Eugene, OR – The Mark Helfrich-era of Oregon football kicks off on Saturday afternoon when the third-ranked Ducks play host to the Nicholls State Colonels at Autzen Stadium.
As part of the Southland Conference, Nicholls State barely registered a blip on the FCS radar in 2012, going 1-10 overall, with its only win coming in a 73-17 blowout of Evangel on Sept. 22. It was the second straight year the Colonels went winless in conference play, having now lost 14 straight Southland bouts.
On the other hand, Oregon shined once again in 2012, opening the season on a 10-game win streak to rise all the way to No. 1 in the AP poll. The Ducks slipped up late in the campaign against Stanford (17-14), but they closed out the regular season with an easy win over Oregon State (48-24) to earn a bid to the Fiesta Bowl, where they defeated Kansas State, 35-17.
After the season, Chip Kelly departed his post as head coach to join the Philadelphia Eagles after going 46-7 with four BCS bowl appearances in four seasons at Oregon. Supplanting Kelly will be former offensive coordinator Helfrich.
"We don't look at it as someone replacing someone, we look at it as 'the next guy up,'" Helfrich said. "We're going to talk the same, work the same, practice the same."
This matchup marks the first-ever meeting between these two programs.
Not surprisingly, Nicholls State featured a disappointing offensive attack a season ago, scoring just 17.7 ppg while managing a meager 338.4 ypg.
Landry Klann returns under center for the Colonels, and improving upon his junior season will not be difficult, as he completed less than 57 percent of his passes for 2,049 yards, tossing eight touchdowns to go along with 14 interceptions. Beaux Hebert (.622, 315 yards, TD, two INTs) could also see action.
Tailback Marcus Washington was one of the few bright spots for the offense in 2012, racking up 598 yards (5.2 ypc) while plunging into the end zone six times. He was also second on the team in receptions with 25.
The departure of top receiver Jesse Turner (45 rec, 448 yards, two TDs) means that the Colonels will need Josh Hanberry (308 yards) and Erik Buchanan (283 yards) to step up their production.
Nicholls State's offense certainly wasn't helped by its porous defense, which allowed opponents to put up more than 38 points per game.
Linebacker Chris Bermond will serve as the unit's leader in his senior season as he attempts to improve upon a 64-tackle campaign. The team also returns some experience in the defensive backfield with T.J. Lumar (two picks, two FF) and Toren Joseph (two picks, five passes defended) back for another go.
As the Ducks were every year under Kelly, they were one of the most potent offensive teams in the nation in 2012, scoring a whopping 49.6 ppg, and they were the only team in the country to average at least 300 yards rushing and 200 yards passing per tilt. Considering Helfrich learned from Kelly, don't expect much to change in the coming season.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota was nothing short of sensational during his freshman year. Not only did he complete greater than 68 percent of his pass attempts for 2,677 yards with an outstanding touchdown-to-interception ratio (32-to-6), he was also dangerous outside the pocket with another 752 yards on the ground and five more scores. Mariota is a bona fide star, and Helfrich is anxious to see what he can do as a sophomore.
"This guy is the best quarterback in the country but he doesn't care how many passing yards he has," Helfrich said. "He cares what is says before and after the hyphen in the team record and that's how we operate. We want to score. We don't care about the method."
The loss of star running back Kenjon Barner (1,767 yards, 21 TDs) will certainly not go unnoticed, but his departure will allow for even more opportunities for De'Anthony Thomas. Thomas has proven to be a game-changer with the ball in his hands, whether it be rushing (701 yards, 11 TDs), receiving (445 yards, five TDs) or in the return game (611 yards, two TDs), and he could be a dark horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy if he keeps busting loose for long scores.
Byron Marshall will assume the role as the more traditional back in the offense after racking up 447 yards and four scores in a reserve role last season, while Josh Huff (493 yards, seven TDs) and Colt Lyeria (392 yards, six TDs) are important pieces of the passing attack as well.
At Oregon, the offense steals the headlines, and rightfully so, but the defense in 2012 was nothing to sneeze at, as it allowed just 21.6 ppg thanks in large part to nation's top turnover margin (+21).
The Ducks' defensive strength comes in the secondary, where several ball hawks have the ability to make game-changing plays. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is a shutdown corner, snagging four interceptions to go along with 20 passes defended and six forced fumbles in 2012. Terrance Mitchell (eight passes defended), Brian Jackson (69 tackles, two INTs) and Avery Patterson (three INTs) also return to an outstanding defensive backfield.
While there is less certainty in the front seven, especially with the loss of Dion Jordan, Taylor Hart (11 TFL, 8.0 sacks) and Boseko Lokombo (39 tackles) both bring experience to the unit.