Eugene, OR (SportsNetwork.com) - The No. 3-ranked Oregon Ducks will begin their chase of a national title Saturday at Autzen Stadium in Eugene against the South Dakota Coyotes, an FCS program that calls the Missouri Valley Football Conference home.
This clash between the Coyotes and the Ducks, who play in the Pac-12 Conference, serves as the first-ever meeting between the two. Oregon finished 2013 with an 11-2 record (7-2 in conference play) and decimated Texas in the Alamo Bowl, 30-7. It was Oregon's third straight bowl game win after losing to Auburn in the 2010 BCS national championship contest.
The Ducks were strong under new head coach Mark Helfrich, but perhaps not strong enough to live up to their lofty expectations. Oregon was defeated by Stanford (yet again) and was routed by Arizona for the program's second two- loss season in the past four years. Entering 2014, the Ducks are ranked third in the country and are a favorite to make the four-team FBS postseason.
South Dakota was sub-par in 2013 with a lot of untested players getting in reps. The Coyotes finished 4-8 overall and were 3-5 in the Missouri Valley Conference. Head coach Joe Glenn, who used to coach FCS power Montana, has South Dakota trending in the right direction, but needs more time to get his team where he would like it to be.
Offense was a bit of an issue for the Coyotes in 2013 as they averaged 17.4 ppg and just 339.4 total offensive ypg. The team originally employed one quarterback to start the season in Josh Vander Maten, but made the switch full-time to then-sophomore Kevin Earl. Earl took the reins and threw for 1,920 yards and nine touchdowns with nine interceptions last season, and will once again be under center for the Coyotes as they try to turn things around. Vander Maten is listed on the roster as a wide receiver entering this season.
Running back Trevor Bouma finished off a strong freshman campaign in 2013 with 781 rushing yards and three touchdowns. He also contributed in the passing game with 169 yards on 27 receptions with one score. He'll have the most difficult task of his young career facing an Oregon defense that allowed 165.5 rushing ypg to opponents last season.
The converted quarterback Vander Maten is the only senior wideout listed on the Coyotes' roster, which also includes tight ends. South Dakota may have to rely on some young, unproven players to help Earl out, which could be a key issue for Glenn and his Coyotes this season. Sophomore Riley Donovan is a playmaker, though, after recording 553 yards and two touchdowns a year ago.
Defensively, South Dakota loses its best defender the team has had in years in linebacker Tyler Starr (71 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, nine sacks, five quarterback hurries). Starr was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons, and leaves the Coyotes with some questions on defense, although linebacker Keyen Lage (67 tackles, 12 tackles for loss) could be the one to step up and take over Starr's role.
Up front, Drew Iddings (51 tackles, nine tackles for loss) will be the anchor at one of the end positions. He'll have his hands full trying to keep up with Marcus Mariota's furious pace and Byron Marshall's elusiveness. Nick Jacobs can also be a factor at the defensive tackle position.
South Dakota's secondary took some serious hits in the offseason, especially with both safeties being lost to graduation. Devin Taverna (78 tackles, three interceptions) and Aaron Swift (57 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss) were the cogs that helped the backfield hold opponents to 171.1 passing ypg.
Oregon's offense should have no trouble whatsoever with a defense that allowed 346.2 total ypg to opponents last year, and after that defense lost some key players. Mariota is at the heart of the offense (and early Heisman Trophy discussions) after he helped the Ducks managed 45.5 ppg in 2013 and 565 total offensive ypg. Mariota passed for 3,665 yards and 31 touchdowns a year ago, and had a large hand in the running game, dashing for 715 yards and nine scores.
"Marcus's contribution and dynamic nature, and the way he plays kind of speaks for itself," Helfrich said.
Marshall paced the squad in rushing last season with 1,038 yards and 14 rushing scores, and he returns for his junior season. In fact, including Mariota, the Ducks have their top three statistical leaders back in the rushing category with Thomas Tyner (nine touchdowns) set to return.
The loss of Josh Huff (1,140 receiving yards, 12 touchdowns) to the NFL level hurts the passing game, but Keanon Lowe and tight end Pharaoh Brown are ready to take the roles of top pass catchers for Mariota and the Oregon offense. An extremely strong offensive line, featuring center Hroniss Grasu, will allow Mariota time in the pocket to make good decisions before getting rid of the ball.
Oregon's defense for the longest time has been living in the shadow of Chip Kelly's fast-paced, high-powered offense. But with Helfrich at the helm, the scheme changes just a bit, and the defense has always been a bit better than advertised, considering the fact that Oregon's offense scored 45.5 ppg and its defense allowed just 20.5 ppg to opponents.
The front seven is strong, with starters Derrick Malone (led the team in tackles with 105 last season) and Rodney Hardrick (65 tackles, three tackles for loss) anchoring the linebackers. Defensive ends DeForest Buckner and Tony Washington are playmakers off the edge.
The secondary is a bit fresh, with the exception of Ifo Ekpre-Olomu at cornerback. Ekpre-Olomu was second on the team with 84 tackles in 2013, and recorded five tackles for loss, six pass breakups and three interceptions, and is considered one of the most talented at the position in the country. He and redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson will make life on Earl extremely difficult.
"Our guys are in good shape, and now it's that fine line of being physical, being hard, being tough, and getting ready," Helfrich said.
08/27 11:00:46 ET