We have been here before. Oregon suffers a scary loss and the world buries them. Flash back to 2013 and the end of the Duck reign was foreseen after a blowout loss to Arizona that was just two weeks after a battering by Stanford. Flash back to 2014 and the Ducks were buried after a painful home loss to Arizona that followed a near loss to a bad Washington State team.
While the recent loss to Utah feels a little bit darker for a myriad of reasons, there is still a lot of similarities to these past two points in time and both times, the Ducks were able to turn things around.
So now begs the question... can Oregon bounce back?
It's a very tough question, so for now I will just try and play devil's advocate.
Why they can...
1. College football changes drastically week-to-week
Remember when we buried Stanford after they lost to Northwestern? Remember when we said Oregon was still a Playoff contender after nearly winning at Michigan State? Remember when we buried USC after they lost to Stanford?
No sports changes more week-to-week than college football.
2. Their schedule gives them plenty of time to improve.
The Ducks could not ask for a much better Pac-12 schedule to bounce back from their Utah loss. They play Colorado, Washington and Washington State in their next three games, most likely three of the four bottom teams in the conference this year followed by a bye week. All of these teams pose challenges, but the Ducks should have enough talent, experience and scheme to beat each of them by at least two scores before getting a much-needed week off.
The Ducks will likely try to use this four-week span to decide on a quarterback and get said quarterback more properly acclimated to playing the position in the Pac-12. They will also likely use the four-game stretch to try and figure out to how find some kind of answer on defense. Maybe the Ducks will try to replicate some of what they did against Michigan State which is by far their best defensive performance to date in 2015.
Things get tougher after that, but a road trip to Arizona State doesn't seem as difficult as it did going into the season and the if the Ducks can figure out their quarterback and defensive situations a little bit by then, they will be much, much better by the time they face their big challenges against Cal, Stanford and USC in November.
3. Outside of Stanford, the Pac-12 North isn't very good
One of the reasons I thought Oregon had a good chance to get into the Playoffs coming into the season helps their chances of salvaging 2015 - the Pac-12 North isn't very tough. Stanford looks better than I thought they would be going into the season, but outside of the Cardinal, Cal has a pretty good offense, but not a good enough defense to make up for it, Washington has a pretty good defense but not a good enough offense to make up for it and Oregon State and Washington State seem like four-win teams at best.
Going 5-1 in the North should still be expected from Oregon and they could still frustrate a rebuilding Stanford defense with their speed and win in Palo Alto to give them a good shot at winning the division.
4. The Ducks still have talent
They don't have Marcus Mariota, Jake Fisher and Hroniss Grasu anymore, but the Ducks still have enough talent to bounce back in the Pac-12.
5. They have done it before
As I pointed out earlier, the Ducks have come back from this kind of despair before.
Why they can't...
1. Expectations are too high
Recent Duck teams have kind of already set the bar too high for the Ducks to truly bounce back. The Ducks could be near perfect and lose just one game the rest of the way and they will have lost the most games in one season since 2009.
People thought they may have been being pessimistic when they said Vernon Adams would at least be a Jeremiah Masoli for the Ducks, but now that seems like it might be an insult to Masoli. Some of this can be attributed to Adams' finger injury and both quarterbacks' light experience, but I feel even if Adams and Lockie improve and fulfill their potential, they won't be the kind of QB Oregon needs to be what they were the past five years. It is now clear that Mariota was likely carrying the entire team to another level the past few seasons and their offensive prowess will not be close to what it was without a Heisman-level threat at QB.
Right now it seems Adams is nowhere near the safe running threat to keep defenses at home and Lockie is nowhere near the passer and decision maker needed to make defenses not sell out to the run.
The Ducks have been the best team in the nation the past few years at the next man up philosophy, but they might be finally running out of gas. Adams' finger injury and general wear looks to be a perpetual nag. The loss of Thomas Tyner on offense was downplayed when it happened, but the Ducks sorely miss a back to compliment Royce Freeman, especially one with big play ability. The receiving core has also been hit hard by Devon Allen coming back from injury, the suspension of Darren Carrington and the continued loss of Pharaoh Cooper at tight end. Things have been made even harder by the recent season-ending injury to Byron Marshall. Utah didn't just batter the Ducks on the scoreboard either - key cogs DeForest Buckner, Charles Nelson, Doug Brenner and Tyrell Crosby are also all nursing injuries.
Even well-oiled machines have trouble not breaking down with this many injuries.
4. Speed bumps
The Ducks don't operate or look as fast as they used to and as they need to be. The Ducks never quite had the talent of USC, UCLA and Stanford, but they made up for it with their raw speed, breakneck pace and execution, but I feel they have looked a touch slow in 2015. Not having a QB with a 4.4 40 is the obvious starting point, but the Ducks also no longer have the raw speed they used to at running back or in their pace. I'm actually not a big fan of Royce Freeman as their running back. He has the look of an NFL back, but I think the Ducks are a lot more dangerous when they have LaMichael James, De'Anthony Thomas, Kenjon Barner types who can find a seam and score and string out defenses in the flats.
I feel the Ducks started to move away from the full-throttle hurry-up of the early-Chip Kelly days feeling they had gotten themselves to a point as a program that they only really needed to do it against elite programs, but they may have gotten too cocky now that they no longer have Mariota. Without a system that no one can handle, the Ducks simply become a team whose talent is closer to Arizona State's than it is USC's and that means they are vulnerable to the kind of blowouts that a team like Arizona State will suffer in the Pac-12.
5. They don't have the talent
The Ducks are still a talented team. There isn't a debate about that. Just how talented they are though... that's up for debate. I feel if you took a look at Oregon's depth chart based on pure talent and took away the program's, you would be pretty surprised to see how many games the program has won in recent years.
The Ducks are simply not a team with the talent of the upper-tier of college football and the Pac-12, especially on defense. They have some blue chip players here and there like Freeman and DeForest Buckner, but overall, they rely on a lot of less purely talented players (especially on the offensive line and defensive front seven). In the past, the Ducks have done a phenomenal job of getting these players to play above their base level, but that is not easy to do year-after-year (see Oregon State) and they may be starting to run out of gas.
6. A break in the chain
One of the reasons Oregon was able to be so dominant without dominant talent was how well the functioned as a complete unit. This unity and fluidity was a big part of why Oregon was able to win like Alabama, Ohio State and USC without their kind of talent.
However, we may be seeing the dark side of this function for the Ducks as the flip side of that function may be that any break in the chain will also drag the entire team down in a way that it wouldn't other teams. The Ducks may not be able to cover up having a subpar quarterback or defensive backfield the way other programs can because everything is so tied together.