back to taking care of our own," Helfrich said. "You know, you look around the country, and there is a fine line of being in that discussion months from now. It might as well be right now."

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Anyone who has flicked on an Oregon game for more than a few seconds knows two things. First, the Ducks have some of the most eye-popping uniform combinations in the country and secondly, they can light it up with the best of them on offense. They ranked second in the country in total offense (565 ypg) last season, marking the fourth straight year they have been among the top-10 offenses in the nation. Fans in Eugene should be ready for another elite unit in 2014.

Normally the offense's big strengths are at the skill positions, where the Ducks put a premium on speed and athleticism. However, perhaps the biggest advantage they will have this season is along the offensive line, where all five starters return. Tackles Tyler Johnstone and Jake Fisher, guards Hamani Stevens and Cameron Hunt, and center Hroniss Grasu will give a team that loves to run (273.5 ypg in 2013) plenty of opportunity to do so.

The experience up front will also help quarterback Marcus Mariota. Since stepping in as a starter in his freshman year, Mariota has done nothing but excel, throwing for 63 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions in 722 attempts. He has also piled up 6,342 yards on 65.8 percent passing, while adding in some explosive plays on the ground, which has amounted to 1,467 yards and 14 scores in two years. Florida State's Jameis Winston may have won the Heisman Trophy last season, but Mariota was just as deserving and will be a chief contender once again in 2014.

"Marcus's contribution and dynamic nature, and the way he plays kind of speaks for itself," Helfrich said.

The receiving corps lost a few big names in Josh Huff and Bralon Addison, but Oregon very rarely has to rebuild on offense, it just has to reload. Keanon Lowe (18 receptions, 233 yards, 3 TDs) will have a more expanded role after starting 10 games last season, while some fresher faces will also be in the mix.

The heart and soul of Oregon's offense should still be the running game. Byron Marshall is fresh off a 1,000-yard season in which he tallied over 100 yards on five occasions while scoring 14 touchdowns. Thomas Tyner (711 yards, 9 TDs) is a fantastic second option and Mariota will make plenty of plays with his legs as well.

DEFENSE: While it never gets the headlines and, admittedly, is not as dominant as the offense, Oregon's defense has still proven to be a strong unit year in and year out. Last season was no different, with the Ducks ranking among the top-15 teams in the country in scoring defense (20.5 ppg), and finishing third in the Pac-12 in average yards allowed (370.1 ypg).

This year's group has some holes to fill, especially in the secondary. Luckily, the one holdover in the backfield is All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. The 5-foot-10 senior had 84 tackles last season and also collected 3 interceptions. He will be flanked by some intriguing prospects, including redshirt freshman safety Tyree Robinson.

The front seven has a bit more stability, with linebackers Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick back, along with defensive ends DeForest Buckner and Tony Washington.

Malone did a little bit of everything last season, leading the team in tackles (105), while adding a pair of sacks and as many interceptions. Hardrick had 65 stops, including 3 for a loss.

Washington was the team's best pass rusher, accumulating 7.5 sacks, while Buckner tacked on 2.5. Arik Armstead has a chance to be a difference-maker on the interior as well. Making plays in the backfield should be a priority for new defensive coordinator Don Pellum, with the Ducks ranking last in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss last season (70).

SPECIAL TEAMS: Matt Wogan returns to handle kicking duties after going 7-of-9 on field goal attempts last season. He will likely take on the role of punter as well.

Oregon will need to find some new returners with Addison and DeAnthony Thomas gone. Lowe is a possible candidate, considering he averaged 18.3 yards per return on seven kickoffs last year.

OUTLOOK: It is an outrageous expectation to have, but for Oregon, anything outside of a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff would be considered a disappointment.

The Ducks will get a really good idea of how ready they truly are in the second week of the season when Michigan State comes to Autzen Stadium. That contest is sandwiched between home tilts with South Dakota and Wyoming. They will then begin the Pac-12 schedule at Washington State. The conference slate also includes trips to UCLA, California, Utah and Oregon State, with redemption chances at home against Arizona and Stanford, as well as dates with Washington and Colorado.

Banking on another top-10 offense, a double-digit win total and plenty of offseason accolades for Mariota and company is a safe bet. If the Ducks want more they need to figure out how to beat Stanford, something they will certainly be prepared for after facing the like-minded Spartans early on. If they can survive those tests and the trip to Pasadena, then this team will be competing for a national title come January.