Our ranking: No. 31 OREGON
Coach: Willie Taggart (0-0, entering first season; 40-45 overall)
2016 record: 4-8, 2-7 in Pac-12, sixth in North Division
Look back: No program suffered as big of a collapse as Oregon did during the past 15 months. The Ducks were just two years removed from playing in the national championship game, but the 2016 squad looked nothing like a title contender and Oregon failed to qualify for a bowl for the first time since 2004. Mark Helfrich was fired during the offseason and athletics director Rob Mullens made a major change, bringing in former USF coach Willie Taggart to run the program.
Offensive starters returning: 7
Offensive starters lost: 4
Defensive starters returning: 9
Key losses: WR Jalen Brown, WR Darren Carrington, OL Cameron Hunt, TE Pharaoh Brown, DE Austin Maloata, LB Johnny Ragin III, P Ian Wheeler
Top returnees: QB Justin Herbert, RB Royce Freeman, OL Jake Hanson, DE Justin Hollins, LB Troy Dye, S Brenden Schooler
Strengths: Taggart is installing the Gulf Coast Offense he implemented at USF, where the Bulls set school records for total offense and produced the 2016 American Athletic Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year — quarterback Quinton Flowers. The system puts emphasis on speed and athleticism and fits perfectly with players already recruited by Chip Kelly and then Helfrich. QB Justin Herbert stepped into the starting role midseason and demonstrated a strong and accurate arm.
Three freshman on the offensive line started every game last season, led by C Jake Hanson, OG Shane Lemieux and OT Calvin Throckmorton. The group may be young, but it features depth heading into the 2017 season.
Weaknesses: Oregon’s defensive struggles are well documented, with the program ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in total defense during the past two seasons. The Ducks allowed more than 500 yards and nearly six yards per play per game in 2016, failing to produce a defensive player selected in April’s NFL draft for the first time since 2008. New defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, a hard-nosed coach, transformed Colorado’s defense into an attacking unit that helped the Buffaloes capture the Pac-12 South crown in 2016. He inherits a defense that returns eight starters, including LB Troy Dye.
Darren Carrington II was expected to make a big impact at receiver, but his dismissal for a recent DUI leaves the unit looking for someone to step up and take charge.
RB Royce Freeman saw his numbers slide in 2016, with the talented running back failing to crack the 1,000-yard rushing barrier for the first time in his three seasons in Eugene. The Ducks ended a nine-year streak of producing a 1,000-yard rusher.
Outlook: Taggart is well versed in turning programs around. He’s done it at Western Kentucky and USF. But this is the first time he’s taken over a program in a Power 5 conference. He is no stranger to the Pac-12, however, after spending time at Stanford on Jim Harbaugh’s staff. Oregon’s facilities are top notch and coupled with Taggart’s ability to recruit the East Coast, especially the state of Florida, there’s no reason the Ducks can’t bounce back — although it will likely take time to return to the national title conversation.