For the second consecutive year, Oregon enters the season coming off a bowl loss. But while the Ducks were humbled in losing five out of six games to close the 2002 regular season, they entered the 2003 Sun Bowl having won four of five.
The Ducks lost 31-30 to Minnesota in that game, but they are still carrying that late-season momentum into the 2004 campaign. "I think it's different, because we were in that game, and had a chance to win and finish the season in a very positive manner," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. "I think the mental mindset is much, much different."
The Ducks return 13 starters, as well as defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who was granted a medical redshirt for 2003 after tearing a knee ligament in the first quarter of the first game. Ngata will be a welcome addition to a defense that lost six starters from the Sun Bowl lineup. The offense has no such questions, needing only to settle on a center and a second starting receiver in the offseason.
OffenseWhether Oregon is average or outstanding in the Pac-10 this season will hinge in no small part on whether junior quarterback Kellen Clemens is average or outstanding in his second year as the starter.
Leading rusher Terrence Whitehead is back after an inconsistent sophomore season, and he needs to run with more power and less razzle-dazzle, as he did in his better games of 2003. True freshman Terrell Jackson, a 5'9" burner, will battle two seniors and a sophomore for carries behind Whitehead, while big things are expected of fullback Dante Rosario in his sophomore campaign.
The receiving corps took a hit with the graduation of blazing fast Samie Parker, but the Ducks counter with size this season. Demetrius Williams is the top returning wideout, and he leads a group of four receivers who stand 6'2" or taller. Bruising tight end Tim Day is also back.
The line is solid at the tackles, led by all-league selection Adam Snyder, but thin up the middle. Oregon spent the offseason grooming a new center, and there isn't much experienced depth behind guards Ian Reynoso and Nick Steitz, who is also a candidate to snap the ball.
DefenseAfter being named a Freshman All-American in 2002, Ngata played less than a quarter in '03 before being lost for the season with a torn ACL. He returned to action in the spring and was a welcome addition for a team that lost both starting tackles from the Sun Bowl. And while Devan Long led the team in sacks last year, the other starting end will lack experience.
The linebackers, as Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said, are "green as grass." Jerry Matson is an emotional leader in the middle, and he is the top returning tackler. But the other potential starters are either unproven or have battled injuries in their careers.
The Oregon secondary improved slightly in 2003 thanks to new zone schemes implemented by coach John Neal. Then again, the Ducks had nowhere to go but up after finishing 115th (out of 117 teams) against the pass in 2002. They improved to 105th last fall. The Ducks have plenty of experience in the backfield, though Aliotti is concerned about their intensity.
"We've got to understand that there's more to being a football player than just being a great athlete on the field," Aliotti said.
SpecialistsThe kickers and return men enter 2004 on opposite ends of the spectrum. Kick returner Kenny Washington was All-Pac-10 last season, and Justin Phinisee leads an experienced group of candidates to return punts. But strong-legged placekicker Jared Siegel struggled with his accuracy last year, and punter Paul Martinez was humbled as a true freshman.
Final AnalysisThe Ducks enter the season with a sense of momentum after finishing the 2003 regular season with four wins in five games, then narrowly losing to Minnesota in the Sun Bowl.
They will try to build on that momentum with a non-conference schedule that includes lightweights Indiana and Idaho but also Oklahoma, and a conference slate that is back-loaded and doesn't include USC at all. Considering the absence of the Trojans from the schedule, Oregon may have a realistic chance of challenging USC for the title.
The Ducks can do so if Clemens and the running backs are solid, and if the linebackers and secondary develop into cohesive units.