The Contenders: Oregon is back, with the pedal still on the floor

Breaking down the preseason favorites for the BCS championship. Previously: LSU, Stanford. Today: Oregon.

Hide the women and children, and most of the men. Chip Kelly dropped in from out of nowhere (New Hampshire, specifically) four years ago, and the rest of the West Coast is still trying to figure out how to put out the fire. His relentlessly up-tempo zone-read/spread option has produced the No. 1 total and scoring in the Pac-10 all four years, peaking with the ridiculous 47-point, 530-yard-per-game Death Star that led the nation on both counts in 2010, and it's done it with a wildly varying cast of stars.

At quarterback, lanky, athletic junior Darron Thomas couldn't have fallen much further from the tree that produced his predecessor, the short, essentially un-recruited Jeremiah Masoli — who began in Eugene himself as a fifth-string juco transfer bearing no resemblance to his prolific predecessor, the NFL-bound Dennis Dixon. All three emerged as headliners behind blockers who are routinely overlooked by the scouts, and Thomas should just be hitting his stride as a second-year starter.

Ditto the running backs, where insanely productive smurf LaMichael James has followed 1,000-yard thumpers Jonathan Stewart and LeGarrette Blount with more than 3,200 yards and 35 touchdowns on the ground over the last two seasons. But for now, smurfy is the order of the day — smurfy and fast: With second-year blazer Lache Seastrunk shedding his redshirt and diminutive true freshmen De'Anthony Thomas and Tacoi Sumler joining James and track teammate Kenjon Barner in the fall, the backfield will look even more like a day-glo electron cloud than it did with James hogging all the touches en route to the Heisman ceremony.

All the ways you will disappoint us. As much hype as the fast guys get in their fast-looking 23rd Century uniforms, the fact is that the Ducks' success last year started with their senior-led ownership of the line of scrimmage — more obviously on the record-smashing offense, but quietly on defense, too, where they led the Pac-10 in tackles for loss and finished one off the national lead in total takeaways.

The mass exodus hits just as hard on both sides.{YSP:MORE} Along with three senior offensive linemen (Jordan Holmes, C.E. Kaiser and Bo Thran) who combined for nearly 100 starts over the last three seasons, Oregon is also sending off its leading tackler (Casey Matthews), its best pass rusher (Kenny Rowe), its best interior run-stuffer (Brandon Bair) and a three-year starter at linebacker (Spencer Paysinger) who finished as one of the team's top two or three tacklers all three years. Some of the new starters — namely, linebackers Boseko Lokombo and Michael Clay and lineman Dion Jordan — played a lot as backups, but the Ducks still have to replace both interior tackles and as a whole will be dramatically younger than the group that returned eight starters last year from 2009.

Stumbling blocks. The opening-night showdown with LSU in Jerry Jones' Intergalactic Space Palace will set the ceiling for the season: A win in Dallas, against the kind of nasty SEC front seven that gave the offense so many problems in the BCS Championship Game, would instantly reestablish Oregon as a national contender and set the Ducks up to be 9-0 going into the decisive Nov. 12 tilt with the conference's other frontrunner, Stanford, in Palo Alto. If they get by the Tigers and Cardinal, a return trip to the championship game should be a matter of playing out the string against USC and Oregon State (both in Autzen Stadium, where the Ducks haven't lost since early 2008) and in the new Pac-12 title game, which will likely also be at home.

Visions of champions past: Auburn (2010).
Yes, I also wrote last week that the '10 Tigers were the model for Stanford's hypothetical title run, because of their extreme reliance on a superstar quarterback opposite a less-than-inspiring defense. Oregon doesn't lean on Darron Thomas to anywhere near the degree that Auburn did with Cam Newton or Stanford will this season with Andrew Luck, but the Ducks were largely powered by a Heisman-worthy engine in the backfield — LaMichael James accounted for almost 30 percent of the offense's total yards last year, not accounting for his one-game suspension to start the season or frequent absence in garbage time — and they will need to continue piling up points at a breakneck pace to offset a defense whose relative generosity, before Auburn's triumph in one of the most offensively-oriented title matches of the BCS era, had no precedent on a championship level.

Crystal ball says… Last year's team was an experienced veteran group that had to replace essentially one key cog from the '09 Rose Bowl team, Jeremiah Masoli. Darron Thomas lived up to that mandate and then some, and with Kelly's track record here, it's hard to imagine the offense falling from its perch as the most feared, productive attack in the Pac-12. With largely lines on both sides of the ball and two road trips against fellow top-five contenders, though, it's equally hard to imagine Oregon extending its regular season winning streak to 27 games with another undefeated season.

The only team with back-to-back perfect runs through the Pac-10 schedule in the last 40 years: USC in 2004-05, with a force-of-nature lineup that ascended en masse to the NFL within two years — and most of those wins were later vacated by the NCAA, anyway. As long as Kelly and James are around, Oregon is terrifying. But it still has to show it has the overall talent and depth to keep the throttle down after such major attrition.
out of five.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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