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College Football Countdown: No. 3 Oregon

The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

Today at No. 3: Oregon

Coach: Chip Kelly (34-6, fourth season)

2011 record: 12-2 (8-1 in the Pac-12 Conference, tied for 1st in the North Division)

Look back: Oregon opened the 2011 campaign with a difficult loss to 4th-ranked LSU at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Ducks’ explosive offense was neutralized by a tough Tigers defense that pushed Oregon around. The team went on to win its next nine games before losing late to USC, 38-35 in Eugene. The loss snapped a 21-game home winning streak for the Ducks. Oregon captured the newly-created North Division and went on to defeat UCLA, 49-31 in the first Pac-12 Championship Game. The Ducks went to their second Rose Bowl in the past three seasons and defeated Wisconsin, 45-38.

Offensive starters lost/returning: 6-5

Defensive starters lost/returning: 4-7

Key losses: QB Darron Thomas, RB LaMichael James, ROV Eddie Pleasant, LB Dewitt Stuckey

Top returnees: W De’Anthony Thomas, WR Josh Huff, LB Michael Clay, S John Boyett

Strengths: Oregon’s defense took a minor step back last season finishing fifth in the Pac-12 in total defense (390.1 yards per game). This year’s squad is much better. The front line is loaded with defensive tackles Taylor Hart and Wade Keliikipi. The end position is solid with Dion Jordan, who led the team in sacks (7.5) and was tied for first in tackles for loss (5.5). Linebacker Michael Clay is one of the best in the Conference at his position. He was second on the team in total tackles (102) and interceptions (2) and is the only starter returning in the middle. The secondary returns two starters including safety John Boyett, who led the team in tackles (108) and Terrance Mitchell, who led the team in passes defended (10).

Weaknesses: Oregon loses its leading rusher in LaMichael James and its record-breaking quarterback Darron Thomas and finding a replacement for close to 4,500 yards of offense will be difficult. The duo also combined for 55 total touchdowns. Senior Kenyon Barner (939 yards/11 TDs) and sophomore De’Anthony Thomas (595 yards/7 TDs) will share duties in the backfield. Thomas has blazing speed and his ability as a receiver and punt returner make him an early candidate for Heisman Trophy consideration. Sophomore Bryan Bennett was suppose to step into the quarterback spot but redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota could steal the spot out from under him. Mariota outplayed Bennett this spring and a strong fall camp could make the job his.

Outlook: The offseason has been a difficult one for Oregon. The school is in the middle of an NCAA investigation and sanctions could come down anytime. Chip Kelly considered bolting for an NFL job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but changed his mind in an 11th-hour decision. The defense is good enough to be as good as it was in 2010, when the Ducks played in the national championship game. The offense is loaded with talented players but there’s no question that the quarterback position will be key to this team’s success.

2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 Arkansas State

Sept. 8 Fresno State

Sept. 15 Tennessee Tech

Sept. 22 Arizona

Sept. 29 at Washington State

Oct. 6 Washington

Oct. 18 at Arizona State

Oct. 27 Colorado

Nov. 3 at USC

Nov. 10 at California

Nov. 17 Stanford

Nov. 24 at Oregon State

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