After a pretty good 2011 season, it's been a rough first couple of weeks for me in the prediction department when it comes to Oregon football.
I picked the Ducks to win by obscene margins in their first two games -- against Arkansas State and Frenso State -- and while Oregon did win each of those fairly handily, the Ducks didn't cover the spread in either, let alone come close to my predictions.
That's the way the ball bounces sometimes, particularly when you're dealing with the variables and circumstances Oregon has seen thus far.
In the opener against Arkansas State, the Ducks went to their second- and third-string units with about 7 minutes left in the first half, and the Red Wolves left their starters in until the end, leaving almost no chance they'd win by the 52-point margin I'd predicted.
Against Fresno State last week, Oregon was down to a mostly patchwork offensive line in the second half, and the Bulldogs stole the third quarter and easily kept the game closer than the 33.5-point spread that Las Vegas oddsmakers had set; I'd expected the Ducks to cover, and then some.
Now, the fourth-ranked Ducks are getting set to take on an FCS team, and I'm not entirely sure what to expect. A big win, yes, but I have a few questions, as well.
For starters, just how wounded are the Ducks? They lost their most experienced players on both offense (senior guard Caron York) and defense (senior safety John Boyett). Those two are done for the season, leaving behind giant holes, in terms of production and leadership.
In addition to losing York, the Ducks played the second half last week without senior Ryan Clanton, who had started the first two games in place of York, who was still recovering from offseason knee surgery when he broke his kneecap against Fresno State (an unrelated injury, York said). According to The Register-Gaurd newspaper, senior tackle Kyle Long sat out against FSU with an ankle injury, and sophomore tackle Jake Fisher went down in the game with some sort of leg injury.
Those losses were a big reason the Bulldogs' blitz was so successful in the second half, and now, suddenly, an area of relative depth for the Ducks at the start of the season -- offensive line -- is considerably thinner.
It's possible we won't see much of Clanton, Long and Fisher against Tennessee Tech; as per his usual approach to injuries, coach Chip Kelly isn't disclosing anything, but if those guys are still banged up in the least bit, I expect them to sit against the Golden Eagles in attempt to be ready for the Pac-12 Conference opener next week against Arizona.
Receiver Josh Huff left the FSU game with a knee injury that the Ducks called a strain, and it seems highly unlikely he'd take the field on Saturday. Oregon is incredibly deep and talented at receiver, but the Ducks are still looking for someone to step up as that go-to guy.
Also in question for many Ducks fans is how well backup quarterback Bryan Bennett will bounce back from his rough opening week. Bennett didn't get a chance to take any snaps against Fresno State, as Kelly kept starting QB Marcus Mariota in the game until the end. It was a good chance for Mariota to experience the ups and downs of a full college game, after the redshirt freshman played just seven series in the opener. With a beat-up offensive line in front of him Saturday, Mariota will have a chance to take another big step in his young career by showing his leadership, poise and understanding of Oregon's spread-option offense and all the reads the quarterback is expected to make in it.
It should also be a chance for Bennett to get some decent playing time and prove what Oregon fans already know -- that he's much better than he showed against Arkansas State.
So there are questions, and there are things to watch for on Saturday against Tennessee Tech, as the Ducks continue making adjustments in their final tune-up for the start of Pac-12 play.
Even with that, however, I'm expecting Oregon to find the end zone early and often in this one, and to keep the Golden Eagles out of it, for the most part.
Prediction: Oregon 66, Tennessee Tech 13
Adam Sparks has been following Oregon Ducks football since 1990, and has written about the team as a freelancer since 2009.
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