It was hard to believe at first.
You rub your eyes, shake your head, rub your eyes and shake your head again to make sure your brain is working correctly. When you saw the scoreboard again, and it read those same, unfathomable numbers, you had no choice but to believe it.
Oregon was indeed getting eviscerated by Utah. Offensively challenged Utah. Pac-12 newbie Utah. Over run-and-gun Oregon. High-octane Oregon. In Eugene. Autzen Stadium. It was happening.
It was one thing to lose at Michigan State by three just two weeks before, but to get pasted by 42 at home to Utah? Tough to believe.
The rest of the year remained a mercurial one for the Ducks. First-year starting quarterback Vernon Adams was in and out with injuries, and Oregon’s success followed suit: a 45-38 loss to Washington State preceded six straight wins, which were promptly followed by an epic collapse in the Alamo Bowl against TCU.
Finishing 9-4, it was Oregon’s worst season since 2007.
It’s easy to see why the Ducks struggled. Adams was rarely healthy, though when he was, the offense actually averaged more points than it did when Heisman winner Marcus Mariota was at the helm. When he wasn’t, that’s how 9-4 happens … but the defense was also one of the youngest in the country, an inexperienced bunch that could either allow 62 points to Utah at home or hold Cal and future No. 1 draft pick Jared Goff to fewer than 30.
Last season’s turbulence begs the question: Can Oregon survive another setback year like 2015?
With Washington and Washington State expected to contend this season, and UCLA and Stanford tabbed to win the South and North divisions, respectively, is it possible that Oregon will enter a period of genuine erosion and decline?
Just as it was last year, the quarterback situation is tenuous. FCS transfer Dakota Prukop is expected to start. Adams was an FCS transfer himself; if Prukop matches Adams’ trajectory in terms of quality, and manages to stay healthy, it should be no problem, but there is absolutely no certainty in that. Running back Royce Freeman is as talented as any runner in the conference, but if the defense hasn’t matured, there is only so much he can do to keep up with opposing offenses putting up 62 a night.
To be clear, 2015 was just one not-so-great-but-hardly-awful season. Many programs covet 9-win years and appearances in the Alamo Bowl. Oregon simply has different standards relative to most programs. From the 2010 through 2014 seasons, the Ducks lost only two postseason games: two national championship games.
This year, however, Oregon appears quite vulnerable, particularly with a beefed-up schedule to meet the demands of the Playoff Selection Committee, which values strength of schedule, quality wins, and good losses above all else. There are arguably six toss-up games on the schedule: at Nebraska, at Washington State, versus Washington, at Cal, versus Stanford, and at Utah. It’s not entirely inconceivable that the Ducks will go .500 against that lineup, especially when considering that the defense allowed nearly 500 yards per game in 2015. The defense surrendered 36.8 points per game, 114th in the nation.
This is still Oregon, and it’s still Mark Helfrich coaching, but the Pac-12 has deepened, and the Ducks have dipped.
For the first time since 2011, Oregon isn’t favored to win the Pac-12.
This year could mark a changing of the guard on the West Coast.
It’s not so much 2016 the Ducks should be worried about; it’s how desirable recruits will find Eugene in future seasons if Oregon begins to drift toward mediocrity. Oregon doesn’t have to dominate this season, but sustaining nine wins as the floor for this program will enable the Ducks to pursue a typically lofty ceiling in the years ahead.