Photo via Adam Eberhardt/Emerald
With bowl season just beginning and America’s tv’s tuned in to the great games this season, one team is very noticeably missing from the lineup: the Oregon Ducks.
This season definitely came as a surprise to most—yes, the Ducks lost famed QB Marcus Mariota in 2014, but then again, the Seminoles lost Jameis Winston and only missed a couple strides before finding their heads again. The Oregon Ducks have been a dominating force for a good number of years, and have only missed out on a bowl game once since 1997 in 2003.
The ducks went 4-8 this season with a conference record of 2-7, which starkly contrasts their storied 2014 season, which led them to the College Football Finals against Ohio State after a resounding win against the Seminoles in the semis. They dominated their conference, and made a statement that they were as strong as ever.
The Ducks didn’t have such a strong showing in 2015, but they definitely still made their mark; they went into the Alamo Bowl against a #11 TCU with nine wins under their belt and barely lost to the Horned Frogs. Even without Mariota and many of their defensive players, they managed to keep up the wins.
Going into the 2016 season, hope was high that the Ducks would continue being a cohesive and competitive program. They won their first two games and were ranked #22 by week 3—it seemed like the Ducks didn’t even need Mariota, and it seemed as if Mark Helfrich had proved he could further the program’s domination.
AP Photo/Steve Dykes
So what the hell happened to the Ducks?
It all started going downhill from there. It seemed as if they did indeed miss Mariota—they had become too comfortable with having him, and never quite found a suitable replacement. They started four separate quarterbacks since that 2014 season, and none found his stride in the hefty schedule that Oregon has set for itself.
More importantly, the Ducks defense suddenly lost all capability of holding their opponents’ offenses back. Looking at some of the blowout losses that Oregon was dealt, it’s easy to see this. Washington mopped the floor with them in a 70-21 win, and other PAC-12 opponent Stanford defeated them 52-27.
Oregon also sustained a slough of injuries throughout the year, and while they showed a hint of turning it all around in a surprise win against a #11 Utah program, they never recovered from their early losses and ended in a seriously disappointing season. Because of this season Oregon lost seven committed players, and Helfrich was unceremoniously fired despite his many earlier achievements.
What should we expect of the Ducks going forward?
The Ducks may have been given a great opportunity to redeem themselves in the next several years with the hiring of USF coach Willie Taggart. Taggart is a talented coach with a record of turning programs around, if not a program as old and complex as UO.
Taggart turned a lagging USF program around, and while recruiting a strong backbone for the team also led them to a 10-2 season. For a more in-depth analysis, read my article ‘Don’t Overlook the USF Bulls.’ At his previous job, he was able to turn a 2-10 Western Kentucky team into a bowl eligible 7-5 team in just one year.
Clearly, Taggart has practice in this. He has also begun surrounding himself with capable assistant coaches and coordinators that will make the transition for the program much easier. With his recruiting he will make up for the damage that Helfrich caused, and with his hiring he will prove that he’s willing to collaborate and get his hands dirty to lift this program out of the muck. He is hungry for a win, and is fully confident in his abilities to get Oregon to where it needs to be in the next couple years.
One hopefully promising hire is Jim Leavitt from Colorado—Leavitt worked for a successful Colorado program as the defensive coordinator (and, it is important to note, he also worked at USF). This might prove to the the most important decision Taggart has made for the program yet, because the Ducks desperately need veteran leadership to head a new and improved defense.
Will these new hires be enough to alter Oregon’s crash course to the bottom? Perhaps, but it remains to be seen how Taggart will handle the pressure of such a weighty position in a power conference. Only time will tell if the Ducks will reclaim their spot at the top of football after such a resoundingly disappointing season.