Sometimes you just need to be able to come up for air. The Oregon Ducks’ 2021 season must have felt like a nonstop rollercoaster ride through the altitude in Boulder.

You open with a stressful seven-point win over Fresno State. You go into Columbus, Ohio, and knock off Ohio State. You follow it up with a couple of drubbings of lesser-than teams and start to feel like, “OK, maybe the College Football Playoff is within reach this time.” And then Stanford. And then you grind out some wins and start to regain some confidence. And then the Miami-Mario Cristobal affair begins. And then Utah.

Between a defense that dealt with so many injuries we’d have to think up a new word more aggressive than “ravaged,” an offense that at times felt like wet-but-not-totally-dry paint, and a coach who was clearly sniffing the exit near the end, it’s a marvel that Oregon reached 10 wins. 

And then to fall down 30-3 at halftime against Oklahoma in a bowl game with an interim coach at the helm and a skeleton two-deep and not throw in the towel? There’s something to be said about the men in the Oregon locker room. 

Endurance serves you well in sports. 

Apologies if that sounds a little too “process is more important than results,” that’s certainly not the intent, but hard work beats talent and Oregon just happens to have both in abundance. 

Enter Dan Lanning, who has exuberance in abundance to go along with a blue-collar-like approach to the game of football, who has the new-age stamina to go out and absolutely scorch the recruiting trail, who has seemingly been embraced by this Oregon fanbase in a way maybe few outsiders expected after the way the Ducks’ coaching search started out. 

Lanning, 35 years old and fresh off a National Championship win as the defensive coordinator for the Georgia Bulldogs, is everything Oregon needs. 

A breath of crisp, cool, fresh air. Whereas the coach down in Southern California came in and tore down to the studs to rebuild, Lanning looked at Oregon and its roster and said “I’m going to win with what we’ve got.” 

That’s not to disparage USC’s approach, only to articulate that Oregon has gone the path less traveled. 

Lanning isn’t a Kelly disciple. He’s got old-school vibes in new-school packaging, to some extent. 

The talent gap between Oregon and the rest of the Pac-12 North is already cavernous. Lanning’s pedigree combined with the coaching staff he’s assembled should exacerbate it. This isn’t a rebuild, more of a reload with some formulaic tweaking.

“I know this was a successful program. We’re taking over a really good situation here,” Lanning told reporters last month. “I know we have some great talent at positions. If we continue to do a great job of acquiring more talent, I think we’ll continue to be in the driver’s seat.”

Breathe, Ducks fans. Things could get fun again.

What worked in 2021

Oregon was a 30-points-per-game offense with one of the least explosive attacks in the country. Quarterback Anthony Brown and the vertical passing game were maligned all throughout the season. Cristobal’s slow-churn style was cumbersome. And yet Oregon posted the 13th-best success rate in college football.

This was a really good rushing outfit, and that helps. 

Oregon was a 54/46 run team. Not overly run-heavy relative to its peers, but it clearly liked to win on the ground. On first downs, the Ducks ran it 58% of the time. It didn’t give up a damaging level of negative plays, stayed in standard downs at a high rate (71.6%), and was strong on short-yardage runs. 

The Ducks ranked sixth nationally in stuff rate, seventh in power success rate, and ninth in line yards per carry. (All defined here.)

That’s going to give you a pretty high offensive floor. As such, Oregon was effective in scoring positions at nearly 4.6 points per trip inside the 40. (That ranked 13th in the country, with the national average at 3.8)

The running back combo of Travis Dye and CJ Verdell was a strong one when both players were available. When Dye needed to be leaned on after Verdell’s season was cut short by injury, he ran well. Among backs with at least 100 carries, Dye’s 6.0 yards-per average ranked third in the Pac-12. Among all qualified runners, Byron Cardwell’s 6.8 average ranked first. 

Lanning has said that tempo will be part of Oregon’s offensive approach moving forward, as it’s something he has admittedly struggled to contain as a defensive coordinator, but tempo won’t be an end-all, be-all. Lanning told The Oregonian’s John Canzano in a radio interview that the Ducks would play to their strengths. 

