2011 record: 12-2 overall, 8-1 in Pac-12 (1st in North)
2011 postseason: Pac-12 title game (49-31 win over UCLA); Rose Bowl (45-38 win over Wisconsin)
2011 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 4/No. 4
Head coach: Chip Kelly (34-6 in three seasons at Oregon)
Offensive coordinator: Mark Helfrich (fourth season at Oregon, fourth as OC)
2011 offensive rankings: 5th rushing offense (299.2 ypg); 68th passing offense (223.6 ppg); 4th total offense (522.8 ypg); 3rd scoring offense (46.1 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: five
Defensive coordinator: Nick Aliotti (13th season at Oregon, 13th as DC)
2011 defensive rankings: 54th rushing defense (142.8 ypg); 88th passing defense (247.3 ypg); 67th total defense (390.1 ypg); 52nd scoring defense (24.6 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: six
Location: Eugene, Ore.
Stadium: Autzen Stadium (54,000; FieldTurf)
Last league title: 2011
2011 statistics: [view]
The defense returns six starters from a unit that’s one of the speediest and most athletic in the country, an imperative in the wide-open Pac-12. The schedule is full of cupcake goodness, from three non-conference pastries to home Pac-12 games against Arizona, Washington and Stanford. Add in plenty of talent and the experience gleaned from three straight conference titles, and the Ducks are solidly in the mix for a fourth in a row. Well, except for…
Losing its starting quarterback (Darron Thomas, who inexplicably gave up his final season of eligibility for the NFL), leading rusher (LaMichael James, who led the country the past two seasons in rushing yards per game) and leading receiver (Lavasier Tuinei) will leave a mark on the Ducks offensively. While the schedule sets up nicely, the toughest test of the season will come on the road versus USC.
Hands down the biggest unknown for the Ducks in 2012 will be who will replace Thomas under center — and on the edges — and how effective the replacement will be. While Thomas’ decision-making ability was questioned this offseason — he ended up an undrafted free agent — there was no questioning his abilities in running Kelly’s offense. The task of replacing such a talent will come down to sophomore Bryan Bennett and redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota, with the latter exiting spring as the decided favorite to win the job heading into summer camp. Regardless of which player ultimately emerges, how well they can manage to replace Thomas’ production will go a long way in determining whether the Ducks will have a spot on both the conference and national stage
Make-or-break game: at USC, Nov. 3
As noted in the USC preview, both of these teams should enter this game with spotless 8-0 records and rankings that would likely be a matchup of Top 5 squads. As noted up above, however, the Ducks will have to travel to Los Angeles this year. Oregon came away from its last trip to the Coliseum with a win, although this year’s Trojans are a much different team than the 2010 edition. The only certainty in this game is that the winner will emerge as one of the front-runners for a spot in the BcS title game with three-quarters of the regular season in the books.
Heisman hopeful: running back Kenjon Barner
Playing in the immense shadow cast by one of the top running backs (LaMichael James) in the country over the past couple of years, Barner has still managed to rush for nearly 1,800 yards and 20 touchdowns. With James off to the NFL, Barner will be expected to pick up a sizable chunk of the production lost. The bad news for Barner’s Heisman chances? Electrifying true sophomore DeAnthony Thomas is expected to play a bigger role in the offense than he did as a freshman last year, which could dampen any stiff-armed hopes Barner may be entertaining entering the season.