College football Top 25: No. 10 Oregon should contend for Pac-12 title with new coach
The college football season is upon us and so is our annual Top 25. This year Yahoo Sports revealed the teams from No. 11 to 25 at once before we publish each of our top 10 in separate posts in the days leading up to Week 1. That starts with No. 10 Oregon.
No. 10 Oregon
2021 record: 10-4 (7-2 Pac-12)
Pac-12 title odds: +300
National title odds: +6600
Over/under: 8.5 wins
Following Mario Cristobal’s departure to Miami, Oregon is now on its fourth head coach since 2016. Dan Lanning, the 36-year-old who oversaw Georgia’s historic, national championship-winning defense last fall, is the new man in charge in Eugene.
Lanning has no ties to Oregon or even the West Coast, but was identified as the coach who can keep the Ducks on their current trajectory. Cristobal recruited at a high level, bringing three consecutive top 10 classes to Oregon between 2019 and 2021, and he has two Pac-12 titles and a Rose Bowl win to show for it.
After four years at Georgia, including the last three as defensive coordinator, Lanning is no stranger to recruiting elite talent. Continued high-level recruiting is obviously part of the long-term vision to vault Oregon from consistent Pac-12 title contender into a national championship contender. Could that ascent begin in 2022?
In 2021, Oregon upset Ohio State in Week 2 and was in the playoff picture deep into the month of November. However, the Ducks collapsed late, starting with a blowout 38-7 loss at Utah. The rematch in the Pac-12 title game, a 38-10 Utes win, was just as bad.
But last year’s team was plagued by injuries and the roster Cristobal left behind for Lanning is loaded, especially by Pac-12 standards. That’s particularly true on defense, but the offense needs to be better — quarterback especially.
And beyond the concerns on offense, the bigger question for Oregon is whether Lanning is ready to step out of Kirby Smart’s shadow and run his own program.
Strong Oregon defense led by standout LB duo
The Ducks boast two five-star talents at linebacker with Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe. Sewell led the team with 114 tackles last season but barely got to play alongside Flowe, who has been limited to just two games over the past two seasons due to injury.
If the two stay healthy, Sewell and Flowe could make up one of the top linebacker duos in college football with their potential to thrive in Lanning’s creative blitz packages.
The Ducks are also very strong along both lines of scrimmage. Sticking with defense, Brandon Dorlus is a national breakout candidate along the defensive line after being overshadowed by first-round NFL pick Kayvon Thibodeaux last fall. Additionally, Popo Aumavae is back at defensive tackle for his fifth year while Sam Taimani, a three-year starter at Washington, also joins the fold as a transfer. Another transfer, DJ Johnson (Miami), could emerge as a big-time pass rusher.
Bennett Williams is a standout at safety but the Ducks are rather inexperienced at cornerback. There’s plenty of talent at the position, but it’s mostly young talent other than Colorado transfer Christian Gonzalez.
If a few of those youthful secondary talents round into form, the Ducks could be right up there with Utah for the best defense in the Pac-12.
Is Bo Nix an upgrade at quarterback?
Since Justin Herbert departed for the NFL after the 2019 season, quarterback play has been an issue for Oregon. After cycling through Tyler Shough and Anthony Brown, the Ducks will likely turn to Bo Nix in 2022.
Nix started for three years at Auburn with mixed results. Nix can extend plays with his legs as well as any QB in the country, but that got him into trouble far too many times — whether it was throwing an ill-advised pass or taking a terrible sack for a huge loss.
Three years of SEC starting experience is significant and Nix has a pre-existing relationship with Ducks OC Kenny Dillingham. Still, Nix has to limit the negative plays should he win the starting job as expected (5-star 2021 recruit Ty Thompson is still in the mix).
Nix has the benefit of playing behind one of the best offensive lines in the country. That unit returns four starters with 53 combined starts in all. At the skill positions, Byron Cardwell and Sean Dollars are the names to know at running back while Kris Hutson, Troy Franklin and Dont’e Thornton are all breakout candidates at receiver.
The offense will be tested in a big way in Week 1 when the Ducks travel to Atlanta to face Georgia, the defending national champion. After that, the opposing defenses won’t be anywhere near as difficult — maybe even until Utah visits Autzen Stadium on Nov. 19.
Biggest game: Nov. 19 vs. Utah
The game against Georgia is obviously one of the headliners of Week 1 for a variety of reasons (Lanning vs. his old team, Georgia’s title defense, etc.), but the Ducks are out for revenge against Utah. The Utes pushed Oregon around in both their meetings last year and had to leave a really bad taste in the mouths of the Oregon players.
Beyond that, it’s a game that could have significant Pac-12 title race — and potentially CFP — implications. Utah is the defending conference champion and was the overwhelming favorite to win the league again in the preseason media poll. The Utes and Ducks have been in opposite divisions, but this matchup could be even more pivotal in deciding the Pac-12 championship game participants now that divisions have been eliminated.
Impact player: LB Noah Sewell
Sewell could follow his brother on the path from Eugene to the first round of the NFL draft. Penei Sewell, Noah’s older brother, was a star tackle for the Ducks who was selected No. 7 overall in the 2021 draft by the Detroit Lions.
If the younger Sewell takes another step forward in his game, he could be next in line. The 6-foot-2, 253-pound Sewell has great instincts and moves exceptionally well for his size. He tallied 114 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and four sacks last season and could be an All-American this year.
Pick: Over 8.5 wins (-130)
I’m high on Oregon this year. With all of the hype surrounding USC and with Utah looking to defend its title, the Ducks are flying under the radar a bit. There’s skepticism of a new, young coach and the way the Ducks closed out the 2021 season — losing three of four — still lingers.
But after the opener against Georgia, it’s very possible that the Ducks are favored in every game they play moving forward. Even with divisions eliminated, teams are still playing their division schedules. That means the Ducks get to play teams like Stanford, Washington State and Cal. On top of that, they avoid USC, have Colorado as a crossover game and get both Utah and Washington at home. A few of the conference road games are tricky, particularly WSU and Oregon State, but this is a favorable schedule on the whole.
Getting to nine or 10 wins seems very feasible to me, so I like the over.