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College Football Preview 2023: 10. Oregon Ducks

Bo Nix, Oregon 

10. Oregon Ducks

With arguably the Pac-12's top backfield and an improved defense, the Ducks will firmly in the CFB Playoff hunt once again

2022 Review
Dan Lanning's first ever game as a head football coach? None other than the mighty Georgia Bulldogs, a team he helped lead to a National Title the year prior as defensive coordinator. The Ducks were no match for the 'Dawgs, losing in embarrassing fashion, 49-3. But it quickly became clear that the opener was merely an aberration, as Oregon established themselves as one of the Pac-12's best by ripping off eight straight victories. They entered a matchup with rival Washington as the league's favorite and a serious Playoff contender, ranked No. 6 in the nation. Despite heading into the fourth quarter with a lead, an untimely injury to quarterback Bo Nix sunk the Ducks, as they watched Washington kicker Peyton Henry deliver the game-winning field goal. Oregon recovered by winning a grueling bout with Utah in Eugene a week later, but the brutal end-of-year three-game stretch caught up with them again versus rival Oregon State. Even though they outplayed the Beavers, Oregon State came out on top in the end in a 38-34 victory. The Ducks reversed the script by winning a nail-biter in the bowl, preserving a strong 10-3 debut for Lanning and this new staff. Yet, it felt like the second straight year where Oregon was on an inside track to their second CFB Playoff berth and fell short. That could provide an additional layer of motivation for this program as they embark on the 2023 campaign.

2023 Outlook
Offense: Bo Nix had become somewhat of a "meme" among the college football community during his time at Auburn, struggling to live up to the expectations placed on him coming out of high school. It was clear he needed a change of scenery and reuniting with his older play-caller at Auburn, Kenny Dillingham, proved to be the right move. Nix exploded for over 4,000 yards of total offense and 43 touchdowns, earning legitimate Heisman consideration for his efforts.

The turnaround from Nix was so impressive, Dillingham was able to parlay it into his first head coaching job at Arizona State. That means the veteran quarterback will be working with yet another coordinator, this time being former UTSA OC Will Stein. It will be a transition, but Nix seemed to officially turn a corner last fall and should enter 2023 as one of the best in the country.

Joining Nix in the Duck backfield will be arguably the Pac-12's best running back combo in Mar'Keise "Bucky" Irving and Noah Whittington, both former transfers. Irving flashed potential during the 2021 season at Minnesota, but it was still a bit surprising how quickly he took off at Oregon, breaking the 1,000-yard mark and averaging nearly seven yards per carry. Whittington wasn't as much of a game-breaker as Irving, but proved to be a nice change-of-pace, complimenting Irving with 779 yards of his own. Along with the running ability of Nix, opponents are going to be terrified of this Oregon ground game all season long.

There's plenty to like out wide for Oregon, too, as Troy Franklin leads a well-stocked receiver room. Franklin was one of the main benefactors of Nix's breakout, as he finished with 61 receptions for 891 yards and nine touchdowns. His long and slithery frame is a real tough build to defend and he has polished his route running, turning him into one of the best in the conference. Kris Hutson is another holdover who continues to grow as he enters his fourth year in the program.

The newcomers are what really intrigues me about this receiver corps, as three transfers could all make an instant impact. Former Troy wide out Tez Johnson is the most proven of the trio, an ultra-reliable playmaker who should be able to make the jump to the Power Five. Interestingly enough, he's also the adopted brother of Bo Nix. Alongside him, Traeshon Holden also arrives from the state of Alabama, while Gary Bryant did the inter-conference transfer, coming from USC. Bryant is a guy I've long been high on who simply didn't get the opportunities he needed in Southern California; this could be the type of change he needs to succeed.

Tight end is a strength, as Terrance Ferguson has locked down the position, sending a pair of players transferring out over the season. Ferguson is a massive target in the middle-of-the-field with the athleticism to be a real problem, but it will be interesting to see whether he can round out his game this fall.

There have been numerous reasons for Oregon's success throughout the Mario Cristobal and Lanning years, but the most enduring of them has been their offensive line. They are developing elite line talent at an impressive clip and sending them off to the NFL in the hurry, including several new NFL Draft selections this spring. That should be reason for confidence in this unit, even as they break in several new faces.

