Leading up to Monday’s Alamo Bowl, several Oregon coaches and players discussed how important winning the final game of a season is for the next season. Tight ends coach Tom Osborne even said the 2010 national championship loss, Oregon’s only defeat that season, stung the program for a long time.
The Ducks won the Alamo Bowl 30-7 over Texas, so they won’t have that bitter taste in their mouths this offseason.
“A huge win and something our young guys need to build from and use as a boomerang into our next phase academically and strength training, etcetera, on into spring ball,” head coach Mark Helfrich said after the game.
The bitter taste might be absent, but the Ducks still have plenty to work on between now and next fall. While their 11-2 record this season is great, it is well below the bar they consistently raised the previous four seasons, in which they made a BCS bowl game each year.
Their two losses in 2013 were ugly, too. At Stanford on Nov. 7, the Ducks fell into a 26-0 hole and needed a blocked field goal return for a touchdown and a recovered onside kick to even make it a game. Oregon also fell into an early hole at Arizona two games later, but a huge comeback never materialized. The Wildcats won 42-16, one of the worst games Oregon has played that defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti can remember.
Even some of Oregon’s wins have caused concern. The Ducks needed a last-second touchdown to beat the Oregon State Beavers (6-5 at the time) at home. Against a depleted 8-4 Texas team, the Ducks struggled on offense for most of the game, especially in the red zone. They also committed 11 penalties against the Longhorns, giving them a single-season school-record of 105.
The Ducks also lose several key players: record-setting wide receiver Josh Huff, offensive guard Mana Greig, linebacker Boseko Lokomo, safeties Avery Patterson and Brian Jackson, and nearly their whole starting defensive line (Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Havili-Heimuli). They also lose defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti.
That doesn’t even include potential early entrants into the NFL draft, such as cornerback Ifo-Ekpre Olomu and running back De’Anthony Thomas. Even if they stay, Oregon will have to replace a ton of talent.
But the Ducks already have several key players coming back, and none are more important than quarterback Marcus Mariota. He’s one of the best signal callers in the nation and he had one of his best games of the year against Texas, rushing for a season-high 133 yards and throwing for 253 more. He seems hungry to come back next season and improve on this 11-win season.
“Just to come back strong and to finish the bowl game strong really sets us up for the future, builds a solid foundation for next year,” Mariota said.
While the defense loses many key players, Huff and Greig are the only offensive starters who won’t be back in 2014. No offense can make up for a bad defense, but retaining so many offensive players will be huge for maintaining this dominant Oregon run. Plus, the Ducks have several capable backups and recruits who can fill in on defense.
If those replacements play well next season and if the Ducks can be more disciplined and healthy, Oregon can easily remain a top-10 team. Those are big “ifs” but most teams would be jealous of Oregon’s stability heading into 2014.
Follow Victor Flores on Twitter @vflores415