For a defense-first guy, that would mean ball control when warranted and aggression when opportune. Given how much is coming back along the offensive line, Oregon should be strong again on the ground. 

What didn’t work in 2021

Oregon’s third-down defense wasn’t great to begin the season, but as injuries mounted it completely fell apart down the stretch. 

Here are the third-down numbers from the first six games:

  • Third-and-short (1-4 yards): 18-30 (60.0%)
  • Third-and-medium (5-8): 16-39 (41.0%)
  • Third-and-long (9+): 4-22 (18.2%)
  • Total third downs: 38-91 (41.8%)

And the numbers from the last eight games:

  • Third-and-short (1-4): 25-41 (60.9%)
  • Third-and-medium (5-8): 23-37 (62.2%)
  • Third-and-long (9+): 7-28 (25.0%)
  • Total third downs: 55-106 (51.9%)

For the season, if an opponent was within 8 yards of the sticks on third down, it had a 56% chance of converting.

That’s got to improve.

This wasn’t a havoc-producing defense (109th in havoc rate) despite a number of high-profile playmakers on the roster (again, injuries suck) and that manifested problems in obvious passing situations.

On the other side, this was a passing game that just wouldn’t push the ball down the field. Brown ranked 81st among qualified quarterbacks in average depth of targets (9.2, the national average among qualified throwers was 9.6). Only 14.5% of Brown’s pass attempts traveled at least 20 yards (91st among qualified passers), per PFF’s tracking data, and he only completed 36.8% of those throws (73rd).

Given the potency of the run game Oregon rolled out, you’d think there would have been more of an opportunity to press the ball downfield. And Oregon’s second-half performance against Oklahoma in the Alamo Bowl—Brown went 11-for-17 for 191 yards, four explosive plays, and three touchdowns—showed it was in there. Why it wasn’t put on display more is hard to understand.

What’s the deal at QB

It’s a new era at Oregon, and not just in terms of who’s coaching from the sideline. With Brown exhausting his eligibility, the Ducks will be led by a new quarterback in 2022. Who that will be remains to be seen.

The Ducks brought in former Auburn quarterback Bo Nix from the transfer portal this offseason, reuniting him with the offensive coordinator he worked with when he won the SEC’s Freshman of the Year award. Nix had something of a sophomore slump in 2020 when Kenny Dillingham, now the Oregon OC, left for Florida State, and then produced uneven play in 2021 before a broken ankle ended his season prematurely.

Still, the former 5-star quarterback was a big name, and one of the first quarterbacks off the board during all the transfer madness. His commitment on Dec. 19 to Lanning and the Ducks feels like a decade ago. And with big names, there can be a presumption of promises or expectations. It would seem Nix has neither with Oregon.

“Competition breeds excellence ultimately, and we’re gonna have competition at every position across the board, quarterback included.” Lanning said when asked about the quarterback spot. “We were really clear with Bo. ‘Hey, you come in here, there’s certainly an opportunity to compete, but we’re really excited about the guys we have on our roster as well and excited to see those guys come in and compete and go to work.’”

Jay Butterfield will be entering his third year with the program. Ty Thompson will be entering his second. Both are former blue-chip recruits who have yet to see serious action on offense. If Nix does win the job, it’s probably safe to expect at least one guy to look into the transfer portal.

Thompson, the former 4-star and top-50 recruit from the 2021 class, is the name that generates all the buzz. A howitzer for an arm, smooth mechanics, and really good size for the position, he has been viewed as the Ducks’ future at quarterback since his signing. Nix has two seasons of eligibility remaining whereas Thompson can classify 2021 as a redshirt and still play four more years, so their clocks aren’t necessarily at odds with each other, but in this day and age if Thompson were to sit for three seasons before getting his chance to run the show, he’d be the exception rather than the rule.

Lanning will have to take that into account. But there’s no reason to think he won’t roll with the best guy for the job.

And Nix had nearly identical numbers to Brown last year when going downfield. He threw deep (20-plus yards) on 14.7% of his overall attempts and completed 37.5% of them. He completed 61% of his throws overall for 2,294 yards and 11 touchdowns against three interceptions.

“The number one indicator right now in college football in wins and losses is explosive plays,” Lanning said during his introductory press conference. “You have to be able to push the ball down the field.”