Junior guard Marcus Harper is the lone true returnee on the line, but a pair of transfers, Ajani Cornelius and Nishad Strother have both played a bunch of snaps and should adjust quickly. Then there's left tackle Josh Conerly, a former five-star prospect who might end up being an improvement over departed T.J. Bass. Add in names like Steven Jones and Texas transfer Junior Angilau, two guys who may not even start but should factor into the rotation, this unit should remain very strong.

You never like to replace a coordinator after such a successful season, but Will Stein will have plenty of toys to play with in 2023. Nix, Irving, and Franklin are an exceptional QB-RB-WR trio and the Ducks did a good job plugging holes on the O-Line with transfers who have seen ample snaps at the collegiate level. This should once again be one of the most explosive groups on the West Coast.

Defense: Oregon has one of the most talented defenses in the entire country, stocked full of former blue-chip prospects, but the unit experienced some ups-and-downs in 2022. Overall they put up fine numbers, but struggled against some of the top teams on their schedule. As they gear up for 2023, the Ducks are looking for more consistency at every level.

Oregon's anemic pass rush last fall was a major problem, as they averaged just 1.38 sacks per game. It was clear they missed Kayvon Thibodeaux, and just didn't have enough disruptors to change the game on some of their most crucial Saturdays. Fortunately, that has a good chance to change this season. Senior edge Brandon Dorlus has gotten better each year he's been on campus and looks ready for a huge grand finale, and Oregon landed a big name through the portal in South Carolina's Jordan Burch. Burch is a former five-star prospect who finally had his breakthrough last fall, but it still feels like there's another gear he can hit after plenty of time in the SEC. Senior Mase Funa and highly touted true freshman Matayo Uiagalelei will also factor in heavily.

There is turnover among the linebacker corps, most notably the departure of Noah Sewell, but Oregon remains in good shape at this position group heading into 2023. Junior outside linebacker Jeffrey Bassa isn't the flashiest defender on the roster, but is a proven defender who finished second on the team in tackles a season ago. However, he could quickly be overshadowed at the position by Iowa transfer Jestin Jacobs, who is slated to start at middle linebacker. At 6'4", 240 pounds, Jacobs knows how to get downhill rapidly and lay the boom on opponents. He could be one of the top transfers in the Pac-12 this season.

Christian Gonzalez was a tremendous addition by the program from Colorado, a disruptive corner who notched seven pass deflections and four interceptions before heading off to the NFL. Despite his absence, the Ducks have six of their top eight returning, with the other loss being reliable safety Bennett Williams.

Junior Dontae Manning has been a rotational piece at corner the last two seasons, but appears ready to step into a leading role. Manning has always had talent, but has needed some time to acclimate to this scheme and find his fit; 2023 could be the breakout year. With Gonzalez gone, look for Alabama transfer Khyree Jackson to battle for a starting spot. Jackson isn't the most athletic player on the field, but the former JUCO transfer is a well-rounded, proven corner. Colorado transfer Nikko Reed is also going to factor in after making 12 starts last fall, albeit on one of the worst defenses in FBS ball.

Bennett Williams is a notable loss on the back-end, a reliable tackler who could make his presence felt in the passing game. Senior Steve Stephens does return after making nine starts in 2022, but also look for two transfers to factor in, Evan Williams from Fresno State and Tysheem Johnson from Ole Miss. Both have seen significant playing time and will bring limitless range to the position. Add in Bryan Addison, a longtime piece of the program whose older brother, Bralon, starred here and the entire secondary is incredibly deep.

Throughout most of the Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich years, the Duck defense was the weak spot on the team, what held them back from bringing a National Title to Eugene. Under Cristobal and now Lanning, it's been built up quite a bit and now has NFL talent at every position group. If the pass rush can take a much-needed step forward, it could be among the best in the league.

Special Teams: Special teams has been a rollercoaster of a ride for Oregon in recent years, but there's reason to believe in this group this fall. Kicker Camden Lewis is a Lou Groza Award candidate, fresh off a 2022 in which he hit 14 of 16 field goals and didn't miss a single extra point. Punter isn't as proven, with a cast of unproven characters competing for the job, but the return game has potential for plenty of fireworks with Irving and Hutson back.

