No. 35 Oregon
Oregon might have had the most talented four-win team in college football history. On one hand, no one care because they went 4-8. On the other hand, the Ducks can make a quick rebound thanks to much of that talent returning in 2017.
They voluntarily made a coaching change for the first time since 'Nam and return a promising young quarterback, elite rusher and a bunch of freshmen and sophomores on a defense that needs a big step forward under new coordinator Jim Leavitt.
2016 Record: 4-8 (2-7, Pac-12)
Oregon hadn't lost five games in a season since 2004. Last year they had five losses by Oct. 21.
The Ducks' lost five in a row and eight of their final 10 games, something incomprehensible for a program that lost 18 total games over the previous eight seasons. While three losses came by a combined nine points, they were also throttled by Washington, USC and Stanford.
The eight-loss campaign led to Mark Helfrich's dismissal. He was the first Ducks' head coach to be fired in 40 years.
Head Coach: Willie Taggart (1st year)
After making three in-house hires for their last three head coach openings, the Ducks went way — like way, way, way — outside Eugene this time, hiring South Florida head coach and Florida native Willie Taggart across the country.
Eight years ago Taggart was a little-known running backs coach at Stanford, aiding in the remarkable rebuilding effort engineering by Jim Harbaugh. Now he's the head coach of the program the Cardinal was trying to catch in the Pac-12 North.
He created "player accountability" groups, each led by assistant coaches who drafted players from all positions in an attempt to build better relationships and team chemistry.
"It's a really player-friendly building," Taggart told Oregon Live in March. "You would think that a lot of these guys would be around here a lot more than what they have been . . . We've got to learn to like each other and love being around each other."
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Justin Herbert, RB Royce Freeman, RB Tony Brooks-James, WR Charles Nelson, OT Calvin Throckmorton, G Shane Lemieux, C Jake Hanson,
Oregon averaged 35 points and 491 yards per game — fourth and second in the Pac-12, respectively — so moving the ball toward and into the end zone was not an issue in 2016. They averaged 30 points in losses.
True freshman Justin Herbert took over at quarterback in mid-October and played well, finishing with 1,936 yards, 19 touchdowns and just four interceptions in seven starts. The 26th-ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2016 class, the three-star recruit went just 2-5 but gave the program confidence moving forward.
Except Taggart hasn't named the 6-foot-6, 225-pounder his starter yet, saying he'll decide during fall camp between Herbert, freshman Braxton Burmeister and sophomore Travis Jonsen.
“All of our quarterbacks got better,” Taggart said in May. “I thought it was really good watching those guys compete each and every day, especially when we moved them around with different teams. It was really good to see.”
Running back Royce Freeman (below) is back after reportedly flirting with the NFL draft. The senior had his least productive season as a Duck in 2016 but still has nearly 4,800 career all-purpose yards and 48 touchdowns. He and backup Tony Brooks-James, one of the fastest running backs in the nation, complement each other well.
Freeman will be aided by three sophomore linemen, two of whom earned all-conference honorable mention nods as freshmen: Jake Hanson and Calvin Throckmorton. Hanson was named to the watch list for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation's top center.
Once a program with an embarrassment of riches at receiver, Oregon is suddenly thin and inexperienced at the position after Devon Allen gave up football in November and Darren Carrington was dismissed this summer. Charles Nelson is now Herbert's top target. The 5-foot-8, 177-pounder originally signed as a three-star cornerback recruit in 2014.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DE Henry Mondeaux, LB Troy Dye, CB Arrion Springs, CB Tyree Robinson, CB Ugo Amadi, S Khalil Oliver, S Brenden Schooler
Mark Helfrich was fired because his defense couldn't stop anyone. They ranked 100th or worse in nearly every major statistical category, including forced turnovers (12 total, 118th in the FBS).
Taggart hit the jackpot when he convinced Colorado coordinator Jim Leavitt to leave Boulder for the same position at Oregon.
"Building defenses, building programs, that's been my resume," Leavitt said in April. "So I'm pretty comfortable with it."
Among the eight returning players with starting experience is sophomore linebacker Troy Dye (below), their leading tackler. Dye mostly played on the outside in Brady Hoke's 4-3 system but move inside in Leavitt's 3-4 base. It will be the first time Oregon uses a 3-4 base since 2009.
"The corners are really focused on being in coverage and relying on safeties coming into the box to make the open-field tackles," says senior corner Tyree Robinson. "There's not as much stress on the corners now. A lot of guys play faster."
Robinson is one of five returning defensive backs. He and Arrion Springs combined for 18 passes defended. Brenden Schooler had four interceptions.
Notable Player Losses
WR Darren Carrington II, WR Devon Allen, TE Pharaoh Brown, TE Johnny Mundt
The long, winding and eventful Oregon career for Darren Carrington is finally over after the senior was dismissed in July following a DUI arrest, the most recent of many off-the-field run-ins. Speedster Devon Allen opted to leave football late last season to pursue his track career.
Pharaoh Brown is one of three tight ends who are gone. Brown, an All-Pac-12 First-Team selection (Oregon's lone all-conference pick), signed as an undrafted free agent with the Oakland Raiders after the draft.
Notable Player Additions
DT Scott Pagano, CB Thomas Graham Jr., S Brady Breeze
Former Clemson defensive tackle Scott Pagano is a huge addition to the Ducks' defensive line. The 6-foot-3, 285-pounder had 20 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks last year. He cited new defensive line coach Joe Salave'a as a major reason for picking the Ducks.
Two freshman could start — or at least see significant time — in the secondary. Thomas Graham was four-star member of their 2017 class who enrolled early and ran with the first team for most of camp. Breeze, meanwhile, a 6-foot-1, 200-pounder who redshirted last year.
Oregon's non-conference slate is highlighted by a home date with Nebraska on Sept. 9 — the second half of a home-and-home series — and trip to Wyoming on Sept. 16, where they'll see potential 2018 No. 1 pick Josh Allen.
They host another elite quarterback, Washington State's Luke Falk on Oct. 7, followed by a visit to Stanford a week later. Other notable games include Washington on Nov. 4 and the Civil War on Nov. 25.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Southern Utah|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. Nebraska|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||at Wyoming|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||at Arizona State|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||vs. Cal|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||vs. Washington State|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||at Stanford|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||at UCLA|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||vs. Utah|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||at Washington|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. Arizona|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||vs. Oregon State|