• Oregon Ducks: To playoff or not to playoff?

    That is the question as UO prepares for season loaded with big games
  • Playoffs? Don’t talk about … playoffs? Are you kidding me? Playoffs?It’s true, the College Football Playoff era has finally arrived.Oregon, ranked No. 4 in the Amway Coaches poll and predicted by the media to win the Pac-12, will have a chance to participate in the four-team playoff if Mar...
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  • Playoffs? Don’t talk about … playoffs? Are you kidding me? Playoffs?
    It’s true, the College Football Playoff era has finally arrived.
    Oregon, ranked No. 4 in the Amway Coaches poll and predicted by the media to win the Pac-12, will have a chance to participate in the four-team playoff if Marcus Mariota and a loaded roster take care of their unfinished business this fall.
    That means winning the nation’s most-anticipated nonconference game against Michigan State on Sept. 6, solving the Stanford problem on Nov. 1 at Autzen Stadium and avoiding a Civil War upset on Nov. 29 at Oregon State.
    To be selected for a national semifinal on Jan. 1, the Ducks will also have to deal with South Division favorite UCLA — coached by Jim Mora Jr., whose dad famously provided the “Playoffs?” rant — during the regular season on Oct. 11 in Pasadena and possibly again in the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 5 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
    “I think college football is great and every single week matters,” second-year Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “In basketball you can lose 10 games … you can sneak into the NFL playoffs at just over .500 to win the Super Bowl. … I think it will be a good test for that (College Football Playoff selection) committee. It will be interesting to watch as that unfolds. Hopefully, we’re doing our part to be in the mix.”
    The journey begins today as Oregon takes the field for the first practice of fall camp.
    The key to the season will be keeping Heisman Trophy candidate Mariota healthy. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound redshirt junior passed for 3,665 yards and set a school record for all-purpose yards (4,380) in 2013, despite playing on a partially torn MCL in November.
    Mariota likely would have been selected early in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, but he decided to put a lucrative professional career on hold to finish his UO degree and lead the Ducks.
    “He’s 100 percent true, he’s 100 percent dedicated to the team and 100 percent credible,” Helfrich said. “A lot of guys talk a good game. Everything that guy does is gospel.”
    Oregon’s entire starting offensive line, led by all-American center Hroniss Grasu, returns to protect Mariota and open holes for what could be a dominant rushing attack. Left tackle Tyler Johnstone is making his way back from a torn ACL sustained in the Alamo Bowl.
    Byron Marshall (1,038 yards, 14 touchdowns) and Thomas Tyner (711 yards, nine touchdowns) highlight a deep stable of running backs. Royce Freeman and Tony James also could contribute as true freshmen.
    Wide receiver is the great unknown for the Ducks, with Josh Huff (1,140 yards, 12 touchdowns) reuniting with Chip Kelly in Philadelphia and Bralon Addison (890 yards, seven touchdowns) suffering a torn ACL during the spring.
    Senior captain Keanon Lowe will be joined by a talented but unproven cast that includes Dwayne Stanford, Darren Carrington and Devon Allen. Former Duck basketball player Johnathan Loyd joined the team in the spring to compete at wide receiver and as a punt returner.
    Oregon is deep at tight end with the return of Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt, Evan Baylis and Koa Ka’ai.
    Opposing defenders are not anticipating a difficult transition for Mariota in distributing the ball to new targets.
    “He can run and he can pass and he has great touch on the ball. And he can throw into tight windows when he needs to,” California safety Stefan McClure said. “He’s a great all-around athlete and he has good chemistry with his receivers. They always seem to be on the right page and know what they’re doing. …
    “They seem to be a well-oiled machine working together.”
    First-year defensive coordinator Don Pellum also has plenty of elite athletes to work with while continuing to put his stamp on the unit during camp.
    The Ducks lose Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Havili-Heimuli up front, but DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Alex Balducci and Sam Kamp are ready for their opportunity to shine on the defensive line.
    Brett Bafaro, Rahim Cassell, Oshay Dunmore and Tyrell Robinson all left the team during the offseason. That will hurt the Ducks’ overall depth, but the attrition shouldn’t have a major effect if the returning linebackers stay relatively healthy.
    “One thing I know a championship-caliber team can do is adapt,” redshirt senior linebacker Derrick Malone said. “That’s all we can do is adapt to these changes.”
    Tony Washington (7 1/2 sacks) returns at one outside linebacker spot, and Tyson Coleman is poised for a breakout season. Christian French, Torrodney Prevot and Eddie Heard are promising outside linebacker candidates.
    Malone (team-high 105 tackles) and Rodney Hardrick (65 tackles, three fumble recoveries) return as the starters at the inside spots. Danny Mattingly, Joe Walker and freshman Jimmie Swain should all be factors as part of the rotation.
    All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu joined Mariota and Grasu in putting the NFL on hold to attend to unfinished business at Oregon. The Ducks lose the other three starters from the 2013 secondary — cornerback Terrance Mitchell, free safety Avery Patterson and strong safety Brian Jackson.
    Senior Dior Mathis and junior college transfer Dominique Harrison are the leading candidates to replace Mitchell. Troy Hill and Chris Seisay should see plenty of action this season.
    During spring practice, senior Erick Dargan emerged as the front-runner to replace Patterson. Tyree Robinson and Reggie Daniels will engage in a competitive battle over the next three weeks to fill Jackson’s shoes.
    Some combination of secondary coach John Neal’s promising 2014 recruits — Arrion Springs, Matt McGraw, Khalil Oliver and Glen Ihenacho — figure to see the field as true freshmen.
    Oregon’s longtime defensive coordinator, Nick Aliotti, retired after the defense dominated Texas in the Alamo Bowl and will be an analyst on the Pac-12 Networks this season. Pellum was elevated after coaching linebackers the previous 13 seasons.
    “There’s a lot of similarities because DP coached for (Aliotti) for so long,” Malone said. “The biggest difference is we have more attention to detail. The culture is already in place. (Pellum) just enhanced the culture a little bit.”
    Matt Wogan will probably handle both the place-kicking and punting duties. Freshman Tanner Carew is the new long snapper, and walk-on quarterback Taylor Alie did the holding in the spring.
    “Oregon has a great team coming back. They deserve all the credit that they’re getting,” Stanford senior quarterback Kevin Hogan said. “You can’t blame people for picking good teams to do well. I just know that Oregon is not paying attention to (the preseason poll), either.
    “They know this conference is deep from top to bottom, and they’re going to have to bring it every week.”

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