Bottom Line
Over the last three full college football seasons, Oregon has been the best team in the Pac-12 and a serious College Football Playoff contender. But in each season they've slipped up at the end and in the last two, given up the conference to Utah. There are several reasons to believe that could change in 2023 and the Ducks will be able to finish the job. Dan Lanning is more experienced, having been through the first season here and proving he was the right man for the job. Bo Nix is a proven veteran looking to end his long-winding college football career on top. There's loads of former blue-chip recruits at every position, most of them grown up and ready to help Oregon compete for lofty goals. And then there's the fact there's no Georgia on the schedule this fall, although it's hard to say that this year's slate is a breeze. I'm still leaning USC in the Pac-12 simply because Caleb Williams provides that much of an edge, but the Ducks truly are not far behind. They are going to get back to the National Championship Game at some point, and I feel confident saying Lanning is the one to get them there.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Dan Lanning enters Year Two in Eugene, his first head coaching job at any level of college football. Lanning has had a quick ascent, going from a GA at Pittsburgh in 2011 to a major Power Five head coach in just over a decade. His work as Georgia's DC and OLB coach from 2019-2021 is what earned him the gig at Oregon. At offensive coordinator, Will Stein is set to take over for the departed Kenny Dillingham. Stein was playing college football as late as 2012 at Louisville, and after bouncing around, earned national recognition at UTSA as co-OC and quarterbacks coach. Just 33 years of age, Stein should continue climbing up the coaching ladder at an impressive rate. On the defensive side of the ball, Tosh Lupoi retains his role as defensive coordinator, although Oregon did hire Tulane's Chris Hampton as co-DC and safeties coach. Lupoi has prior experience in the Pac-12 as DL coach at both California and Washington, and also served as DC at Alabama. After a stint in the NFL, he returned to the college ranks with Oregon this past fall.

Recruiting Breakdown
Mario Cristobal established himself as one of the game's top recruiters during his time at Oregon, and Dan Lanning appears to be building off it. Lanning and staff brought in the ninth ranked class nationally, a group that came in just behind USC in the Pac-12. The lone five-star prospect in the ranks is athlete Jurrion Dickey, who could contribute at multiple spots with the Ducks. Wide receiver is the most likely fit, but there's also belief he could play defensive back at the next level, and should be able to produce right away on special teams. Despite Dickey's presence, the biggest name in the 2023 Class is defensive end Matayo Uiagalelei, the younger brother of new Oregon State quarterback D.J. Matayo is built to play right away, a 6'5", 265-pound menace off the edge who starred at California powerhouse St. John Bosco. He is in line to see immediate snaps, particularly with how underwhelming the Oregon pass rush was throughout much of 2022. Fellow edge rusher Blake Purchase comes in with less fanfare, but offers loads of potential at the position. Purchase has added over 30 pounds in the last year and should continue rounding out in the collegiate ranks; even if he doesn't see much playing time this fall, he has a bright future in Eugene.

2023 Schedule Analysis
Fortunately, there's no Georgia on the schedule in 2023, but that doesn't mean that the Ducks have a favorable slate. The non-conference is easier than it has been in the past, although a road game at Texas Tech on September 9th could be awfully difficult, before things get rolling in Pac-12 play with a home game against Colorado. After traveling to Palo Alto for the Stanford game, Oregon gets a bye before things really get rolling. Their road trip to Seattle is not only a rivalry game, it could be a Pac-12 Championship Game preview. After the Huskies, there's no rest, as the Ducks get Washington State, Utah, California, and then USC after an unforgiving month-long stretch. The conclusion of the campaign isn't much easier, as they get Arizona State on the road then will face arch-rival Oregon State on a short week on Black Friday. It's truly a brutal schedule, but this program has gotten used to it over the years. Will this finally be the year they finish things off strong?

2023 X-Factor: Jordan Burch, DE
Even with one of the Pac-12's premier rushers in Brandon Dorlus, the Ducks inability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks was one of the enduring storylines of the 2022 campaign. The hope in Eugene is the addition of prized transfer Jordan Burch can help flip the script, a veteran edge rusher from South Carolina. Burch was one of the nation's top recruits coming out of high school and was overall solid in Columbia, but never seemed to reach his ceiling. This past season was his most effective, as he tallied 7.5 tackles for loss, but it has always felt like Burch had even more to offer. Perhaps a change of scenery is just what he needs to unlock that final level and with teams focusing on Dorlus, there should be plenty of opportunities for him to make an impact. That doesn't mean Burch needs to be All-American good, but if he can provide a reliable disruptive force, this Oregon front seven, and in turn entire defense, becomes significantly more dangerous.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 10-3 (7-2 Pac-12, Lose Pac-12 Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Bo Nix
Defensive MVP: DE Brandon Dorlus
Impact Freshman: DE Matayo Uiagalelei
Impact Transfer: WR Tez Johnson
Breakout Player of the Year: CB Dontae Manning

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