It’s quite possible that this will be met with heresy, but here goes anyway.
Oregon could be a better college football team in 2015 than it was last season.
Hear me out.
Return with me, if you will, to 1999. The date is Jan. 4. The site is Tempe, Ariz. The University of Tennessee wins its first national championship since 1951 with a 23-16 victory over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl.
NOT behind its beloved quarterback, Peyton Manning, mind you. Manning graduated and was slinging footballs for the Indianapolis Colts during the 1998 football season. Instead, UT won it behind unheralded Tee Martin. Martin was 11-for-18 in the national title game, including a critical 79-yard touchdown pass to Peerless Price in the fourth quarter.
You see where I’m going with this, yes?
For four years the Volunteers had relied heavily on Manning, who could never get over the hump either in positioning UT for the national championship – usually because of Florida – nor could he win the Heisman. (Although, many were hoping voters handed Manning the 1997 Heisman Trophy when he was a senior as a sort of ‘career legacy’ kind of award, but nobody was going to deny Michigan’s Charles Woodson from becoming the first primarily defensive player to win the most coveted trophy in sports.)
The similarities to Oregon and Marcus Mariota are obvious. Mariota, in fact, did win the Heisman last year but the Ducks were manhandled by Ohio State in the national title game. Oregon did in fact have other weapons besides Mariota, as Manning did with the Volunteers, but there was a heavy, heavy reliance on the QBs by the rest of the team.
When Manning left, the Vols lost their crutch. And it was the best thing that ever happened to them.
Could the same happen to Oregon this season?
I have a sneaking suspicion that this is how it will play out, as Oregon learns how to win by committee, so to speak, and new stars begin to emerge as the Ducks break in a new quarterback, whether that be Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams or junior Jeff Lockie.
Lockie knows the system; Adams is Mariota Lite.
Either one will enjoy the best collection of skill position players in the country starting with running backs Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner. Scary thing is, that duo is also spending time learning receiver routes. Imagine them both on the field at the same time? Imagine receiver/runner Byron Marshall on the field with them at the same time? Bralon Addison? Darren Carrington?
All due respect to UCLA receivers Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte, whom some believe are the best wideout duo in the Pac-12, but Oregon’s receivers have the greatest depth as a unit in the conference.
And regardless of Mariota’s departure, the Ducks’ offense has always been predicated on spacing. Mark Helfrich likes to get the ball wide and let his skill position players utilize their talents in the open field.
Now imagine this – Oregon being less reliant on its quarterback and even – take a deep breath or swallow hard – more varied on offense, if that’s even possible?
Marcus Mariota was a special talent, and when you have that once-in-a-generation kind of player you ride him. But Marcus Mariota is now gone, and for better or worse it puts more responsibility on other players.
It’s their turn to shine.