JP25 - #14 OREGON

Oregon was riding high in 2007. On November 15th they were in the national title hunt with a record of 8-1 coming off wins over top Pac-10 contenders USC and Arizona State, and boasted a leading Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Dennis Dixon. Then on a Thursday night in Arizona Dixon got hurt and everything went down hill from there. The Ducks suffered serious injuries to just about every skill player on offense and they finished with a whimper, losing their last three ballgames. The long break between the regular season and the Sun Bowl seemed to work wonders on the confidence level of the team because they stomped South Florida 56-21, a team that was ranked #2 in the nation at one point. The off-season did even more good because several key players were able to recover from injuries that forced them out of action a year ago.

Now that everybody is through pouting over Dixon's injury, the offense can get back to what they were doing - lighting up scoreboards on a weekly basis (38.2 points per game was tops in the Pac-10 in '07). Nathan Costa - who many Duck fans claim would have kept the ship afloat in Dixon's absence if not for his own injury problems - is supposedly a much better fit for the offense than Brady Leaf and Justin Roper and whoever else got a turn filling in last year. If he can run it half as well as Dixon did, Oregon will be in good hands.

Running back Jonathan Stewart was a beast last year (1,722 yards, 11 tds), but his shoes will be easier to fill than Dixon's. Jeremiah Johnson, one of the many Duck players who missed a significant portion of last season due to injury, is a severely underrated back who will explode onto the Pac-10 scene as the starter in '08. He has great elusiveness, good speed, and a wicked stiff arm, and I rank him as the top running back in the conference. Junior college transfer LeGarrette Blount is a big, bruising tailback who will also get carries to keep Johnson fresh and wear down defenses with his hard-nosed running style. A ground game that averaged 251.7 yards per game (6th nationally) and lost its top two rushers might actually turn out to be just as potent in 2008 thanks to this duo. They'll also be aided up front by the return of center Max Unger, an All America candidate, and two other starters to the offensive line.

The receiving corps may not be made up of a bunch of speed burners, but the top two targets, WR Jaison Williams (55 receptions for 844 yards, 8 tds) and TE Ed Dickson (43 receptions for 453 yards, 3 tds) are imposing figures, each listed at 6-foot-5, 240 lbs. Williams in particular has a chance to be a huge mismatch against smaller defensive backs, but he'll need to take his game to the next level and show more consistency. Wide receivers Jeffrey Maehl and Aaron Pflugrad each saw time as true freshmen a year ago and provide the promise of being solid complements to Dickson and Williams.

The Oregon defense can give up chunks of yards from time to time, but they pride themselves on being able to come up with big game-changing plays as well. With seven starters and all the top playmakers returning to a defense that posted 38 sacks and 20 interceptions last season, this has the makings of one of the Pac-10's best defenses.

Senior rover Patrick Chung briefly considered entering the NFL Draft a year early, but decided to come back to Eugene for one more season to lead an excellent secondary to a potential Pac-10 title. Chung, who led the team with 117 tackles in '07, is joined by an excellent pair of junior corners. Jairus Byrd and Walter Thurmond are excellent in man coverage who combined for 12 interceptions and 33 passes deflected and will make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. Willie Glasper is another junior cornerback who plays in nickel situations.

The linebackers spots are up in the air at the moment. Jerome Boyd is a senior and probably the best of the bunch, but his health is a question heading into the season. Junior Kevin Garrett is suspended indefinitely. Kenny Rowe racked up five sacks as a true freshman while playing defensive end in '07, and he was moved to linebacker in the hopes that his size and athleticism will be better used in the linebacking corps.

Up front the Ducks are much more stable. Nick Reed and Will Tukafu bring pressure from the ends - Reed led the Pac-10 last season with 12 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss - while veterans Cole Linehan and Ra'Shon Harris, and sophomore Tonio Celotto will team up to clog the middle.

Quarterback Nick Costa. He missed all of last season and spring practices due to his injured knee, so his health is still in question. He also doesn't have much game experience at all, so he'll have to handle that obstacle as well.

Running backs Jeremiah Johnson and LeGarrette Blount. Both backs will step into the spotlight this year as they replace first round draft pick Jonathan Stewart. With the questions surrounding the quarterback spot, the running game will probably be featured even more in '08, and both of these players will be up to the challenge.

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