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Flying under the radar

LOS ANGELES — The Pac-12 preseason media poll began in 1961. Oregon wasn’t picked to win the conference for 40 years.

The Joey Harrington-led Ducks made the scribes look smart in 2001 by winning the Pac-10, dominating Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl and finishing second in the final national polls.

Oregon wasn’t favored to win the conference again until 2010. Chip Kelly and Co. went 12-0 before losing to Auburn in the BCS national championship.

Marcus Mariota and the 2014 Ducks also lived up to their top billing, winning the Pac-12 championship, representing the conference in the inaugural College Football Playoff and losing to Ohio State in the national title game.

Oregon will be entering this season without great outside expectations after being tabbed third in the North Division behind Stanford and Washington in the media poll released Thursday.

“I don’t think we’ve ever mentioned the BCS, I don’t think we’ve ever mentioned the College Football Playoff, I don’t think we’ve ever mentioned any poll,” coach Mark Helfrich said at the Pac-12 media day event at a swanky Hollywood hotel. “No offense, but it just doesn’t happen. … What the media voted, that’s not one of those things that we control or really matters.”

Oregon had been picked to win the North Division of the expanded Pac-12 in each of the last five years.

The program’s streak of seven consecutive 10-win seasons — which included the two national championship appearances, four conference titles and three Rose Bowls — came to an end with last year’s 9-4 campaign.

The defending Pac-12 champion Cardinal, which returns 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey, is picked to repeat. It’s the first time in the 56-year history of the conference preseason poll that Stanford was chosen as the favorite.

“We don’t really pay too much attention to the outside talk, we’re internally motivated to do well,” senior linebacker Johnny Ragin said. “It is kind of nice to be the hunter now, as opposed to being the hunted in previous years. But we’re not too worried about the rankings.”

When fall camp opens Aug. 8, Helfrich will oversee another quarterback battle, along with new offensive coordinator Matt Lubick and quarterbacks coach David Yost. Montana State graduate transfer Dakota Prukop and redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen are the front-runners.

The competition is expected to be considerably more fierce than it was last summer, when Vernon Adams Jr. arrived late and had his new coaches and teammates at hello.

“You want it to be obvious and glaring and everybody kind of looks at each other and goes, 'Yeah,'" Helfrich said. “Like last year was a unanimous vote, no question about that. It can’t be fake, it can’t be artificial, staged, any of those type of descriptors. It’s just got to happen.”

The Ducks are loaded with another dynamic collection of talent at the skill positions, led by Royce Freeman. The star running back is confident the offense will be in good hands with either Prukop or Jonsen running the show.

Oregon was unstoppable with a healthy Adams in 2015, but struggled when the Eastern Washington transfer missed time with injuries, including the second half of the historic Alamo Bowl collapse against TCU.

“Regardless of who wins, we’re going with that guy and we’re trusting in him,” Freeman said. “Last year we had Vernon. He had his ups and downs, but honestly a healthy Vernon was great. The guys this year, we’ll trust in all of them. The coaching staff is going to do a great job of deciding who it is or whatever is happening. I have no worries.”

Helfrich hired Brady Hoke as defensive coordinator to revamp a unit that finished the 2015 campaign ranked 116th in scoring defense (37.5 ppg) and 117th in total defense (485.3 ypg).

The former Michigan coach began implementing the switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base in the spring. Don Pellum, the defensive coordinator the past two seasons, was reassigned to linebackers coach.

“Coach Hoke is awesome,” Ragin said. “He will ride you when you need to be rode, and he will get on you when you need to be got on. He’ll also give you some love when you need some love or do something well. He’s a well-rounded coach, and he works to get the best out of us.”

Washington State was picked fourth in the North, followed by California and Oregon State.

UCLA is picked to win the South Division ahead of rival USC. Utah is third, followed by Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado.

The media has correctly selected the conference champion in 29 of the 55 previous polls.

Helfrich is just looking forward to the process of constructing his fourth Oregon team into a contender, even if the Ducks are playing the unfamiliar role of dark horse.

“If you’re building a house, you don’t talk about the finished painting and the chimney,” Helfrich said. “You talk about, 'We have to get our approval and we have to get permits,' however all that stuff works, and dig a foundation. It’s not the HGTV Dream Home yet.”

Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich speaks at the Pac-12 college football media day in Los Angeles on Thursday. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Oregon tailback Royce Freeman (21), shown breaking through the line against Oregon State last season, is a key reason for the Ducks' optimism in 2016. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS