The Pac-12 writers have been taking part in a debate series called “Buy/Sell,” in which two writers take opposing sides on a statement about the current state or future happenings of Pac-12 football.
Today, Kevin Gemmell and Chantel Jennings discuss Oregon -- a team that made it to the national title game during the 2014 season but floundered in 2015. What does 2016 look like for the Ducks? Many are saying there’s no other team in the Pac-12 that has more to prove next season.
Jennings: I’ll buy this because it’s year four for Mark Helfrich and he needs to show that the good that’s happening in Eugene is his doing.
And I’ll be the first to admit: Oregon isn’t the only school with something to prove in the conference. Stanford and David Shaw are probably feeling pretty frustrated after being completely left out of the playoff conversation last year. But the Cardinal will be working in some key parts on the offensive line and a new quarterback. USC has a ton to prove since it’s USC, but the Trojans also have an almost entirely new staff and a new quarterback. There are explanations/excuses there.
But no team has quite as much to prove (or no coach, rather) than Oregon and Helfrich. Too many questions are swirling around the group after last season. Why haven’t the Ducks developed their own quarterback post Mariota? Why did the internal defensive hire of Don Pellum fail so badly? Why were some of those losses so, so ugly?
It’s time for Helfrich to prove that this squad is a collective effort of his staff, his players, his workings. Their successes need to be more than the Chip Kelly remnants, more than the Mariota successes, more than the Nike money. It needs to be, most importantly, theirs.
Yes, the Ducks are 33-8 (including 22-5 in Pac-12 play) under Helfrich. And yes, they’ve had a Heisman winner, a national title appearance and have produced some big-time players. But college football is about what you’ve done lately. And lately, Oregon hasn’t looked incredible on the grandest of stages -- losses in primetime to Michigan State this past season and that second-half debacle against TCU, getting run out of the stadium against Ohio State in the national title game.
The Ducks and Helfrich need to show up big on the biggest stages and if it doesn’t happen in year four of Helfrich’s tenure, people will start to question if or when it ever will happen. Tell me another coach and program that has that kind of weight on its shoulders, Kevin.
Gemmell: I’m selling this.
Because while a nine-win, injury-plagued season is considered a down year in Eugene, I don’t think it’s a “sky-is-falling” situation. I think the most-to-prove-target is squarely on the USC Trojans. For starters, the Pac-12 South has been irrelevant in terms of league championships since the conference expanded in 2011. Sure, there have been good teams. But until a team from that division wins the conference title, it’s still going to be looked at as the little-brother division.
With a new head coach, a revamped staff, a new quarterback and a murderers' row of a schedule, the Trojans need to make noise ASAP. There are only so many times we can say “THIS is the year USC makes its comeback.” That storyline has gone stale.
USC, a once-elite program, has just two 10-win seasons in the last five. The Trojans limped into the 2016 offseason after a shellacking by Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game and an uninspiring loss to Wisconsin in the National Funding Holiday Bowl. Every year the rest of the league’s coaches praise USC for its loaded roster and athleticism. And every year that talent seems to be squandered.
First up is Alabama. The entire country will be watching the national champs, along with their offensive coordinator – formerly the head coach at USC – Lane Kiffin, begin their title defense at USC’s expense. That in itself gives USC something to prove. A loss to Alabama won’t wreck the Trojans’ 2016 season. But it puts them in an early hole. A win, however, puts the rest of the country on notice that USC is, in fact, officially back.
We’re nowhere near deep enough into the Clay Helton era to pass judgement on his elevation from offensive coordinator to head coach. And despite landing another dynamite recruiting class, it probably won’t bear fruit for a couple of seasons. But Helton does have some outstanding playmakers to work with. He’s got a victory over UCLA in his pocket. And he’s got an entire offseason to get his Trojans ready for a critical season.
Oregon might have to prove it’s still a mainstay on the national stage (and I think the Ducks are). But USC has to prove that it’s relevant. That’s the greater task for 2016.