The winner this offseason in Oregon’s quarterback battle will likely be the guy who does that the best.

What’s coming back

Using The Action Network’s returning production database, which factors transfer additions into its calculus, Oregon will be getting back 55% of its offensive production for the 2022 season and 53% of its defensive production. Those marks rank 80th and 55th nationally, respectively.

Departures at quarterback and running back are the big ones on offense. Thompson only attempted 15 passes in 2021 and Butterfield only attempted three. Between Dye, Verdell, and Brown, the Ducks are losing more than 80% of their rushing attempts from 2021.

But the offensive line is bringing back more than just about any other FBS team. Four of the team’s five starters from the Alamo Bowl will return. Ryan Walk will come back healthy, and Jackson Powers-Johnson should factor into the picture after filling in as an emergency nose tackle in the bowl game. In total, the Ducks are returning 85.2% of offensive line snaps from the 2021 season, the eighth-highest percentage in the country per The Action Network.

And continuity up front should lead to excitement over the young skill talent coming back. Cardwell flashed promise in limited action this past season. Add in Dont’e Thornton, Kris Hutson, Troy Franklin, and Seven McGee, and the Ducks have young potential playmakers across the field.

On defense, the Ducks will lose star edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and all four starters in the secondary, but there’s hope the unit will still show improvement. Lanning has beefed up a defensive line that also returns Popo Aumavae (36 tackles) and Brandon Dorlus (25 tackles, seven TFLs)—I think Dorlus is one of the best returning players in the conference.

Jeffrey Bassa at linebacker or nickel is an up-and-comer in the Pac-12. The insider linebacker pairing of Noah Sewell (114 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, five pass breakups) and Justin Flowe should be the best in the conference if both players can stay healthy. Flowe has only played in two of Oregon’s 21 games since he got on campus, so that’s a big if. There’s also no shortage of young, blue-chip talent in the secondary just waiting for a chance—including two top-200 2022 signees in Jalil Tucker and Jahlil Florence—and Oregon landed former Colorado corner Christian Gonzalez from the portal. There’s talent all over the place on that side of the ball, and if Lanning can put the pieces together while getting the same kind of pursuit and activity his Georgia defenses exhibited, watch out.

What’s on the schedule

  • at Georgia (Sept. 3)
  • vs. Eastern Washington (Sept. 10)
  • vs. BYU (Sept. 17)
  • at Washington State (Sept. 24)
  • vs. Stanford (Oct. 1)
  • at Arizona (Oct. 8)
  • vs. UCLA (Oct. 22)
  • at Cal (Oct. 29)
  • at Colorado (Nov. 5)
  • vs. Washington (Nov. 12)
  • vs. Utah (Nov. 19)
  • at Oregon State (Nov. 25)

Technically speaking, the Ducks-Dawgs game is a “neutral site” affair to be played as part of the 2022 Chick-fil-A Kickoff, but come on. Georgia against Georgia’s old defensive coordinator in Atlanta, Georgia? The Duck fanbase is great but that’s about as hostile an environment away from Athens as it could get.

Aside from that one, Oregon has every foe of significance coming to its house in 2022. BYU comes to Autzen after a clean-up kind of week against Eastern Washington. UCLA comes to town after an Oregon bye week. Washington and Utah are both coming in mid-November. Oregon State should be solid and Washington State might be tricky—though it certainly feels like it’d be better to get them earlier than later as Cam Ward settles in at the FBS level.

The non-conference slate for the Ducks will be one of the most challenging of any team in the country. Oregon should be battle-tested, but it feels like Dan Lanning has the attitude and style of a coach who will have his guys ready to go from the opening kick.

The preview series so far has hit: 

The schedule going forward:

  • Washington State (Sunday, Feb. 6)
  • USC (Wednesday, Feb. 9)
  • UCLA ( Sunday, Feb. 13)
  • Oregon State (Wednesday, March 2)
  • Cal (Sunday, March 6)
  • Arizona (Wednesday, March 9)
  • Colorado (Sunday, March 13)
  • Washington (Wednesday, March 16)
  • Stanford (Sunday, March 20)