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March 4, 2011

Mailbag: Ducks can't take return for granted

Oregon has become an elite program. Now Ducks fans have to learn not to take success for granted.

Last season's trip to the BCS national championship game may be the first of many for coach Chip Kelly's teams. Then again, it may not. Return trips aren't assured.

Oregon projects to have another strong team in 2011. Some early preseason rankings list the Ducks among the nation's top five.

But Oregon fans who might think their near-miss against Auburn is the first step toward years of glory should take a look back at some other programs that played for BCS championships.

Tennessee won the national title in 1998. The Volunteers haven't been back to the championship game since. Virginia Tech fell to Florida State in the 1999 championship game and hasn't returned. Florida State hasn't made a championship game appearance since 2000. Nebraska hasn't gotten in since 2001 (and many feel the Huskers shouldn't have played it in then). Miami hasn't returned since losing to Ohio State in overtime in 2002. Even USC, one of the more successful programs of the past decade, hasn't been in the title game since 2005.

That isn't mean to rain on Oregon's parade. Besides, as we see in this week's mailbag, some Oregonians are so accustomed to rain they wouldn't let it ruin a parade, anyway.

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Back for more?

This is the year for the Oregon Ducks. They're returning RB LaMichael James, QB Darron Thomas and RB Kenjon Barner and have RB Lache Seastrunk after he redshirted. Look out, nation: He will blow your socks off. What do you think about Oregon returning to the national championship game? I have faith in them.
Casey in Springfield, Ore.

The Ducks have to be listed among the national championship contenders in 2010, but don't reserve that hotel room in New Orleans just yet.

Thomas figures to be an even better quarterback in 2011 after gaining a year of valuable experience. James will contend for the Heisman. Like James, Barner and Seastrunk have the ability to turn what might first look like a 5-yard run into an 80-yard touchdown.

Even without star WR Jeff Maehl, who completed his eligibility, and with three new starters in the offensive line, Chip Kelly's version of the spread offense will be electrifying. But will it be as good as it was in 2010, when the Ducks averaged 47 points per game to lead the nation? We'll see.

Oregon faces some major rebuilding on defense. A quartet of all-Pac-10 selections, including LB Casey Matthews, CB Talmadge Jackson, DE Kenny Rowe and DT Brandon Bair, all completed their eligibility. In all, the Ducks lost six full-time defensive starters.

That doesn't mean the successors won't be even better players. But such upgrades obviously cannot be counted on.

In addition, Oregon's schedule figures to be much more difficult in 2011. None of the Ducks' three non-conference opponents last season posted a winning record. This fall, they open against LSU, which also projects as a national championship contender. They also have to play Arizona, Washington and Stanford on the road.

And Oregon fans, perhaps more than anybody, should realize how one key injury can torpedo championship aspirations. Do I even have to bring up Dennis Dixon in 2007?

No matter how talented a team is, reaching the national championship game cannot be taken for granted.


Sliding Hokies?

In the Rivals.com pre-spring poll, Virginia Tech is ranked No. 14. I think that ranking is a bit too generous after some key players' departure from the program. With the recent staff changes at Virginia Tech, do you think the ranking will change or remain the same?
Trevor in Christiansburg, Va.

The loss of QB Tyrod Taylor, RBs David Evans and Ryan Williams, DT John Graves and DE Steven Friday are significant, no doubt.

But keep in mind that four starters return along the offensive line, a good group of receivers will be back and David Wilson rushed for more than 600 yards in a backup role last season. The Hokies' running game should be fine.

Obviously, much of the Hokies' fortunes will depend on how Logan Thomas develops at quarterback. The defense doesn't have a proven pass rusher, either.

Still, we view the Hokies as a team that can potentially post nine or 10 victories, which likely would put them among the nation's top 15.

Six offensive and seven defensive starters will be back, and there are two other reasons we feel Virginia Tech potentially will field a top-15 team.

No. 1 is the consistency of coach Frank Beamer's program. The Hokies have posted at least 10 victories in seven consecutive seasons and in eight of the past nine. Admittedly, that doesn't guarantee anything. After all, we saw Texas' streak of nine consecutive 10-win seasons come to an abrupt halt last season. And as with Texas, Virginia Tech will have a new starting quarterback. But Virginia Tech can run the football. Texas couldn't.

Second, the Hokies have an advantageous schedule. They face Appalachian State, East Carolina, Arkansas State and Marshall in non-conference games. The strongest ACC competition on the schedule -- Clemson, Miami and Boston College -- must travel to Blacksburg. The Hokies' conference road trips are to Wake Forest, Duke, Georgia Tech and Virginia.

Again, nothing is guaranteed: Virginia Tech lost to James Madison in 2010. Still, with that many returning starters from a consistent program and what appears to be an advantageous schedule, I'd expect Virginia Tech to again be a factor in the ACC championship race.


Staying power

After a breakthrough season for South Carolina in 2010, what are you expecting to see from them this fall? With Marcus Lattimore having a year of experience and Alshon Jeffery coming off a season in which he was a Biletnikoff finalist, a lot of other starters back and adding Jadeveon Clowney, there is a lot of excitement around the program. Is it warranted or do you think that it was one-and-done for the Gamecocks in the SEC East?
Henry in Sumter, S.C.

Some seem to want to dismiss South Carolina's 2010 SEC East title as a fluke, but the Gamecocks looked good to me. That win over Alabama didn't look like a fluke. Neither did the wins over Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

Jeffery is one of the best receivers in the nation. The same could be said for Lattimore at running back. Stephen Garcia gets a lot of criticism, but he's an experienced quarterback and definitely one of the best in the SEC.

A team with a big-play receiver, a powerful running back, an experienced quarterback, a proven coach such as Steve Spurrier and a defensive coordinator as good as Ellis Johnson cannot be discounted. Add incoming prospects such as Clowney, the nation's top recruit, and there's no reason South Carolina can't be even better than last season.

No doubt, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee were in rebuilding mode last season and each figures to be better this fall. But South Carolina remains my pick in the SEC East.


Young Bulldogs

What do you think Georgia's starting lineup will look like for the 2011 season? Some say we could have as many as seven true freshmen starting against Boise State in the opener. What's your take?
Randy in Macon, Ga.

We've all heard that each freshman starter equates to one loss. I don't know who coined that phrase, but surely it was before 1980, when Herschel Walker led Georgia to an undefeated national championship season.

Georgia coach Mark Richt hasn't been shy about starting true freshmen -- Matthew Stafford, A.J. Green and Trinton Sturdivant come to mind. And after a couple of rather disappointing seasons, you can bet he's going to play the most talented players, regardless of class.

The Bulldogs' 2011 recruiting class was called "the dream team," so it makes sense to anticipate several true freshmen will break into the starting lineup at some point this fall. I wouldn't be surprised if RB Isaiah Crowell and DE Ray Drew are in the Bulldogs' starting lineup against Boise State in the opener. Georgia signed three four-star defensive backs, so maybe one of them will get a shot, although Richt has indicated Malcolm Mitchell could be better used on offense as a receiver.

The Bulldogs are good at tight end, but big Jay Rome has so much potential that it may be difficult to keep him on the sideline.

Seven true freshmen starters would seem to be too many in the season opener. But with Richt needing a strong season to retain his job, it's possible as many as seven true freshmen could start at some point during the season.


Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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