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The Times' college football countdown: No. 3 Oregon

CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

After winning three straight conference titles, losing in the BCS title game to Auburn and claiming the school's first Rose Bowl win since 1917, Coach Chip Kelly says he has 'unfinished business.'

August 26, 2012|Chris Dufresne
  • Redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota has Ducks fans excited.
Redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota has Ducks fans excited. (Don Ryan / Associated Press )

Chip Kelly rebuffed a Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaching offer last January by releasing a statement saying he had "unfinished business" at Oregon.

Kelly later ran with the bulls at Pamplona, but we don't think that was it.

Oregon has won three straight conference titles, lost a heartbreaker to Auburn for the Bowl Championship Series title, and last season claimed the school's first Rose Bowl win since 1917.

What's left?

After Kelly noted he had unfinished business, USC quarterback Matt Barkley tweeted, "Looks like we both do."

Game on.

Oregon versus USC could be Alabama-Louisiana State of the Pacific time zone. The Ducks and Trojans couldn't meet twice last year because USC was banned from postseason play.

The schools meet Nov. 3 at the Coliseum with the strong possibility of a rematch a few weeks later for the Pac-12 championship.

You wonder why Kelly is whistling to work after losing his top running back, LaMichael James, to the San Francisco 49ers and quarterback Darron Thomas to an ill-advised decision to test NFL waters.

But what if the reason Thomas left was because he wasn't even assured of being this year's starter?

Bryan Bennett showed brilliant flashes last year in relief of Thomas, and yet another quarterback has Ducks fans even more excited: redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota.

Kelly has hardly been able to contain his gushing over Mariota and on Friday named him the starter.

Replacing James, who rushed for 1,800 yards last season, would seem a huge concern — except Kenjon Barner returns after a near 1,000-yard season.

James' departure also provides more touches for De'Anthony Thomas, who is potentially a Heisman Trophy candidate after scoring 16 touchdowns as a freshman.

"Knowing that we have Kenjon and De'Anthony lets you sleep at night," Kelly said at Pac-12 media day.

Thomas rushed for 595 yards last season and caught 46 passes for 605 yards. He has cat-like quickness and track-star speed and somewhat defies position pigeonholing.

"I don't know what De'Anthony is," Kelly said. "I think he's a special talent that you figure out how to use him and get him the football."

Oregon's defense is overshadowed but has become better than competent under longtime coordinator Nick Aliotti, who didn't get enough credit two years ago for holding Cam Newton and Auburn to 22 points in the BCS championship game.

"We go against the fastest offense in the country four times out of the week," linebacker Michael Clay said. "So I think we're mentally and physically prepared to go 60 minutes with any team."

Hovering over the season and the program is an NCAA investigation involving recruiting-service provider Willie Lyles. It could be a distraction if the NCAA hits Oregon with charges during the season.

The schedule, though, is much easier than the slog that started last year against Louisiana State. Kansas State and New Mexico canceled 2012 games, leaving Oregon with Arkansas State and Tennessee Tech.

Oregon's tests will come late, with closing games at USC (Nov. 3), at California (Nov. 10) and at Oregon State (Nov. 24).

It's not usually wise betting on a school that starts a redshirt freshman at quarterback, but Mariota could be an exception. If he is, Kelly might be able to finish his Eugene business and move on to the NFL.

The countdown so far: 25. Notre Dame; 24. Texas Christian; 23. Utah; 22. Kansas State; 21. Louisville; 20. Boise State; 19. Clemson; 18. Stanford; 17. Michigan State; 16. Oklahoma State; 15. Wisconsin; 14. Nebraska; 13. Arkansas; 12. West Virginia; 11. Florida State; 10. South Carolina; 9. Ohio State; 8. Georgia; 7. Michigan; 6. Texas; 5. Oklahoma; 4. Louisiana State; 3. Oregon.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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