Last week, an athlete at a small college passed a math test, and this became national news. This is because the test-taker in question was a quarterback named Vernon Adams, who is now cleared to transfer from Eastern Washington University to the University of Oregon for his final season of eligibility, where he will serve as the latest bellwether for a Ducks program that once again has to prove it can sustain the furious momentum that’s carried it through the past decade.
Adams will compete for the quarterback job at Oregon with junior Jeff Lockie; both will be faced with the unenviable task of replacing one of the greatest college quarterbacks in modern history in Marcus Mariota. But it goes beyond that for the Ducks, who utilized a hyperactive pace and made it all the way to the national championship game last season before getting run over by a peaking Ohio State squad. This is the year that coach Mark Helfrich will finally seek to fully emerge from Chip Kelly’s shadow. This is the year Oregon can prove that it has crafted an effective system, that it is not just a gauchely dressed fad crafted out of Phil Knight’s pocket change, that the Ducks’ success is not dependent upon the stamp that Kelly put on it before departing for the NFL.
The Ducks are still the overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-12 North over Stanford, but they were not the media’s choice to win the conference this year: That would be USC, a team the Ducks host in the second-to-last week of the season. It’s possible that Adams could wind up becoming a star, but it’s also possible that Adams will struggle to learn the offense in time, or that his lack of size might hurt his ability to effectively view the passing lanes against Pac-12 opponents. Helfrich has insisted he has confidence in Lockie as a quarterback, as well, but this is a guy who threw a total of 28 passes last year, and so it’s as if the Ducks are essentially rebooting their entire offense.
And this is where the skepticism creeps in, because Mariota was such a catalyst for an offense that seemed almost unstoppable when it was clicking. But at some point, one wonders, could the rest of college football catch up to the Ducks’ pace? Has Oregon, after spending millions elevating its football program through a blend of marketing and straight cash infusions, peaked one step short of a national championship (a precipice they’ve reached twice in the past five years)?
The counterarguments to this are powerful, of course: Helfrich, who is 24-4 in his first two seasons, might be one of the most underrated coaches in the country, merely because he’s a nice, easygoing dude, in contrast to his eccentric and increasingly inscrutable predecessor. And Helfrich can now recruit elite athletes on a regular basis, and the Ducks will never be short on cash thanks to the largesse of Knight. They should be here to stay, but the question of whether Oregon can effectively respond to the physicality of more conventional programs will remain an open one until the Ducks finally finish the job and win a national championship.
Until then, the Ducks merely have to prove that they will not fall to pieces without the presence of both Kelly and Mariota. On September 12, they play at Michigan State, a physical Big Ten presence that they managed to overpower last season on their way to the title game. If they do it again, perhaps it’s further proof that the system is indeed strong enough to last.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb