EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Dan Lanning would prefer it if Oregon’s final season in the Pac-12 isn’t defined by “what ifs,” the way last year was for the Ducks.
Lanning’s first season in charge at Oregon was a success, with 10 wins, a bowl game victory and a spot in the national conversation into November. But it was also frustrating it didn’t become more than just a successful debut season.
“Ultimately as a team we were so close last year. We want to go from good to great this year,” Oregon QB Bo Nix said. “We’ve talked about it a lot this offseason. We’ve had a lot of meetings about it, a lot of time where we can connect.”
If No. 15 Oregon wants to take that next step and contend for a Pac-12 title before moving to the Big Ten next year, it must do better in big games. The Ducks had big moments in wins over Washington State and Utah, and ended the season with a last-second drive to beat North Carolina in the Holiday Bowl.
“We have a process that we believe in but we would be failing ourselves if we (didn’t) figure out where we can improve, what we can do better and we’ve made some adjustments,” Lanning said.
Nix’s return instantly makes the Ducks contenders, along with top running back Bucky Irving and wide receiver Troy Franklin. But Oregon’s success will largely center on its defense making a significant jump from last season.
Considering Lanning’s background, the Ducks defense was a disappointment in his first season. Oregon ranked 70th in the country in total defense, 74th in scoring defense, 122nd in third-down defense and had just 18 sacks in 13 games.
Oregon should be better up front with Brandon Dorlus and Jordan Burch on the edge and veteran Casey Rogers in the middle. Linebacker will get a boost with the second season of Jeffrey Bassa as a starter.
In the secondary, Oregon lost Christian Gonzalez to the New England Patriots, but a bevy of transfers have reloaded the defensive backfield, including Kyhree Jackson, Nikko Reed, Evan Williams and Tysheem Johnson.
Nix will conclude his college career without having the same offensive coordinator for two straight seasons. He had a different offensive coordinator in each of his first three seasons at Auburn. Last year, he reunited at Oregon with Kenny Dillingham, who was his first offensive coordinator at Auburn in 2019. But Dillingham left the Ducks to take the head coaching job at Arizona State.
The new play-caller for the Ducks is Will Stein, who spent the past three seasons at UTSA but only one as the co-offensive coordinator.
Nix said the constant change in coaches hasn’t been a problem.
Oregon’s offensive line is one of the big questions entering the season with the need to replace both starting tackles — Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu and TJ Bass – and starting center Alex Forsythe after being the best in the country in fewest sacks allowed. Top recruit Josh Conerly should step into the left tackle spot and the drop-off in experience shouldn’t be significant.
Behind Nix, the Ducks boast one of the best running attacks in the country. Irving rushed for 100 or more yards in four of the final seven games, and the combo of Irving, Noah Washington and Jordan James combined for more than 2,000 yards rushing and 15 TDs.
Unlike last year when Oregon opened with eventual national champion Georgia, the early schedule this season is more favorable for the Ducks. Oregon travels to Texas Tech in Week 2, but the Ducks have a good shot at being 5-0 when they travel to No. 10 Washington on Oct. 14. The Ducks also travel to No. 14 Utah on Oct. 28 and will host No. 6 USC on Nov. 11, before closing out the season at home with No. 18 Oregon State in the final matchup between the in-state rivals as conference foes.