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Don’t write off Oregon yet: Ducks could be darkhorse Playoff contender in 2016

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The Ducks are still a major player in the race for the Pac-12 title in 2016.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Oregon Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s flash back to the first half of last year’s Alamo Bowl. Oregon was rolling over TCU in Texas, Vernon Adams was dealing, and the consensus on Twitter was that the Ducks may have been in the Playoffs had Adams not been injured early in the season.

We all know what happened next. In short, the second half of the Alamo Bowl is a black cloud that has officially snuffed out the off-season hype machine around the program. The Ducks have rarely been mentioned as a Playoff darkhorse the past eight months and have been picked to win the conference by pretty much no one despite being either first or second conference each season for the past 10 years.

So…I’m here to say, watch out for Oregon to win the Pac-12 in 2016. Or, at least, don’t write the Ducks off just yet.

Let’s not forget, even with their crippling issues on defense, the Ducks were still probably the best team in the Pac-12 in the month of November and were very close to winning the North. Yes, the Ducks lost a lot from last year’s team, including Adams, but also consider that so has a lot of the conference, including the perennial Pac-12 favorite, Stanford.

Not surprisingly, the big tipping point for the Ducks in my opinion will be quarterback. That’s not a major revelation. However, what I want people to keep in mind is that the Ducks don’t necessarily need whoever becomes their next starting quarterback to be Marcus Mariota or Adams to win the Pac-12.

Remember that the Ducks were eviscerating TCU before Adams went down, they won at Stanford, and blew out USC in November. I think this shows that whoever wins the Oregon QB job can keep the team competing at an elite level as long as they are say 50-60 percent of what Adams was, especially if their defense can make strides with Brady Hoke and if their offensive line can improve.

While, yes, quarterback is the biggest question for the Ducks which may hold them back, it shouldn’t completely distract from the other things that make the Ducks a darkhorse Playoff contender and a legit Pac-12 championship contender, in my opinion.

The Ducks are still as strong, if not stronger, at running back than any team in the nation. Nothing more needs to be said about Royce Freeman, so let’s focus on the more-ignored strengths of Oregon’s backfield - Taj Griffin, depth, Charles Nelson and Dakota Prukop’s running abilities. Griffin could be the pure speed, home run back the Ducks have lacked since De’Anthony Thomas left. They have two great depth backs in Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James. Charles Nelson is a nightmare on the fly sweep and Dakota Prukop is a much better runner than Adams and will likely have more of a green light to take off than the injury-prone Adams did.

Don’t be surprised if the Ducks go back to a more run-heavy, option attack if they start Prukop since he is not the passer Mariota or Adams were. This could actually end up being a nice move for the Ducks as it maximizes their strength in the backfield and could help with ball control and keeping their still-questionable defense off of the field as much as possible.

The crazy thing is that the Ducks might be more stacked at receiver and tight end than they are at running back. and it’s going to make things a lot easier for whoever starts at quarterback. Darren Carrington might show he is the Pac-12’s best receiver other than JuJu Smith-Schuster in a full season of play, Dwayne Stanford might be the conference’s best tall/long/possession receiver, Charles Nelson is absolutely electric, Devon Allen is a sleeping giant and the Ducks are loaded with ready to breakout talents like Jalen Brown and Dillon Mitchell who are waiting in the wings.

That’s not even including the tight end position where the Ducks have 2014’s best tight end Pharaoh Brown coming back from a devastating injury and proven commodities in seniors Evan Baylis and Johnny Mundt also in the fold. The Ducks may have the strongest tight end group in the conference and will really help the new quarterback.

Now to the areas where the Ducks are questionable, but should not be written off going into the season.

Let’s start with the offensive line, where the Ducks were uncharacteristically above average at best in 2015. The bad news is the Ducks lose by far their two best offensive linemen from 2015 in Tyler Johnstone and Matt Hegarty, but the good news is they have some players who underwhelmed in 2015 like Tyrell Crosby and Cameron Hunt, who could step up.

Overall, the Ducks have overachieved on the offensive line almost every year for about 10 years now, so I would be surprised if they have another year where they underwhelm.

Lastly, let’s talk about that Duck defense. It couldn’t have been much worse in 2015 and that was with arguably the nation’s best defensive player in DeForest Buckner along with a handful of other starters who are gone.

There are three things that give me confidence about Oregon’s defense going into 2016.

  1. Brady Hoke will have a new set of starters to play with in the front seven, allowing for a better chance for his system to be absorbed and executed quickly.
  2. The young defensive backs had their trial by fire last year and should slowly become a strength instead of a weakness the way Washington’s young secondary did after 2014.
  3. There is nowhere to go but up.

So there you have it. The Ducks are facing some major obstacles to remain elite in 2016, but they should not be written off just yet.